A slice of Americana: The nostalgic brilliance of the Las Vegas drive-in

West Wind Drive-In on May 20, 2016.
Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

West Wind Drive-In

Berms in the pavement mimic undulating asphalt waves. Cars, trucks and SUVs roll in slowly, pulling into unmarked harbors. Drivers open doors, hatches and sunroofs, unfold lawn chairs, unload hula hoops and settle into small tribal camps.

Air mattresses are snug in truck beds facing the bigger-than-billboard-sized theater screens, white against twilight. Everyone is successfully killing time, burning unspent energy, relaxing under the sky on a Friday night, a pre-show atmosphere that’s part of the West Wind Las Vegas Drive-In’s draw.

Kim Baker watches her sons play catch in front of the family’s giant truck bed, filled almost entirely with a LovSac that could sit a half-dozen if need be. They’re here monthly during the summers. It’s where Baker herself went as a child, a leisurely act carried through the generations, a staunch tradition.

“It’s affordable and it’s different for them,” she says with the sun setting behind her. “The kids can play until the movie begins.”

West Wind Drive-In on May 20, 2016.

West Wind is crawling with kids. A pickup game in a still-empty lot is abruptly interrupted, with players shooting off in different directions, when a child running from the concession stand yells, “Hey c’mon! The movie’s about to start.”

Inside the arcade off the snack bar, Gravity Hill, a game of skill that involves a ball rolling up snow-covered switchbacks, dispenses three rubber balls ... until it doesn’t, and the cashier refunds our money.

We picked The Jungle Book, a panicked, excited decision made as we passed through the swooping retro arches leading to the cashier huts. Here since 1966, the Googie-styled West Wind entry hints at the history of swank Las Vegas.

On the screen, Mowgli wears a loin cloth the color of raw saffron and talks to animals, but we don’t know what’s happening. We can’t find the station on the dated portable radio, once a Black Friday giveaway. The reception is best when the wiry antenna is near my braces. The contraption we build in the back of the SUV involves two lanyards, a nail clipper and chewing gum. Finally, we hear the score, tinny in transistor, blending with the booming stereo systems in the cars around us. We’re at once analog-digital, visiting the 20th century in the 21st.

Arielle Poole and Matthew Nardone wait for a movie to start at West Wind Drive-In on May 20, 2016.

“Where is the man-cub who’s not a monkey?” someone asks in the jungle while, on the next screen over, Kevin Bacon has an intense discussion with Radha Mitchell. Man-cub is speculating on his origins, knowing only that he was raised by wolves. The noise of office chairs sliding across a floor in an echoing room tells us that our radio has lost reception and we’re listening to the wrong movie. At first we thought the random interruptions were from some air-traffic controller. We adjust, but never bother turning on the car stereo.

I’ve lost the plot. An adult anthropomorphized bear wants honey. He needs to eat his weight in food and wants the flower of his man power. I might have eaten my weight in salted and unsalted soft pretzels from the snack bar. We sip sodas and remain through the double feature, and like everyone else, know we’ll be back again for this generous slice of Americana.

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Kristen Peterson

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