Make-Out City

by Steven Utley


History has not recorded the names of the first couple to couple at a drive-in movie theatre. You can bet, however, that the first drive-in had no sooner opened for business than coitus occurred there. Ideally, the setting was the spacious interior of somebody’s 16-foot-long sedan, but it may just as well have been a rumble seat, by comparison with which even the cramped, perilous cabin of a VW Beetle is a bridal suite at the Hilton.

However the deed was done, the automobile’s full potential had been unrealized till that moment. A single car parked by the roadside was only a bedroom on wheels; a hundred cars parked at the drive-in were Make-Out City. The drive-in was cheaper than a motel, and more accessible. One did not have to sign “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” on a flyspecked register or account for a lack of luggage to a suspicious desk clerk. The drive-in was simply more fun, too: it provided fuel for fantasies before, during, and after sex; on a good night in pre-World War II America, the big screen would have glowed with some of the most erotic images ever filmed — Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert exchanging smouldering looks in It Happened One Night, Henry Fonda trying to get a shoe onto Barbara Stanwyck’s foot in The Lady Eve, Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane, constantly touching each other, though never on the naughty bits.

Somewhere, history surely has recorded the name of the first self-appointed guardian of public morality to denounce drive-ins as passion pits. Drive-in owners vehemently denied the charge, of course; some hired ushers to patrol the parking lots, a measure that can have been only a momentary inconvenience to anyone truly set on sexual activity. For a time, ironically, both the denunciations and the denials worked in the drive-in’s favor. During the 1950s, the drive-in’s reputation was never so unsavory that my good Baptist parents thought anything of loading the brood into the Oldsmobile, along with a watermelon or a bag of cheap Krystal hamburgers — thin rectangles of grayish meatlike substance embedded in biscuit-sized buns — to go take in a long evening’s worth of Hollywood product such as The Searchers, Jet Pilot, The Girl Can’t Help It, or Tarantula. Yet, as I approached pulsing young manhood in the 1960s, I knew without needing to be told, as salmon know to head for the spawning ground, that trying to get laid at the drive-in was an essential rite of passage, a uniquely American one at that, and therefore a patriotic duty.

By then, the cars were smaller, and so were the movies. Unperceived by my generation as it bucked and grunted to the accompaniment of treacly duets by Frankie and Annette, or of some sick crap by Herschell Gordon Lewis — Blood Feast, Color Me Blood Red, Two Thousand Maniacs : films that put the “mess” in misanthropy — the drive-in was already in decline. During the 1970s and 1980s, titles like Spanking Stepdaughters and Lezbo Lickfest began to crowd marquees, but not even the promise of inspiration and instruction on one XXX bill was enough. Now the big screens are falling to ruin, and tumbleweed blows through the abandoned lots. Nowadays, I guess, hormone-maddened young people simply and straightforwardly initiate one another into all the mysteries of sex in the privacy and comfort of their homes. It hardly seems natural.


Copyright © 2005 by Steven Utley

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