PHOTO/DAVID ROBERT: The El Rancho Drive-in in Sparks, Northern Nevada’s only remaining drive-in theater, opened in 1952. Its four screens show first-run movies.

Every summer, in cars parked in rows under the stars, a 90-year-old American ritual is celebrated in Sparks.

Shortly before sunset, cars and pickups full of families, groups of friends and couples line up on the concrete of the West Wind/El Rancho Drive-In in Sparks. They park facing a towering screen—just as many of their forebears did beginning nearly a century ago. The scent of popcorn rides a light breeze. Blankets and pillows are hauled out of car trunks. Folding lawn chairs snap open. Blow-up mattresses appear in truck beds.

Darkness falls. Faces glow with moonlight and anticipation.

“It’s a really fun outdoor experience,” said Natalie Hernandez, 27, who was on her way to the El Rancho’s snack bar. “We can come and hang out, not just sit in the dark.”

The four screens blink into life. Coolers snap open; soda containers fizz. Couples wiggle closer in front seats. The rituals haven’t changed in decades.

“Back in the 1950s, people would just drive up with their date, park their car, watch the movie or make out,” said Joe Granata, 86, who grew up in Reno.

Some things have evolved. Digital projectors have replaced film reels; radio tuning eliminated speakers on poles. The vehicles are modern, and snacks are more expensive. But the essence of the experience remains: Hot summer days fade; people hunker down; and stories are painted in light on a grand canvas.

The golden age of drive-ins

In 1933, Richard Hollingshead created the first drive-in as a solution to the discomfort of small movie-theater seats, according to the New York Film Academy. By 1960, more than 4,000 drive-in theaters dotted the nation.

In those days, speakers were provided for every car.

“At that time, they’d have posts, and there would be a cord connecting to a speaker you got when you drove in,” explained photographer Jerry Fenwick, a Reno native. Today, patrons tune in to movie soundtracks on their car radios or cell phones.

Reno’s first drive-in, the Motor-In, was established on South Virginia Street in 1946. The business was re-christened as the Midway Drive-In in 1948, a name that stuck until the theater closed in 1982. That left the El Rancho, which opened in 1952, without competition.

“I’m surprised they kept the El Rancho,” said Neal Cobb, a Reno historian and author. “It came a couple of years after the Midway. … It was a big hit immediately.”

The El Rancho is now owned by West Wind, a family-owned company that bills itself as the largest drive-in theater chain in the world. West Wind operates four drive-ins in California, one in Arizona, and two in Nevada. The company recently acquired and reopened two drive-ins in California, which at one time had more than 20 outdoor theaters statewide.

“High schoolers could fit four or five kids in the trunk of their car and get everyone in.” Neal Cobb, Reno historian and author

“After World War II, entertainment was a big deal,” Cobb said. “People would do anything for fun and games, or anything that could be a laugh.”

The drive-in provided a venue not only for movies, but for people-watching as well as pranks, he said.

“I’d always laugh at the guy who wanted to get out early to beat traffic,” Cobb said. “Most of the time, he forgets to disconnects his speaker from the pole, and bam! It would break off the cord, and half the time (also) break the window.”

Each occupant of a vehicle needed a ticket, so sneaking into the movies was a common tactic.

“High schoolers could fit four or five kids in the trunk of their car and get everyone in,” Cobb remembered.

Pranks were popular. “Every now and then, teenagers would throw stink bombs (at cars) to irritate someone who was having a real good date,” Cobb said.

Fenwick denied such horseplay was common when he was a teenager.

“The pranks mostly happened in the 1960s when kids were bigger jerks than they ever were in the ’50s,” he said. “We had more respect for things in the ’50s.”

An enduring appeal

In 2004, about 400 drive-in theaters remained. As of 2020, just 321 were still operating across 44 states, according to Hawaii, Alaska, Louisiana, Wyoming, Delaware and North Dakota no longer have any drive-in theaters.

The market has contracted, but analysts don’t think the venues will become extinct. Globally, drive-in theaters are a $5.1 billion industry, estimated to reach $8.6 billion in revenue by 2031, according to Transparency Market Research.

PHOTO/ZOE DIXON: DriveIn2: Caesar Aguilar, 19, and Mia Villarreal, 18, got to the El Rancho Drive-in early on July 10 to see Insidious: The Red Door.

Yet in an age of instant, digital media, available virtually everywhere at anytime, why would anyone still go to a drive-in?

“I think it’s closer and more personal than a theater or at home,” said Alina Vera, 25, who was at the El Rancho in July. “Everyone is sitting here with a lot of snacks and blankets, talking, you know? (At an indoor cinema), everyone just sits in aisles and stares straight ahead.”

The proliferation of television sets in the 1950s reduced attendance at movie theaters, but drive-ins had their own niche.

“They were always a big thing for families,” said Fenwick. “It was a cheap night out and lots of fun. If kids fell asleep or cried, they wouldn’t bother anyone. … They were great to bring your girlfriend to and make out in the car. No one around you would be disturbed.”

It’s still a relatively inexpensive pastime. At the El Rancho, general-admission tickets cost $8.25; tickets for kids ages 5-11 are $2; and children age 4 and younger get in free. Tuesdays are “family fun nights,” with general admission tickets priced at $5.75.

There are other advantages to seeing a movie outdoors.

Drive-ins have fewer restrictions than standard theaters. Conversations during the movie, loud laughing, children yelling, cell phone use, frequently moving around and bringing snacks/drinks from home are acceptable behaviors. In some areas of the country, drive-ins show older movies that cost less to acquire than recently released films. The El Rancho, however, offers the same first-run flicks available in brick-and-mortar theaters.

The COVID-19 pandemic, bad for nearly every business, sparked a resurgence in drive-in attendance, according to industry reports. For families and couples sitting in their own vehicles, parked more than 6 feet away from other cars, masks and social distancing weren’t a big issue.

“I really wanted to see a lot of movies the past couple of years, but due to COVID-19, we didn’t want to go into an indoor theater,” said Geraldo Martinez, 28. “Besides, this is a lot more relaxing.”

The surge in business continued after the contagion abated. Adults rediscovered the tradition, and each summer, some kids make their first trip to see movies shown in the open air.

“I’ve never been to one of these, so I’m super excited,” said Isabella Stanley, 13, who with her sister, Emma, 11, were visiting Reno from Germany. “It’s a cool experience, and in Germany, they don’t have these. Drive-ins are definitely a part of the culture here.”

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