Las Vegas Drive-In

A little nostalgia for a bit of glorious entertainment that hasn’t yet disappeared

Lissa Townsend Rodgers

In the Datsun to my right, the ceiling light shines off the blonde hair of a little girl bouncing excitedly on her mom's lap. To my left, three guys in wifebeaters get out of a panel van and stand around leaning on the mirrors and smoking cigarettes. In front of me, a couple in shorts are setting up lawn chairs and unpacking a picnic catered by Carl's Jr. and 7-Eleven. I recline my seat fully, crack open a Bud tallboy and some Big Mama's Rib Shack takeout and light a Lucky Strike as the movie screen flashes alive. The Las Vegas Drive-In has to be one of the nicest places in the world.

Of course, I've always been a lover of drive-ins. A pivotal moment of my young life was sitting on the dirt next to my parents' car while watching Star Wars. With a little squinting and imagination, tracked-down dust could be desert sand and the solid metal bulk of a station wagon could be a land speeder and suddenly I was there (!) with Luke on Tattooine. Or the other drive-in where I grew up (Oh yes, two, I was that lucky), which had a playground we kids would cavort in, flying out like bats once the movie flickered on, scattering between rows of cars as the dancing hot dog meant to lure us to the snack bar spun across the screen above our heads.

These pivotal experiences cause me to be surprised—and pitying—at how many people have never been to a drive-in. I always enjoy taking visiting friends who are from places like Great Britain or New York City and thus, have never seen the like. But, of course, they all enjoy the drive-in experience as being just as strange and fascinating as dancing waters, pirate battles or circus acts. I mean, sitting in the backseat of an Oldsmobile, eating fried chicken and drinking a Coors while watching Redman get disembowled by an angry mechanical doll—how much more middle-American can you get than that?

With its four screens in a ring around a little house on stilts between the self-storage and the water tower, the Las Vegas Drive-In feels like it's in the middle of nowhere—even though the Fiesta and Texas Station casinos blaze away across the street. Still, when I turn off under the unlit marquee onto a rutted dirt road, with a trio of lightbulb-studded archways up ahead, I always get the feeling I've found some neglected corner of a post-apocalyptic civilization, where an old man and his lovely granddaughter run the snack booth and show Escape from New York over and over to an audience of empty, rusted-out Chevys. Until the mutant biker gang shows up, that is …

But there are fewer and fewer drive-ins, and the Las Vegas Drive-in is this city's last and only. Since 1966, people have parked their cars here and taken in a double feature while talking, eating, drinking, smoking, having sex or painting your nails. Ah, drive-in movies. Nothing deep, nothing with too much dialogue or fancy cinematography; give us zombies, explosions, cheerleaders, kung-fu battles. Last time went, I saw The Transporter 2. Before that, Land of the Dead. XXX: State of the Union. And, of course, the Las Vegas Drive-In has hosted some inspired double bills, the most illustrious being Seed of Chucky and Sean of the Dead.

The snack bar is also essential to the drive-in, a place of syrup-sweet Cokes and food sticky with processed cheese. And the Las Vegas Drive-In continues its forgotten-in-time motif here: Painted in circus-bright red and blue, it's a cavernous space with the turnstiles, fenced-in queues and iron railings designed to direct a vast flow of humanity, now reduced to a patron or two running in to get a bucket of popcorn or handful of napkins. Two dozen pinball and videogames line the plate glass that faces out on the screens:

Marvel vs. Tekken, Cruisin' California Road Rally, NBA Jam.

A sign announcing the development of the Marcello Airport Center looms fearfully close. Let us hope that the need for a Hudson News and a Burger King is not deemed greater than the need for the Las Vegas Drive-In. Or that I hit some kind of jackpot and can buy the thing myself. I could open a real bar in the snack bar, with a stand selling many varieties of fancy hot dogs and at least six flavors of soft ice cream. Keep all the pinball, add a pool table or two, build a playground. And screen stuff like Enter the Dragon and She-Devils on Wheels and Theatre of Blood. Maybe it sounds crazy but, hey, I'm the kid who convinced herself a station wagon was a land speeder.

Las Vegas Drive-In

4150 West Carey Ave. at Rancho, 646-3565

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