In 1977, we saw the first Star Wars movie at a Drive-In Theatre in Dubbo, an Australian regional city.
It was particularly fitting that we also watched the latest episode of the Star Wars story at another Drive-In Theatre in yet another Australian country centre – 39 years later.
Both movies were entertaining. But it was the circumstances that brought a few smiles to our faces.
When we first met Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo and Princess Leia, we were in our early 20’s and living at the height of the Drive-In Theatre boom.
The drive-in was a key part of the culture of the 1960’s and 70’s and a coming-of-age rite for baby-boomers.
On the edge of cities and towns across the globe, lines of cars and panelvans would park side by side, facing big outdoor screens – each vehicle with a speaker hanging inside the window.
Often there was also a local indoor theatre, but the drive-in had distinct and obvious advantages.
For the start, there were fogged car windows. In Australia, the drive-in theatre was known as the ‘passion pit’.
For parents with young children it was one of the few social occasions they could attend. By making beds for the children on the back seat of the car, they could avoid the cost of a baby-sitter – and have a reasonably priced outing.
Memories of the heyday of the drive-in came flooding back as we entered the outdoor theatre at Heddon Greta near Newcastle, Australia, for the latest burst of Star Wars.
The crunching of the gravel under the car tyres stripped away the years in an instant – and the retro-style screen and outdoor banner advertising brought a rush of nostalgia.
The Heddon Greta Drive-In Theatre is one of a handful still operating in Australia. The rest have gradually fallen victim to land development and digital entertainment technology.
Some still stand deserted and disused, like ghosts of the past. However, as we were to learn, those that remain have gained an almost cult following among a whole new generation.
Today’s drive-in is a far cry from the icon of our youth. It is almost a community social event – more like an open air music festival or sporting contest.
Families unload lines of lawn chairs, bluetooth speakers, picnic baskets and drink containers – spreading blankets on the ground for the children.
Some youngsters sit on the front of cars, others sleep inside the rear of vans, after pleading with the adults to purchase traditional ‘hot dogs’ from the retro snack bar.
For people who had not set tyre in a drive-in for more than 30 years, we were flabbergasted by the social atmosphere at Heddon Greta.
It was heart-warming to see and, as we watched in the company of our eldest son, daughter, daughter-in-law, two grand-daughters and two grand sons, we realised that the drive-in – in one form or another – might just outlive us.
And, of course, we kept chuckling about the theatre’s quirky slogan “if you don’t like the film, then slash the seats”.