Ladies, gentlemen and other life forms. – Agent O, MIB III
The first time I went to Velskoen Drive-In was during high-school. I waitressed with a girl, Uke Prinsloo, and she invited me to go along with her family. When I arrived at her house I immediately realised they were pro at this! They had a big combi and her two brothers were packing it for the outing: mattresses in the back, camping chairs, sleeping bags and blankets. Her mom was in the kitchen preparing the food, in true Afrikaans padkos style she made jaffles, frikkadelle, chips, sweets, fruit, boiled eggs and boerewors cut up into bite-size pieces. Her dad was preparing the drinks. Beer and brandy for the parents and a massive choice of fizzy drinks for all of us kids as well as flasks of coffee. Everything was packed into cooler boxes and the combi was loaded – it looked like we were going camping for the weekend. I loved that first experience!
A drive-in is not only about watching the movie, the atmosphere is great. Everyone sitting in their boots or in chairs next to their cars with blankets and lots of food, some people even set up braais! The kids run around in their pyjamas before the movie starts and at intervals throughout the screening you hear the muffled sound of an engine coming to life as people fear for their car’s battery life and then of course at the end everyone helping that one poor soul who drives an old car and did not think that far. Eventually jumper cables will be located and the dying cars bought back to life. Fellow friendly South Africans all enjoying a night out with their families.
I went back a few times after that first experience as well as trying out the drive-in on Menlyn’s roof in Pretoria. Each time I have loved it so was sad to hear that Ster Kinekor is closing down the Velskoen drive-in this month. If I am not mistaken this is the last one in South Africa? So on Tuesday night my boyfriend and I layered on some clothes and off we went to see Men In Black III. This would not have been my first choice of movie to watch but that is what is showing this week and I actually ended up enjoying the movie and even cried at the end. Yes, I know, crying at the end of a sci-fi movie – but in my defense it was a heart-warming moment. At the entrance we asked the lady when it was closing down and she told us the 3rd of June, when we pointed out to her that it was the 5th she just shrugged and laughed. The parking lot is basically non-existent with huge potholes and when we arrived it was very eerie. There were about three other cars and in typical cautious South African style I mentioned to Wes that should more cars not come we should probably rather leave as it is dark and empty and you would be distracted whilst watching the movie; an opportune moment to be hi-jacked or mugged. I realise this is a horrible thought to have but unfortunately that is the reality. Luckily other cars started arriving soon but nothing like my first experience and the few thereafter. In the end there was a grand total of thirteen cars and I can understand why this prime piece of land is going to be developed.
The rise and fall of drive-ins
A chemical company magnate Richard Hollinghead Junior applied for and received the patent for his invention, the drive-in theatre, in the year 1933. An interesting co-incidence; this first ever drive-in was opened on Tuesday, 6 June 1933, New Jersey – we went on Tuesday 5 June 2012, South Africa exactly (well plus minus a day) 79 years later! His initial tests were conducted in his backyard. He used trees to nail screens onto and would test for the sound levels sitting in his car, rolling the windows up and down. In order to determine the size of parking spots and the inclines of the ramps so that everyone would have a clear view he would park his car, draw a line around it, move his car to a new spot and continue until the spacing was perfect. When he opened his first drive-in, his advertising slogan read; “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.”
Earlier drive-ins had speakers installed on the front towers next to the screen but this created problems as the cars towards the back could not hear clearly, this problem was solved by inserting rows of speakers throughout the parking and only later in-car speakers were introduced. These days you are just told to tune into a certain radio frequency from your car’s built-in radio.
Drive-in theatres were the most popular during the 1950s and 1960s. There was no need for parents to organise babysitters for their younger children when they wanted to go out and as such families could enjoy nights out together. Of course, teenagers and younger adults found drive-ins the perfect places to enjoy date nights (The movie Grease jumps to mind).
A few factors lead to the demise of the popularity of drive-ins: revenue generation is impeded because showings can only be started at sunset and in addition there is the “economics of real estate”. A large piece of property is needed for a drive-in and the increasing costs of land due to the demand for this land for other more financially viable projects meant that (and still means in the case of Velskoen) running a successful drive-in is too expensive. Drive-ins also started gaining a reputation as being immoral “passion pits” in the media during the 1950s.
I am glad that we made it to the Velskoen before it closes down and recommend that everyone gives it a try. For only R75 per car it is cheaper than seeing a movie at an indoor cinema and you can take your own food if you prepare in advance which is obviously also more cost efficient.
Even though I mentioned to Wes that I wasn’t very hungry he knows me better than that and we got lots of snacks 🙂