Share this article

print logo

100 things WNYers should do, No. 5: Spend a hot summer night at the movies at area’s drive-ins

Pity the cities with no drive-ins. We lucky Western New Yorkers have three. We have the Sunset in Middleport. The Delevan in Delevan.

And in Lockport, there’s the mighty Transit Drive-In.

Built in 1952, owned by the same family since 1957, the Transit made the New York Times’ list of America’s Top 10 Drive-Ins. It is one of only three “quads” – drive-ins with four screens – in the state. That pink neon sign, with that glittering arrow – who can resist it?

Not I. On a recent Tuesday, I was lured by the 1977 car-chase classic “Smokey and the Bandit.” My husband, a Tonawanda motorhead, agreed easily to join me.

An attendant waved us in and we paid our admission ($9 per adult, for a double feature). As our Buick crunched over the gravel, we wondered why we’d been away so long. Other than the backward-facing SUVs, the cute miniature golf course and the no-smoking rules, things were eerily like days – er, nights – of yore. Kids still ran around in PJs. Everyone looked happy.

Randall Shortridge, awaiting “Minions” with his family, shared my nostalgia for the wildly whirling playground merry-go-round.

“I think that’s the same one I rode when I was a kid,” he said.

The Starlite snack bar, named for an old Town of Niagara drive-in, has its own pink neon sign, plus glass block windows and checkered tiles. Outside the clean, ample bathrooms, photos showed other departed drive-ins: the Aero, the Broadway, the Boulevard.

You can bring your own food. But concessions support the drive-in, so we bought a huge popcorn. A machine dispensed buttery topping. We emulated the regulars we saw shaking and turning their buckets for maximum soak. We also got a puffy yummy pretzel, with nacho cheese. This is America!

Back at “Smokey,” Howard chatted delightedly with the owners of two vintage Trans-Ams, parked behind us.

“We can look in the rear-view mirror and feel as if we’re in the movie,” he rejoiced.

But the ultimate fan of the movie was a hyper 6-year-old named Benjamin Clark. He had seen it hundreds of times.

His mother laughed: “All my friends were calling me when they saw on Facebook that it was playing. They said, ‘You have to take Benji to the drive-in.’”

What lines from the movie did Benjamin like? Shyly, he cited Smokey’s famous “SOB” line. But he spelled out the “B” part. “It’s a bad word,” he said.

As the moon rose over “Minions,” quiet descended. Charmingly, the screens showed historic snack bar ads. “Mouth-watering hot dogs!” a man’s voice promised. “Ice-cold, thirst-quenching drinks!” Vintage cartoons counted down the minutes.

Then the movie. What’s not to love? Jackie Gleason, “The Great One.” Sally Field as a runaway bride. The Hollywood kiss between her and Burt Reynolds. Benjamin, in the next car over, must have been squirming.

Intermission brought more retro promos. “The best coffee you ever had!” It was time for “Convoy,” starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw.

Bring it on!