The memories started way back when at “big momma’s house”
The creative genius behind the drive-in theatre was American Richard Milton Hollingshead, Jr. from Camden, New Jersey. The idea for the drive-in was born out of a desire to combine his love of cars and movies or, as one story goes, to come up with a solution for his apparently large mother who was uncomfortable in a regular movie theatre. Whatever the reason, he nailed a white sheet between two trees in his backyard and mounted a Kodak movie projector on the roof of his car. Later he worked out a perfect parking plan to ensure maximum visibility of the screen. On 16 May 1933 he was granted a patent and on 6 June 1933 he opened the world’s first drive-in.
Drive-ins in South Africa
During the Golden Age of the drive-in in South Africa, there used to be at least one drive-in in every major town and city.
In 1969, Frik Birkenstock started working as a cashier at the Vyfster Drive-in in Honeydew. He aimed to work his way up. Birkenstock describes how full the drive-in used to get on weekend nights in the 70s and 80s and how the first threat to South African drive-ins was the 1976 arrival of the first televisions in South Africa. The popular American soap opera Dallas came as a blow to the drive-in, Birkenstock told Volksblad newspaper in 2012. The screening of new movies usually took place on Monday evenings and attendance peaked on Saturday evenings. With Dallas being broadcast every Tuesday night, the new releases were rescheduled for Fridays and Tuesdays became “half-price Tuesdays”. Menlyn Drive-in affectionately named these “Squeeze-in Tuesdays” and they were a hit among students who would cram into cars like sardines. “I was always on a mission to see how many people I can fit into the car,” says Carla Taute, an attendee of Menlyn’s final drive-in screening.
In the new South Africa, everyone could enjoy “Squeeze-in Tuesdays” or half-price specials. However, it wasn’t always that way. In the apartheid era, black people weren’t allowed to mix with other races at the drive-in. Birkenstock tells of some drive-ins that had a wall in the middle of the parking lot with separate entrances. After 1994 the walls were broken down and all South Africans could experience the drive-in on equal terms.
Unfortunately no South African will be able to enjoy the drive-in experience now. In recent years, drive-in numbers the world over have declined drastically. In South Africa the last old-school drive-in, still on a field, was the iconic Velskoen Drive-in. It was erected on top of an old mine dump. In 2012 it closed after it had been a Randburg landmark for more than 60 years.
The clincher for drive-ins, Birkenstock claims, is city and property development. “The ground became too valuable. Why struggle with a [drive-in] business if you can sell the property and make a bigger profit by investing the money?” he told Van der Merwe. As drive-ins became security complexes or massive shopping centres, the old Menlyn Drive-in was replaced by the Menlyn Park Shopping Centre. It made a comeback only when they built the rooftop drive-in in 2000. However, 14 years later, ít has also lost the battle.
The end credits: Menlyn, what happened?
Rationally, modernisation is probably to blame for the death of the drive-in. Here in Pretoria, however, many blame Menlyn Park Shopping Centre. “Menlyn has lost all its entertainment. It’s only movies left. But they should have the drive-in because it’s a nice thing to do for family,” says mother Lynn Rodgers. “They stopped advertising the drive-in,” says her son, Chris Rodgers, who grew up with the drive-in and got his first job at the pizza parlour at the back of the rooftop parking. “It’s a definite loss for Pretoria,” agrees second-year Bcom Law student Brad Strydom. “I think they [Menlyn Park Shopping Centre] need to market it better so that more people know of the drive-in. People want this kind of entertainment,” he says.
Most patrons are still recovering from the shock after hearing the last drive-in in South Africa is being shut down. “It’s an awful feeling, it’s a very sad day for us today,” says Marinda du Preez, who spent the evening braaing with her family at the back of the rooftop parking. The drive-in on the rooftop has been a part of their family since its establishment. “We came very often. We never sat in a car. We always sat here at the back to braai and spend time together as a family,” she added.
Even in today’s technologically driven era, patrons can’t fathom why it is necessary for the drive-in to close up shop for good. “The drive-in was always busy when we came, I don’t understand why it isn’t viable any more. People hold on to traditions. Today there are CDs but people still buy old vinyl records,” said Diederick van Eeden, a father present at the drive-in’s closing show. Strydom agrees, saying that, “The drive-in brings a little bit of the olden days back to this time. And everyone wants to experience a little bit of the old days.”
It is that exact tension between the nostalgia for the past and the technology of the future that forces management of businesses like the Menlyn Park Shopping Centre to make some tough decisions.
“All the theatres in the country have changed to digital, so they don’t make movies on reels any more, which makes it difficult for us to get available reels because they are pretty much discontinued,” said Wesley Scott, campaign manager for Menlyn Park Shopping Centre.
So why not switch to digital then? “For digital to project on that [drive-in] screen, you would need an enormous projector with a very strong projection bulb,” Scott said. If Menlyn were to get a digital projector, it would still need to be a lot closer to the screen to project a large enough image onto the enormous screen. “It’s a logistical nightmare,” he added.
Although Scott couldn’t give an exact number when asked about the price such an endeavour might cost Menlyn, he did say it would be very, very expensive. However, isn’t it worth the loyalty of die-hard Menlyn Drive-in patrons? “Obviously we take our consumers very seriously and what their needs and wants are so it would be beneficial for us to do that [switch over to digital], but as the structure [drive-in parking lot] stands at the moment, it’s just not possible,” he explained.
“It’s taken us the better part of six months to make the final decision, and it’s been a very long and emotional process for everyone involved,” Scott said. He added that Menlyn has been approached by a number of tenants who want to move into the drive-in’s space, so together with the Property and Risk, Centre Management and Marketing, they decided that it would be better to go that route.
What exactly is in-store for this space? “We can’t say at this stage [what is being planned] as final documents haven’t been confirmed and signed, but there are quite a few options on the cards at this stage,” said Scott. He assured that it will be a first for Pretoria in entertainment and recreation. The public can expect to be informed of their choice by the middle of the year. “It should be up and running way before the end of the year,” Scott added.
As patrons who have been coming to the drive-in for years said their last goodbyes on 28 February, they were joined by others who were experiencing it for the first and last time. “This is my first and obviously my last time coming and I regret not coming to the drive-in before. It is really cool and I love the open air,” said Jeandre van Zyl, a final-year LLB Law student at Tuks.
When Pretoria residents Raymond and Elna Gordan heard that the drive-in was closing, they decided to take their kids to experience it at least once. “It’s very sad [that it’s closing] so we thought to ourselves, we have to bring them quickly so that they can just get that feeling,” Raymond said. “We grew up with the drive-in. It would’ve have been nice if they could’ve kept just one open. Look around you. Everybody is enjoying it,” he added.
“It is exactly that TV and movie that you can freely download that was a blow to the drive-in. Maybe if they held events. Like roller skating or dancing here and marketed it better they could’ve kept it open,” he said.
Families like the Gordans aren’t the only ones saying goodbye to the drive-in. Employees of the two cafes on the property are also saying goodbye to the drive-in and will be left without jobs. One of the employees at The Rooftop Cafe, who wished to stay anonymous, told Perdeby that he wants to work because his girlfriend is pregnant and doesn’t have a job. “Our boss told us after the drive-in is closed we might be moved to another shop, but we don’t know when,” he said.
The closing of South Africa’s last drive in represents a loss not only in our personal lives but our cultural experience. Gone will be the days of stories about the nights spent in cars with crackling speakers and grainy pictures. While a rebirth may not be possible anytime soon, we still have the memories.
Photo: Brad Donald