Like many girls growing up in England, my first exposure to American culture was Grease. In the leafy playground of my all-girls’ prep school in Surrey, we played Grease everyday the year I was nine. There were of course a distinct lack of T-Birds, but that didn’t stop the girls pretending to grease their hair back with imaginary combs. We had Grease parties, we wanted pink satin jackets and prided Levi’s jeans, we sung into hairbrushes and milk bottles, and tried to shake our school dresses like Cha-Cha DiGregorio’s while reenacting the school dance scene. My mum patiently plaited my hair into tiny braids the night before any Grease party to get the perfect crimp the next day, and she gave me her black satin leggings of yesteryear, which were the envy of Sandy-Wannabies throughout Surrey.
It thus does not really surprise me that I became a cultural historian specializing in the 1950s; it was just the ultimate progression from my childhood games. Once I realized that Drives-Ins were actually real and not part of a Grease fantasy world, I have been desperate to go to one. Luckily for me a quick Google of ‘Drive-In’ revealed that there was a 1957 Drive-In on Cape Cod, one of my favorite places in Massachusetts, if not the world. Best of all a double feature of A Hard Day’s Night, followed by Jaws was coming up soon.
We decided to make a day of it before heading to the Drive-In in the evening. It was our first trip of the year to the Cape, and this meant fried seafood was required. Chatham Fish Pier is one of my favorite places on the Cape. You can stand on the deck and watch the fishermen bring in the day’s haul, surrounded by seals diving and dancing in pursuit of the fishermen’s offcuts. I could watch seals for hours as they lazily turn circles in the water. They have learned that fish scraps will sometimes drift out of the overflow pipe from the boat and so wait with their mouths pressed to the spout in anticipation of a fish cocktail. They are totally un-phased by the human presence, and indeed seem to relish the opportunity to try out a new a backflip or somersault in front of an audience.
From their small shop location the Chatham Fish Pier Market serves up some of the best fried seafood on the Cape. Their fries are incredible, and the juicy shrimp are the size of large scallops. There is nothing quite like the first bite of perfectly crispy battered seafood to mark the beginning of Summer in New England.
We got to the Drive-In at Wellfleet early, in fact we were the first ones there. Being total Drive-In novices we took the opportunity to drive from space to space to determine which would offer the best view of the screen. After trying a few we found the perfect spot, parked up and wandered over to the Mini Golf for a pre-movie game. I was not actually very good at Mini Golf, and my ability to hit the ball behind me provided much mirth. However, we had a good laugh and it felt like a suitable Americana date night activity. As the dusk settled in we wandered back to the car, stopping first at the snack shack to get burgers, fries, and popcorn. The theatre had filled up by the time we got to the car, and we watched the experienced Drive-In goers remove chairs, coolers, pillows and blankets and set up camp. The most impressive were the pick-up drivers who reversed into the space, filling the truck body with pillows and blankets for a family seating area. One family even had an air mattress to fit in the back of the truck to create a make-shift bed. The Drive-In still has the original speakers at each space. However, digital sound now comes courtesy of your car radio rather than the aging speakers. With a large box of popcorn in the cupholder, a burger in hand, and feet on the dashboard we tuned our radio into the required station and waited. Soon the Star Spangled Banner played through our speakers while the American flag waved on the big screen, followed by the original 1950s movie graphics welcoming people to the Drive-In. I could not believe this was real, a total gem of Americana.
A Hard Day’s Night was the first in our double feature. I had never seen the film before, and we both really enjoyed it. We really had no idea what to expect and found the film much funnier than we had imagined. The plot is delightfully confusing, and the scenes jump around rather quickly, with a healthy sprinkling of British humor. Paul, John, Ringo, and George look so impossibly young, but the music still sounds amazing. In fact it sounded all the better for sitting in the car at a Drive-In.
The intermission offered an unexpected treat in my Grease inspired adventure. In Grease when Danny finds himself stranded at the Drive-In (branded a fool), the graphic on the screen behind him shows a cartoon hotdog and bun. In our Drive-In the same adverts for food appeared on the screen throughout the intermission. This was as close to Rydell High as I could possibly get!
Our second feature, Jaws, is one of my favorite movies. I have seen it many times and it still terrifies me. Watching it on Cape Cod, an area with frequent shark sightings, made the movie even more exciting. At one point, my boyfriend grabbed my leg while the infamous “Dun Dun… Dun Dun” music heralded the presence of a shark. I nearly made a hole in the car roof I jumped so high. Along the lines of cars, cheers and “Wahoos” rang out as the beast was captured. The locals here know only too well the importance of keeping the beaches open. With Amity safe for another season our evening came to a close. Families packed up their fold-out chairs and pick-up truck beds, empty boxes of popcorn were placed in the bin, and on the big screen the hotdog and its bun danced. In a trail of headlights, we left the 1950s and returned to 2014. The Drive-In is a ticket to another world, and I can’t wait to go back there again.