The drive-in movie theater debuted in the early 20th century, at the time when cars were becoming ubiquitous in the nation. An element of vintage America, the first drive-in theaters allowed patrons to view movies from the comfort of their own cars, using individual speakers that hung on the car exterior.

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As the sun sets, we make the hour-long journey from Palo Alto to San Jose. The theater only plays movies in the evenings, so we hit rush hour traffic along the way. Photo by Laura Sieh.

With popularity peaking during the 1950s, the drive-in theater became known as “passion pits,” ideal for teens going on intimate dates in the privacy of their own car. Yet, with the introduction of color TVs and VCRs, the popularity of drive-in theaters waned, and people now view drive-in theaters as a relic of the past.

Over the past two decades, aficionados have revived the uniquely American drive-in, implementing modern technology to maximize the experience for the casual hipster.

One such theater, the West Wind Capitol Drive-In Theater in San Jose, located at 3630 Hillcap Avenue, features a digital projection of newly-released movies onto a massive screen and audio from an FM radio signal. Each row of parking spots is raked to tilt cars toward the screen.

Though Palo Altans must drive for about an hour to get there, the theater provides a unique experience that is well worth the time.

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Natalie purchases tickets from a drive-through-like ticket office before we pull up to the parking lot for our movie. Tickets cost $7.95. Photo by Laura Sieh.

Pros

  • Cheap tickets. Tickets are $7.95, and the movies are new releases. Double features are available for the price of one.
  • Commentary. You can yell in the car and shout any snarky commentary you’d like, because other people can’t hear you. You’ll only piss off your companions.
  • Phones. Feel free to use your phone, because you’re too far from other people to bother them. However, keep your headlights off to avoid shining at someone else’s car.
  • They don’t card. When we went to see “Deadpool,” the employees did not ask to see our proof of age for an R-rated movie.
  • Good seats. You can choose where you would like to view your movie. Parking spaces are available even if you arrive late to the movie, whereas at Century Cinema 16, you have to order tickets ahead for good seats.
  • Relatively cheap food. A large bucket of popcorn costs $5.75 and a churro costs $2. We recommend the churros.

Cons

  • Fog. The car quickly became stuffy and the windshield fogged up, resembling the window of the car sex scene in “The Titanic.” Opening the windows exposed us to the sound of passing trains from the adjacent Caltrain tracks, so there was no perfect solution to our woes.
  • Quality. Because the drive-in movie requires such a big screen, the resolution of the screen was not as crystal clear as that of regular movie theaters. We weren’t able to fully experience the concentrated audio quality we’d get in a regular theater because the sound was broadcast over the radio.
  • Two is company. It’s hard to see the screen from the backseat of the car, so only bring one guest.
  • Parking lot maze. In the darkness, it was difficult to locate the exit of the parking lot. It took us five minutes to figure it out after driving around in circles.
  • Dead battery. If you don’t bring your own radio in order to appreciate your car’s sound system, you will have to keep your car engine or battery on the entire movie showing. This wastes gas or battery power, which could result in a dead battery.
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  • Car (duh!)
  • Portable radio (if you want to avoid running the car battery and losing gas)
  • Money for tickets and snacks
  • Blanket for snuggling up
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Above: Patrons purchase tickets at the ticket office, as the pavement glistens from fresh rain. After making the transaction, the employee directs each patron to the parking lot which corresponds to the correct movie. Bottom left: We use a tune-in radio to listen to the audio broadcast of our movie and to avoid draining the car battery. Bottom right: A cashier waits at the indoor snack bar. The snack bar resembles the lobby of a regular movie theater with its arcade games. Photos by Laura Sieh.