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Outdoor Screen Scene 

A Saturday night at the Sunset Drive-In

Cars 2 on the big screen.

Matthew Thorsen

Cars 2 on the big screen.

The first live-action film I saw on the big screen was Richard Pryor's risqué, PG-rated, 1982 flop The Toy. It was inappropriate for an 8-year-old boy, but my exposure was accidental.

My neighbor's twentysomething daughter, Roxanne, had convinced my parents that she and her boyfriend should take my younger siblings and me to our first movie at the St. Albans Drive-In, eight miles south of our Swanton Village home. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was playing, followed by The Toy.

My mom didn't want us to see the second feature.

"Don't worry," Roxanne said. "Before it really gets going, they'll fall asleep, and we'll come home."

She was right — about my siblings.

I stayed up, and we didn't leave like she said we would. The movie wasn't memorable, but the experience was; I savored the illicit thrill of seeing something I knew I wasn't supposed to see. I loved the drive-in.

Jump ahead 29 years: Netflix rules Earth, and drive-in theaters are an endangered species. There are only 370 drive-ins in the U.S. today; in 1958, there were more than 4000.

Vermont, which at its peak boasted 20 drive-ins, now has just four, in Bethel, Colchester, St. Albans and Fairlee. At the Fairlee Motel & Drive-in Theater, patrons can stay overnight and get a clear view of the screen from every room. Really.

I wanted my own 8-year old daughter, Bebo, to experience the drive-in before it all goes holographic. We invited her friend Kaya, who's 7, to join us.

Looking back on my first drive-in experience through dad-colored specs, I chose a family-friendly double bill for Bebo and Kaya. I had hoped to take them to the St. Albans Drive-In. Until I was in my late twenties, it was the only one I'd patronized. In its prime, it hosted rowdy, all-night movie marathons and kids cartoon festivals. One of my favorite childhood games was "What's That Movie?," which we'd play from the backseat of the family station wagon as we drove past the theater at night on Interstate 89.

However, the St. Albans Drive-In capitalizing on the adult-oriented franchise blockbusters — Transformers 3, The Hangover Part II and Johnny Depp as a pirate again. That's understandable, considering those aforementioned drive-in stats. But second- and third-grade girls don't want to stare at Zach Galifianakis for two hours, with or without their parents. So we passed on St. Albans and opted for Colchester's Sunset Drive-In. In addition to the summer blockbusters, on Sunday, July 3, the features included Pixar's Cars 2 followed by Mr. Popper's Penguins, starring Jim Carrey.

We left home at 7 p.m., two hours before showtime, which is typically around 9 this time of year. We wanted ample time to find the theater and snag a good parking space. We had also shopped at the grocery for snacks: Twix bars, Lay's chips, peanut butter cups, a box of Mike and Ikes, and various drinks packed in a cooler. You have to put your inner health nut aside for the drive-in. And don't forget the napkins.

"We can just bring the food in?" Bebo asked.

"You know?" I said. "I really don't know."

It had been years since I'd been to a drive-in. Back then, people smuggled in loads of edible and drinkable goodies to avoid buying food. And they smuggled people in their trunks who wanted to avoid buying tickets.

But now? I was clueless. I played it safe and hid the snacks on the front seat, under our extra clothing and blankets. When we got to the theater, the mustachioed ticket taker didn't comment on our food. Instead, he handed me two glow sticks. "These are for the girls," he said, "because it's the Fourth." The glow sticks came in handy during the dark, inevitable trips to the bathroom. Next time, though, I'll bring a flashlight. Glow sticks don't last forever.

As we drove in and looked around at the other cars, I realized I needn't have worried about sneaking in food. Apparently drive-in contraband is still OK; everyone at the Sunset had packed as though they were tailgating at the Super Bowl.

I was glad we'd brought extra layers; the drive-in gets chilly whether you sit inside your car or outside in lawn chairs. It gets buggy, too. (Cupping hands around mouth: Do not forget bug spray!) Lots of kids wear PJs to the drive-in, a bonus for when they fall asleep, and we big people return home and have to carry them to bed.

Drive-in etiquette calls for larger, taller vehicles (SUVs, vans, cars with luggage racks, etc.) to park in the back rows, while smaller ones pull in up front. But apparently not everyone is familiar with drive-in etiquette. Best to arrive early — especially if you drive a tiny black Pontiac G3 that your friends have dubbed the "Bagel Toaster."

As we were setting up, a blue van and a black pickup parked right in front of us. "I won't be able to see," Kaya complained, craning her neck.

"You can move your chair," I said.

"Where?"

"Anywhere close to our car. We don't want to be in other people's space."

After we established our perches at Screen 2, we trekked to Screen 1 and the playground. That's the key to ensuring your children will fall asleep during the second film — tire 'em out first with swings and seesaws.

As Bebo and Kaya played, I chatted with Hope Moffatt of Barnard, who marveled at the dirt-cheap Sunset admission: $7.50 per adult, children under 12 free. Hope made the 85-mile trek to the Sunset so that her daughters, Julia, 10, and Bridgette, 16, could treat their father, Pierre Gouvin, to Transformers 3 on his birthday.

"I told him there was no IMAX in Vermont and that this was the closest he'd get," quipped Moffat. She was raised on the Rustic Tri Vue Drive-In in her native Rhode Island. "We have four sleeping bags, pillows and all kinds of junk food over at the car," she said. "The drive-in is our camping."

We checked our watches — 8:30 — gathered our girls, returned to our vehicles and tuned our radios to the appropriate station. No more awkward, heavy speakers that hang off the driver's-side window in Grease fashion. Now, everyone listens to the movie on their car stereos and opens the windows — community listening, if you will. Fitting for Vermont.

About 20 minutes into Cars 2, Bebo looked up. "Dad, if you watch a star come out, you can look at it and see another star come out next to it. And again. And again. And again."

Then she saw something else. "Lightning!" It lasted the entire film, while the Burlington fireworks rumbled behind our backs. At first the lightning was pink, but it turned white as the thunderstorm got closer. Please wait, I thought. Please wait. Please wait. There's no refund if it rains at the drive-in.

During the intermission, Bebo and Kaya laughed and danced to the short let's-all-go-to-the-lobby film from the disco era, while I packed the car — just in case. They didn't mind watching Mr. Popper's Penguins from the Bagel Toaster's front seats, but the storm ultimately struck. The windshield wipers and foggy windows obstructed their view. Game. Over.

"We should go," Bebo said.

"Yeah," Kaya said. "I can't see."

"Then the three of us will watch Mr. Popper's Penguins some other time," I promised. They agreed.

It was 11:40. Bedtime was almost yesterday.

"How was your first drive-in movie, girls?" I asked as we left the Sunset.

"Gooooood," Kaya replied, stifling a yawn.

"I liked that you could get up when you wanted," said Bebo, her voice fading.

"Anything else?" I asked. "Kaya?" Silence. "Bebo?" Nothing.

They started snoring in stereo, which left me smiling and wondering: Would they have endured the second film, like I did in 1982? There's really only one way to find out.

We'll have to go again.

Leon Thompson is a writer living in St. Albans with his 8-year-old daughter.
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