July 5, 2008

A Picnic in the Car, a Movie Under the Stars

By Peter CT Elsworth

NORTH SMITHFIELD The key to understanding the Rustic Drive In Theater, Rhode Island's only drive-in cinema, on Route 146 is contained in the recorded message that informs you that while the shows start at 9 p.m., the box office opens at 6 p.m.

In a regular cinema, three hours would be a long time to sit munching popcorn and watching loops of Hollywood trivia.

But there are no seats at the Rustic, just parking spots, and the atmosphere is closer to the pregame picnics outside football stadiums that often start hours before game time, complete with fold- out lawn chairs and coolers.

A week ago Wednesday, the Rustic, which traces its roots to the mid-1950s, was offering: Kung Fu Panda and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on Screen 1; Get Smart and Iron Man on Screen 2; and You Don't Mess with the Zohan and The Happening on Screen 3.

That's right -- double features.

Alexis and I chose Get Smart and Iron Man and, after paying $20 for one car load, lumbered over the somewhat uneven parking lot auditorium to take up a position on the front row facing Screen 2.

The view was splendid, with the sound provided through the car radio, although it might be smarter to bring your own portable radio as many others seem to have done.

Meanwhile, all around, as many viewers were watching the movies outside their cars as in them, sitting in fold-out lawn chairs or on blankets on the ground. Others had backed their trucks and SUVs into viewing position and were sitting or lying in the back watching the movie.

As the evening wore on, many of the makeshift couches appeared to have become beds, complete with sleeping forms.

We stayed in the car and had our picnic while watching the movie, which was messy but fun. Certainly I cannot remember the last time I had dinner at the movies and under the stars!

Get Smart was pleasantly amusing, and the image on the screen got better as the evening got darker. The sound was perfect and there was no question of missing anything.

The concession stand served as the central focus of activity -- lights, food and bathrooms as well as the projectors on the upper floor. A fire had temporarily closed the main food area but a makeshift one serving the usual cinema fare was set up outside under a tent.

And all around were the groups of friends and families sitting watching the movies on a summer evening, but looking up and sometimes commenting as cars or people passed by.

Get Smart ended and Iron Man started up almost immediately. The beginning was exciting, but we had run out of time. I did not feel particularly self-conscious firing up the engine and turning on the lights, as a certain amount of movement seemed to be always going on.

But it was quite a trick to steer out of there as the rows all tend to merge and there were a disconcerting number of people lying on blankets, raising the awful possibility of running over someone.

Above us, the giant screens flickered before the strangely immobile and silent ranks of vehicles and people.

And by inching over the lumpy ground and making sure we were in as open a lane as possible, we were able to leave without incident.

The Rustic Tri Vue Drive-In, on Route 146 in North Smithfield, is open seasonally.

For show shedules and times, which vary, check movie listings at projo.com. or yourneighborhood theatre.com. Or call 401-769-7601 for a recorded message. [email protected] / (401) 277-7403

Originally published by Peter CT Elsworth, Journal Staff Writer.

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