Drive-in movies turn 80, but their days may be numbered

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CIMG0121The world’s first drive-in movie theater opened 80 years ago on Thursday. According to History.com, Park-In Theaters opened on June 6, 1933, in Camden, New Jersey.

Drive-in theaters boomed after World War II, and by the late 1950s, there were about 5,000 of them across the country.

Two years ago, the last time the National Association of Theatre Owners counted, there were 366. This summer, there are surely fewer.

Our closest drive-in, the Hi-Way 50 Drive-In in Lewisburg, Tenn., closed after last season. We found out when we went online a couple of weeks ago to see what was playing. The website was gone, but we found a message from the owners on the theater’s Facebook page. It says they’ve retired but they’re hoping someone will buy it and reopen it.

I hope so, too, but I know it’s unlikely.

Drive-in theaters are a risky business. They’re at the mercy of the weather. No one goes to the drive-in when it’s raining, and no one goes if it’s sticky hot, either, but the owners have to pay a fee to the movie studios either way.

Hard-top theaters make money by overcharging for popcorn and Cokes, but it’s easy to bring snacks and pizzas and a cooler to the drive-in, so they don’t make a lot of money on concessions.

Drive-ins used to make money by showing second-run movies (which don’t cost nearly as much to rent as new movies on opening weekend), but VCRs and then DVDs, Blu-Ray and streaming services such as Netflix have pretty much killed the demand for second-run movies. The movies in theaters today will probably be at Redbox by the time school starts in the fall.

The latest threat to the drive-in, according to a story in The Los Angeles Times, is the shift toward digital projection. This may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The paper says Hollywood may stop distributing 35-millimeter film prints by year’s end. Hard-top theaters have already converted, but a lot of drive-in theaters probably can’t afford the cost of a new projector. The Times puts the cost of conversion at about $70,000 per screen.

So, this summer, find the closest drive-in theater and go, and take the kids. Take a Frisbee or a ball and play in the field between the screen and the first row of cars while you wait for it to get dark enough for the movie to start. Walk to the concession stand and listen to the sound of the movie echoing from car radios and boom boxes. Take pictures.

Because this might be the last summer you have the chance.

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Happy birthday, Mr. Rogers

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I don’t have a lot of heroes, but Mr. Rogers is one of them. I watched him when I was a kid, and I watched him again decades later with my children. He’s been criticized over the years by people who didn’t understand him, who thought that his talk about feelings and being special gave several generations of children an inflated sense of self-worth. In truth, he was trying to teach children how to understand themselves, to take responsibility for their actions and treat others with respect. In honor what would have been Fred Rogers’ 85th birthday, here’s something I posted on Oct. 11, 2010:

Channeling my inner Mr. Rogers

Sunday was Mama’s night off. She went to a movie (“Easy A”), and I took Thing 1 and Thing 2 to Moe’s.

While I was paying, Thing 2 (the 4-year-old) ran to get a drink and find a table. I sent Thing 1 (the 10-year-old) to keep an eye on Thing 2.

Soon as I caught up with them, Thing 1 tattled on her brother. “Thing 2 found a Lego man,” she said, trying to sound helpful.

I turned to Thing 2. “You found a Lego man?”

He had a bad feeling about this. “Uh-huh.” He wasn’t making eye contact. He knew where this was heading.

“Where’d you find him?”

“Over there,” he said, pointing to the pop machine.

“Well,” I said, “I think we need to find out if he belongs to somebody.”

Thing 2 nearly burst into tears (he’s learned that being cute and pathetic and really loud helps him get his way, especially in public).

“I want to keep him,” he whined.

“But he’s not yours,” I said, trying my best to channel my inner Mr. Rogers. 

Because of his sweaters and puppets and slow way of speaking, a lot of people made fun of Mr. Rogers, but Mr. Rogers had it figured out.

He understood that kids are just trying to make sense of their feelings and what’s happening in the world around them. He treated them with kindness and love and respect.

Plenty of times over the past 10 years, when Thing 1 and Thing 2 have tried my patience and I haven’t been sure what to do, I’ve asked myself, “What would Mr. Rogers do?” 

“Imagine if you lost a Hot Wheel,” I said, trying to sound sympathetic yet authoritative. “Wouldn’t you want someone to give him back?”

“No,” he lied.

“Really?”

“No. I’d want him to keep it.”

“Really.”

“Yes,” he said. “I’d want him to keep it. It would be like he found a present!”

“Really.”

“Uh-huh.”

I have no idea how Mr. Rogers would have responded to that.

I responded by taking Thing 2 around the restaurant to the three tables with children. The first two said it wasn’t theirs. Thing 2 perked up. Doing the right thing might not be so bad after all!

A boy at the last table, though, said it the Lego man was his.

Thing 2 was crushed. He shuffled back to our table, his head hung low, your basic Charlie Brown walk of depression.

When we sat down, I said, “I’m proud of you. That boy was really glad to get his Lego man back. Aren’t you glad we helped him find it?”

He put his head down on the table and stared out the window. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he sighed.

How to travel with the kids (and live to tell about it)

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We used to live in Orlando, and when you live in Orlando, you spend a lot of time at the parks. People think Disney and Universal and SeaWorld are surely the happiest places on earth, and they can be, but they can also be miserable.

I’ve seen a lot of families shuffle out of the parks at closing time, sunburned and exhausted and barely speaking to one another. One time, at the Magic Kingdom, I heard a mom snap at her whiney little girl, “You will have fun!”

So, here’s what I’ve learned about family vacations from all those unhappy people and from being a dad:

Kids don’t care.

Kids don’t care how much you’re spending on vacation or whether you think you’re getting your money’s worth out of the trip, so don’t try to hit 7 parks in 7 days. You’ll regret it.

Kids don’t care about taking the scenic route or touring old homes. They don’t want to sit and wait while baby brother rides the carousel or big sister rides the coaster, and no matter how much you plead or scold, they’re not going to wait patiently while you shop for shoes at the outlet mall

So, don’t expect them to.

Our family vacations got a lot better when we started looping in the kids and talking to them about where we’re going and what they’d like to see once we get there.

We don’t try to see and do everything, because we can’t.

We try to figure out early on what we want to see most of all, then we see as many other things as time and money will allow.

We also stopped kidding ourselves that our kids want to spend as much time with us or each other as we want to spend with them, so we’ll split up. I’ll go off with Thing 1 while my wife takes Thing 2, and we’ll meet up for supper.

And we stopped using the hotel as a place just to stow our stuff and sleep.

I saw a survey a few years ago that said kids enjoy the hotel pool almost as much as they do the theme parks, and I believe it.

Whenever we tell the kids we’re going on a trip, the first thing they ask is whether there’s a pool. Pools with slides and lazy rivers are good, but so are indoor pools, in case it’s crazy hot or raining. Once we’re at the hotel, they can’t wait to jump in, and once they’re in the pool, it’s hard to get them out.

So, we let them swim.

We still make the kids go places and do things they don’t want to do, but we try to remember that we’re dealing with children — they’re 12 and 6 now — and children, no matter how great they are, are going to act like children.

If they’ve had a little fun, if they’re happy, they’ll be more likely to hang in there when we stop at the outlet mall or take the scenic route or do the boring things we like doing on vacation.

That’s the strategy, anyway. I’ll let you know how it turns out.