The best drive-in
The best drive-in ? A look at Joe Bob Briggs' favorite theater in New Jersey
Get off your lazy hiney and move it on out to the Route 35 Drive-In, before it’s too late. I do not wanna have to tell you again. If the Route 35 Drive-In should ever close — and there have been suspicious rumors about it for the last four years — then there is no God in the universe.
A hundred years ago motion pictures were invented just 30 miles from where the Route 35 Drive-In stands today. About 40 years after that, the first drive-in in America opened, also in New Jersey. (To be absolutely precise, it was in Camden.) Then, in 1956, right in the middle of the huge drive-in construction boom of the ’50s, the Route 35 Drive-In opened for business on the busy highway near the Jersey coast where blue-collar towns catered to the weekend tourist trade. And today, the Route 35 is the last, final, only drive-in in New Jersey.
And it’s perfect.
I know what I’m talking about. I’ve been to drive-ins all over America. I’ve seen the grandest ones, like the Swap Shop Drive-In in Fort Lauderdale, largest drive-in in the world (12 screens), and the I-45 Drive-In in Houston, which can hold up to 3,000 cars. At the other extreme, I’ve eaten the famous ”Spud Burger” at the Spud Drive-In in Driggs, Idaho, where the No. 1 landmark in town is the huge potato sticking up out of a 1946 Chevy flatbed that is always parked in front of the drive-in screen. I’ve seen drive-ins outfitted with miniature golf courses, pony rides, circus acts, and girls in hot pants who sell popcorn door-to-door (or car-to-car). I’ve seen John Wayne standing on top of the concession stand at the Gemini Drive-In in Dallas and firing his six-shooter for the premiere of True Grit.
But if you’re looking for the essence of the drive-in, the drive-in as pure drive-in, where you can still watch the movie in the privacy of your own automobile like God intended, you need look no farther than the Route 35.
It’s simple. It’s informal. It’s like a thousand other drive-ins. First and foremost, it’s named after a road. In my opinion, all great drive-ins are named after a road. The road is what makes the drive-in possible. And Route 35 is a great road, full of used-car dealers, no-tell motels, shopping malls, topless bars, little Italian restaurants, and a string of sleepy towns that could be anywhere in America. Route 35’s heyday was the ’50s and ’60s, before most of the traffic passed it by on the nearby Garden State Parkway, but it’s still lively on the weekends.
Second, it’s surrounded by trees. The drive-in has always been the place where the city peters out and the country begins. The city people drive out to the drive-in, and the country people drive in. This is also what dooms most drive-ins. The land they sit on is always the most desirable land to develop once the next real estate boom begins. The Route 35 Drive-In has almost perfect viewing conditions, because it’s surrounded by trees on three sides, so glare from the highway is practically nonexistent. Nothing ruins a great movie quicker than lights, which is what accounts for the time-honored drive-in tradition of laying on your horn whenever some dork drives in with his headlights on.
Drive-ins are the last true melting pots in America, where all races, sexes, cultures, and attitudes mix peacefully, caught up in the laid-back nirvana of open air, beer (you’ve gotta bring it in yourself), cheap food, and movies (and only ”movies,” never ”films” — if I have to explain the difference to you, you’ve never been to the drive-in). At the Route 35 Drive-In, African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Italian-Americans, and people like me — who don’t know what the heck we are — all converge, some sitting outside in lawn chairs (where the sound quality is actually better than inside your car), some shooting the breeze around the concession stand. I had the only car with Texas plates, but was still accepted as one of the guys. Strange as it might seem, and contrary to our Texas image, the same thing would probably happen if somebody drove New Jersey plates into a Texas drive-in. The drive-in is the most democratic place in the world. And the Route 35 Drive-In costs only $5.25 per adult for a double feature — compared with $7.50 for a single (usually bad) movie in New York City, which is an hour to the north.
On a recent night the Route 35 was showing Hudson Hawk, which was so pathetic it would normally have ticked everyone off and caused massive angry horn-honking. But at the drive-in, unlike the hardtops, you can always wait for feature No. 2, which is usually better anyway. And it was. The Route 35 redeemed itself with Brian Bosworth in the kick-ass biker movie Stone Cold. The Boz got a hearty round of happy honks after he blew up half of the Arkansas State Capitol at the end.
The food at the Route 35 is gut-wrenching hot dogs and burgers, popcorn that’s sometimes fresh and sometimes stale (we call it ”popcorn roulette”), and teeth-rotting candy. Absolutely no wimp food here. No Evian water within 50 miles. And this is a drive-in tradition as old as the food at baseball stadiums. All conversations at the drive-in begin with complaints about the food. It’s what draws everyone together.
The Route 35’s only concession to modern trends is that they do have radio sound, so the soundtrack of the flick comes over 530 AM on your radio. Real drive-in purists are always nostalgic about the old metal speakers you would hook on your window, but the sound on those things was pitiful, and most working drive-ins have used radio sound for the last 10 years. The Route 35 understands how sentimental we are, though, and so they’ve left the speaker poles standing, like modern sculptures poking at odd angles out of the gravel.
In other words, there’s nothing special about the Route 35 Drive-In, which is why I love it. It’s casual. It’s easy to get to. It’s cheap. The paint is peeling off the back of the screen, and the marquee out front could use new neon. Some of the graded ”humps” you park on have been worn down so that you might get settled into your parking place and then decide you need a better one that points your car at a higher angle. In other words, it feels ”lived in.”
The Route 35 Drive-In has room for a thousand cars. I’ve been there when there were as many as 400 cars on a Saturday night, and as few as 65 cars on a Wednesday, but the numbers don’t really affect the experience at all. Once, on a subfreezing night at the Apollo Drive-In in Garland, Tex., mine was the only car in the place. The only reason I get a little depressed about the Route 35 is that a 65-car night doesn’t really pay the bills of the owners, the National Amusements chain. And we know what happens when theater chains aren’t able to pay the bills.
I don’t think that’s gonna happen, though. For the last two years, we’ve actually been having a little drive-in renaissance. About 40 drive-ins that were closed during the ’80s have reopened, as young couples started having babies and needed a way to go to the movies without hiring a sitter.
When I started writing about drive-ins 10 years ago, I was like a maniac crying in the wilderness, and places like the Route 35 Drive-In were dropping like flies. Now, in 1991, I’m not joking. Maybe the Route 35 is not the past, but the future. I’ll say it one more time in case you weren’t listening 10 years ago:
The drive-in will never die.
See you in Hazlet, N.J., this Saturday night. It’s the car with the Texas plates. (Joe Bob Briggs is a syndicated columnist and appears on The Movie Channel.)