Drive-In Dreams

H1>Big Screen Under the Big Sky

The crunch of the gravel. The smell of the popcorn. The chill of the night. It's an evening under the stars at the Go West Drive-In.


Time stops momentarily when the house lights dim in a movie theater. An excited hush falls over the crowd, a few children coo in surprise and delight, and for just a fraction of a second, it's as though everyone in the theater is sitting in the same car at the top of a roller coaster.

Out here, the vibe is a little bit different. There are no house lights; there are no fixed starting times. "Dusk" is all it says in the papers. This place runs on Mother Nature's fader, an imperceptible dimming switch that brings the lights down to a bruised greenish-black before the picture knifes across the lot and lights up the screen. Cars are still pulling in, crunching gravel and sweeping the lot with headlights. Cigarettes glow in darkened back seats. A tinkling of glass and the occasional hiss of a beer being opened creeps through the twilight.

It's a Saturday night at the Go West Drive In.

The Go West Drive-In is one of only four drive-in theaters in Montana.

There are certain seasonal charms to taking in a movie at the Go West, which made its annual re-opening earlier this month. Even at the peak of the summer heat, it always seems to be 10 to 15 degrees cooler than it is in town, so blankets and assorted warmers are always a must for a well-stocked trunk. It's especially cool in April; the nimbus of winged insects flittering around the lights won't appear for several weeks yet. In the summertime, you can also see more of the mind-warping pre-show commercials, some of which have been around for at least 20 years and have been spliced and cut so many times that it's often difficult to establish what-if anything-they actually advertise. The coherent ones urge us shivering Go West patrons to, among other things, wear Reebok sneakers, use the proper amount of sunscreen, and head to the snack bar for a slice of strangely-hued pizza or two-for-a-dollar hot dogs that, apparently, do circus tricks.

No doubt, there's nothing between heaven and earth quite as unusual as the snack bar at the Go West. David Lynch would fall in love. Probably did, in fact-Lynch used to live in Missoula, and the concessions area looks uncannily like something that might pop up in the director's cut of Blue Velvet. Mounted animal hides bedeck every wall. A disco ball scatters ringlets of light over a retro-space-age mirrored obelisk behind a gold queuing bar. It's a peculiar blend of Old West and time-traveled psychedelia. Gone, unfortunately, is possibly the most unnerving wall display ever: a stomach after its former proprietor had eaten a hot dog, bought by the Go West's owners at a 1971 drive-in convention.

It's a little weird, but the snacks seem cheaper and the popcorn tastes better at the drive-in than anywhere else. Even under the Big Sky, a visit to the Go West is such a pastoral experience that it's easy to believe that the past 40, 50, 60 years simply haven't happened. To think that such an antiquated institution as the drive-in once represented a revolutionary advancement in the way Americans took in the movies is like trying to remember a time when no one worried about the bomb, when no one saw any reason why cars should get any smaller, when phrases like "Pearl Harbor" and "cold war" hadn't even entered the American vocabulary. A simpler time, as our grandparents would say.

Driving Into the Past

That simpler time-the heyday of the drive-in-actually began in the middle of the Great Depression. Visionary, whether by foresight, luck, or a combination of both, was exactly what the drive-in theater was when an aspiring entrepreneur named Richard Milton Hollingshead first hit on the idea of an outdoor car theater in 1932. Hollingshead, the son of a successful auto products manufacturer, noted that even in the teeth of economic hard times, people faithfully attended the movies. However unlikely it may seem in retrospect, Hollingshead was convinced that the union of the movies with America's other great pastime-the automobile-was a match made in heaven. "My invention," he wrote in his patent application, "[relates] particularly to a novel construction in outdoor theaters whereby the transportation facilities to and from the theater are made to constitute an element of the seating facilities in the theater ... wherein the performance, such as a motion picture show or the like, may be seen and heard from a series of automobiles."

Go West manager Scott Saeman has been loading the 60-year-old projectors at the drive in for 13 seasons. “There’s been a lot of weird incidents out here,” he says. “But I don’t know that there’s anything I want to tell the paper.”

And so the world's first drive-in theater opened in Camden, New Jersey on June 6, 1933. Patrons paid 25 cents admission per car and an additional quarter per person to see Wife Beware, an Adolphe Menjou film already in its second or third run. There were no individual car speakers, but rather three huge speakers that broadcast the sound at an unadjustably high volume to patrons on the theater's 500-by-500 foot lot-as well as to everybody else for miles around. People in the back rows heard the sound a split second later than did those in the front rows, resulting in a lapsed synchronization analogous to a poorly-dubbed kung fu movie, or watching someone yell across a canyon.

Hollingshead's drive-in was a failure. Bedeviled by noise complaints, exorbitant rental fees for third- and fourth-run movies, and disappointing returns on his initial investment, the inventor of the drive-in sold his theater in 1935.

But his original idea proved successful beyond the wildest dreams of avarice. Consider the material requirements of drive-in culture: cheap land, cheap gas, and-most importantly-a relatively affluent population with an abiding love for the automobile. In the years following WWII, the United States had all of these qualifications and then some. "Ozoners," as they came to be called, exploded in popularity in the postwar years, a car-crazy love affair that peaked in 1958. And it was not a trend that left the Last Best Place untouched. In 1948, Montana had two operating drive-ins; a mere ten years later, there were 39.

A Local Institution Takes the Stage

The Go West opened in 1966. The 10-acre lot was, and still is, of perfectly average size in comparison to other drive-ins of the day. It provided room for 900-plus cars (compare that with the 3,000-car lot of Detroit's Troy Drive-In, or the relatively cozy 50-car capacity of Harmony, Pennsylvania's drive-in), and provided all the standard amenities-concession stand, in-car sound, and so on. The "throw" from the projection booth to the 50-by-100 foot screen is approximately 550 feet, providing a technically superior view from every stall on the lot.

Owners Ed Sharp and Bob Sias outfitted the Go West with equipment purchased from the closing Mountain View Drive-In, formerly located across from the bus station on West Broadway. Although sound reproduction has never been one of the drive-in's strong suits, audio technology had come leaps and bounds since the early days of one big speaker. The introduction of individual, in-car speakers truly made each car a theater unto itself, an innovation improved upon only by the advent of low-wattage on-site radio. An AM transmitter made its debut at the Go West in 1987, using buried antenna leads to pick up a short-range signal that almost literally stops short at the surrounding fence. FM stereo transmissions followed a few years later.

"It's great sound quality," says part-owner Bob Ranstrom, who has been with the Go West since 1971. "You can bring your boom box with you if you don't have a radio in your car. Just tune it in and it's all there."

The Go West management gradually phased out the post-mounted speakers. "People would drive off with them, steal them," says Ranstrom, remarking that the tinny sound of the industrial strength, all-weather speakers almost certainly came as a disappointment to anyone looking to bolster their stereo system on the cheap. "I'm not sure how many operable posts we have out there now-probably about 25. But now you have to go inside and check out a speaker."

It Was the Heimlich Maneuver, Honest

Watch any movie about American youth culture in the '50s and '60s. Notice how all the pivotal action goes down at the drive-in. The starry-eyed meetings. The tearful breakups. The drunken fights. The blustering challenges to drag race for pink slips.

And, of course, the sex. In spite of the ozoner's wholesome appeal for the family, from the very beginning it was obvious to drive-in operators and patrons alike that the unsupervised, unchaperoned nature of the drive-in afforded an excellent opportunity for sexual activity. As early as 1941, Time magazine reported that drive-ins had become havens for "young bloods looking for a place to make two-bit love." Another observer noted that "the Romeos who lost out in the back seats of picture houses when West Point ushers and super-service came into the deluxe houses are waking up in a new world."

Faced with mobs of livid parents, municipal authorities and clergymen, most drive-in operators merely downplayed the allegations that their establishments were becoming "passion pits" for the fitful gropings of horny teenagers. They stressed and re-stressed the family appeal of the ozoner, denying the make-out rumors or at least qualifying them by stating that the "park-and-pet" set accounted for but a slim fraction of their clientele.

They weren't fooling anyone, of course. "Where do you think the kids came from?" Ranstrom snorts. "A lot of our current customers were conceived there." Did managers ever try to crack down on this purported youth outdoor sex explosion? "Not in my time, at least," Ranstrom says. "What goes on in their cars is their business, as far as I'm concerned, and not mine. If they were out of the car and visible to other patrons and so on, then I suppose I would have caused a little trouble."

When the Lights Went Down

Can anything look as singularly forlorn as an abandoned drive-in? There's one just off Main Street in Billings, a part of the city that used to be the edge of town. Whatever cultural importance it had for the Billings of yesteryear is lost to the ages now, although these days the haggard screen seems to fulfill an important ecological role: It collects bats. No doubt there are people out there who fell in love at that drive-in, probably more than a few kids-now in their 30s and 40s-conceived at that drive-in during some forgotten B-movie. But now the wan yellow screen, streaked with guano, is all that remains-a gut-shot monument erected to a future that never quite happened.

Following the salad days of the late '50s and early '60s, the drive-in industry underwent a period of stagnation and decline from which it never really recovered. A number of factors contributed to the ozoner's demise, the biggest of them being the long-standing problem of obtaining quality first-run movies to show. Many distributors had adopted a no-drive-in policy that prevented ozoners from showing first-run pictures, or at least delayed the drive-in release for up to a full year after the movie had been shown in indoor theaters. As a result, the bill of fare at most drive-ins became a mixed bag of whatever the operators could get their hands on. Many ozoners turned to porn, cinching their reputation as sleaze pits and alienating the families which had been their target demographic for over 40 years.

The Go West showed its share of porn in the '70s, a business move Ranstrom says he was able to accept, if not necessarily condone. "We had some encounters-or discussions, I should say-with the county attorney's office at the time. We cooperated with them and stopped doing it, and then the Legislature changed the law, making it illegal to show X-rated movies at the drive-in. We used to pack the place, but I always felt we could find other product to play."

There were other reasons for the decline, too. The seasonal nature of the drive-in subjected it to certain economic liabilities for upkeep and maintenance that indoor theaters didn't have to contend with. Furthermore, the motion picture industry in the United States had been in a general slump since television became a fixture in the American home. Indoor theaters had been able to reverse this trend somewhat by multiplexing-that is, by increasing the number of screens to accommodate several releases at once. For drive-ins, this kind of renovation was a fundamental impossibility.

By 1980, the ozoner's gradual decline had become a tailspin. The number of drive-ins nationwide plunged from a high of 4,063 in 1958 to less than a quarter of that only 30 years later. Of the 999 that made it to 1987, a good many-perhaps half-have since closed.

Go West, Young Man

The fate of Montana's drive-ins has consistently mirrored the grim pattern of nationwide decline. Of the 39 ozoners operating in 1958, only eight survived to 1987. Today there are only four: the Go West, the Midway in Columbia Falls, the Libby Drive-In Theatre and the Prairie Drive-In, which mysteriously enjoys evergreen popularity in its remote location, to hell and gone east of Terry. For many drive-ins, the value of the land itself is now worth the value of the business many times over, and many owners have given in to the prevailing clime and turned a tidy profit by selling their lots off to be subdivided and developed. Such was the case with Missoula's own Mountain View, whose lot is now occupied by The Inn On Broadway.

Statistically, the odds are against the continuing economic viability of the ozoner. But Ranstrom doesn't seem overly concerned about the Go West.

"It doesn't operate at a loss, but it's close," he shrugs. Ranstrom also admits that they've always entertained the idea of selling off the land, even when founding father Ed Sharp was still alive, but the offers have been laughable, even insulting. "They just thought they were dealing with this old man who liked pigeons and everything else, and that they could just talk him into something. He'd ask my advice and I'd say no, no, no."

To this day, the Go West is fairly haunted by Sharp, the flamboyant owner who often worked the ticket booth with a pet pigeon perched faithfully on his shoulder, to the delight of nearly three decades of children. "Eddie loved the place so much," Ranstrom says. "We're not going to give it away, that's for certain."

Ranstrom's conviction in the Go West would make Sharp beam. "It's definitely still a viable business," he says. "Some people feel that a drive-in theater like the Go West is an old fashioned thing whose time is past. I don't happen to agree with that."

So here we are: huddled in stadium blankets in the first tenuous steps of spring, eating hot dogs with both hands and watching Mel Gibson's dopey mug light up a screen a third as long as a football field. Another summer will come and go; another fall will eventually send us scampering back to the warmth of the multiplex. We'll forget about the Go West until the gates open again next spring, the cars file in, and we sit and wait for dusk.

Add a comment