At 8:12 p.m., an image began appearing slowly on the large outdoor movie screen, as daylight and two decades of neglect slipped away. For this night only, the drive-in theater had returned to Hampton Roads with an inflatable movie screen.
"Whether you bake, broil or stew," an announcer from a 1950s newsreel intoned, "the Frigidaire kitchen does it all for you." All across the grass field, men and women stared at the outdoor movie, transfixed.
"You forget just how much fun it was," said Wendi Mitchell, 61, of Norfolk who arrived with her husband, Don, 62, a few minutes before the show began.
It has been 20 years since the last outdoor movie screen, Cinema City in Tabb, went dark. There's a Wal-Mart on the location now.
Other local drive-ins lost to memory include the twin-screen Sand and Surf and the Shore in Virginia Beach, the Azalea and Wilder's in Norfolk, the South in Chesapeake, Autoport and Super 17 in Portsmouth and the Plantation in Suffolk. Developable land in Hampton Roads had become too valuable to set aside for movies.
The eight drive-ins that remain in Virginia are in rural areas, mostly in the far western portions of the state.
But new technology is helping bring the shows back, if only for limited engagements. Saturday night, Bob Deutsch, owner of Outdoor Movies, a Rockville, Md., company, showed up in Chesapeake with a truck with everything but the concession stand inside.
The inflatable movie screen is one of 30 he has in his inventory, a 40-foot by 20-foot inflatable monstrosity that, from the back, looked like a giant wading pool.
He had earlier set it down at the far end of the field, plugged in a blower and cranked up a generator. Soon the screen rose on its own from the ground. A few stakes and ropes to keep it steady in case of a breeze, and there it was - an instant drive-in.
Deutsch has been in the drive-in business for 12 years. When he first started, there were no inflatable screens, so he had to erect a rigid frame, which took time.
Now, he said, he takes his drive-ins around the world, working in the Caribbean and Europe, and he even has an air-filled screen in a permanent drive-in he just opened in Costa Mesa, Calif.
His largest inflatable screen is 133 feet wide and weighs more than 2 tons.
The screen is only half the operation. The back of the truck housed a powerful digital projector, capable of blasting a feature film across a football field. And there was a small radio transmitter to send the audio out to FM radios in nearby cars. There are no speaker poles necessary, although some of the drive-in fans brought their own, wired to their radios to get that authentic scratchy sound they all remembered.
People started to gather behind the Khedive Shrine Center off Woodlake Drive in Chesapeake about 4 p.m. The night was billed as the "Automotive Cinematic Event of the Decade," and open to walk-in customers and drivers of cars at least old enough to have been parked at a local drive in. About 50 cars showed up. If they do it again next year, Charles Nissen, of Khedive Autos, said, they'll open it up to any drive-in fan, no matter what they pilot.
The event was a fund raiser, to benefit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Khedive Shrine Center Transportation Fund. And it was an opportunity for folks who love cars and nostalgia to get a double dip.
Classic cars were everywhere: '57 Chevy Bel Airs and Nomads nestled beside hot-rodded Fords and a '57 Dodge Coronet with what seemed like 6-foot-long tail fins. Admission was $25 per car, no matter how many you tried to hide in the trunk.
The champion for efficiency was a 1938 Packard that once served as a hearse. Ed and Remona Murmillo packed nine people in the gleaming black wagon with the bronze sculpture of the Lady of the Lake on the hood.
Will Reha, 57, of Virgnia Beach, brought his son Chester, 5, wife, Jodie, and visiting in-laws for the drive-in experience. He spread a quilt out in the cargo area of his 1957 Chevy Nomad wagon and couldn't resist lying down as he waited for dusk.
"I just went back 50 years," he said, laughing. "I should have showed up in my pajamas."
Reha grew up in Staten Island and went to the drive-ins there. He moved to Virginia Beach in 1970 and continued going until they all closed down.
But this was his first drive-in date with Jodie, since they were only married 7 1/2 years ago.
A few cars down, Andrea Frost, 41, and her brother Grant Waterfield, 47, laughed about all the John Wayne movies their father took them to see at the drive-in.
They were in a '55 Chevy Bel Air Station Wagon, one of many classic cars Andrea and Bob Frost own, but the only one with seat belts. That was important because they brought Grant's son Wyatt, 11, to the show.
"We used to have our blankets and got to carry our pillows," Andrea recalled. "I was in my footsie pajamas, and Daddy used to tell us to go to sleep."
The feature film Saturday night was, fittingly, "American Graffiti."
But first there was a Readers Digest program looking back at "The Fabulous 50s."
Chester Reha climbed up beside his father in the back of the Nomad and arranged some pillows. Bedtime was fast approaching. "We're getting ready to put his pajamas on," his father said, knowing how this evening would end.
There may have been only a handful of children at the drive-in this night, but oh so many who seemed to become youths again, if ever so briefly.
Source: The Virginian-Pilot. An excerpt from "Drive-in nostalgia fuels fundraiser for cystic fibrosis" by Tony Germanotta. Read full article at: http://hamptonroads.com/node/272941