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ONCE UPON a time there was a happy nation whose people loved to take long walks, go on picnics in the park and shoot fireworks into the nighttime sky.

Then this nation discovered the automobile and everybody started tooling across the countryside, taking in the sights, stopping for ice cream cones and parking at railroad tracks to watch the trains go by.

Besides driving to work, driving to the beach and driving to the mountains, the people soon became fond of drinking shakes and eating hamburgers at what were called drive-ins, where carhops would serve you right in your car.

Meanwhile, the movies had become just as popular as cars and, even during the summertime when they should have been out driving somewhere, people found themselves sitting in dark theaters eating popcorn. Which was OK with them, because they loved movies and movies were basically indoor entertainment.

Or so they thought. Early on, somebody had this brainstorm that brought two of the most popular things in this country together -- the car and the movies. It was genius: Set up a movie projector in the middle of an old cow pasture and project the pictures on a billboard-size screen so that you could watch from your own car. Movies, cars, Coca-Cola, the cool country air, the stars above and Hedy Lamarr two stories tall -- who could ask for anything more?

America had discovered the drive-in picture show. It gained tremendous popularity, especially after World War II when family life came back together. You could throw the kids in the car instead of hiring a baby sitter, and for a single-carload price see a cartoon plus two movies. A real deal.

Drive-ins became a national institution. Families loved them because they could be together; young people loved them because they could be alone. The drive-in would always be there, because the car and movies would always be there.

But nobody guessed the impact of TV. The ordinary American living room was suddenly a viable alternative to both movie houses and drive-ins. And to add to the drive-in's increasingly shaky predicament, driving itself came under attack in the early '70s when the oil cartel started turning down the spigots and raising prices.

As the '80s got rolling and VCRs became the new entertainment option, an alarming number of Americans chose to stay home. VCRs offered a wealth of varied entertainment, cheap. It was private, instant and effortless. By comparison, the drive-in seemed an incredibly clumsy system consisting mostly of steamy windows, squawking speakers, rowdy neighbors and stale popcorn. Drive-ins were fast becoming an endangered species.

"By the early '80s it looked like a lost cause," says Macy Cohen, who has been connected with Buffalo area drive-ins since the late '40s. "The VCR came in and the theater chains started moving into the area. And the film companies started to give the chains preference over the drive-ins."

COHEN WATCHED it all happen from a front-row seat. His father, Irving Cohen, owned an indoor theater in Mount Morris in the late '20s and then one in Corning. In the 1940s he bought the Allendale and operated that theater through the '50s. His first drive-in was the Van Buren, which he built in Dunkirk in 1951. Then came the purchase of the Transit Drive-in in 1957, located in a then-rural stretch between Buffalo and Lockport.

The younger Cohen got in the business as a teen-ager. After receiving his law degree from Syracuse University in 1959, he went to work as a claims representative for Allstate Insurance Co., a position he holds to this day. But every night it was out to the drive-in, working for his father.

There was always plenty to do, things to fix up, he remembers. "The Transit was built after World War II with reclaimed stuff -- salvaged speakers and wires. It was chewing gum and baling wire."

In those days drive-ins were solid business enterprises. As Cohen describes it: "Drive-ins were embedded in society. In the '40s they had the pick of the pictures. We'd outgross the big downtown theaters -- the Hippodrome, the Century, the Paramount, movies houses on that order."

He remembers that in 1963 "Irma La Douce" ran 13 weeks, the longest run in the country. A few years later "The Dirty Dozen" went nine weeks. "Any Neil Simon movie," he says, "would automatically make multiple weeks."

Back then the Buffalo area had maybe a dozen drive-ins. The Transit competed with such drive-ins as the Wehrle, the Sheridan and the Arrow. Surviving today are the Transit and the Buffalo Drive-in, a three-screen operation on Harlem Road near Route 33.

In the outskirts the drive-in still makes a fairly strong showing. The Van Buren continues in Dunkirk. There's the Grand View in Angola, the Lin-Ray in Wellsville, the Sunset in Middleport, the Allegany in Olean and the Silver Lake in Perry. Bath has its drive-in, and so does Portsville.

And then there's a trim little drive-in called the Delevan on Route 16. Cohen recently revived this one with co-owner Phil Leifer.

Cohen became trustee of the drive-in business when his father died in 1975. His son, Rick Cohen, carrying on the family tradition, is the manager, seeing to everyday operations just as his father did 30 years ago.

Macy Cohen has been fighting the gradual decline of the drive-ins. In 1972, he introduced a winter schedule. It ran from Thanksgiving to April and featured X-rated films with some of the more steamy material edited out.

"When we got through with them they really were R-rated films," Cohen says, "The exact same prints Lockport showed under R." He like to call them "hygiene pictures," the same type a high school se nior might see in school.

One time they even were asked to serve something of a medical purpose, Cohen recalls. "One night a woman came in with a doctor's prescription in hand. She was sent to the movie by her doctor because she had some kind of psychological hang-up about sex."

The winter season turned out to be a success and continued until 1978. "We got excellent crowds, even filled the place in snowstorms."

Cohen says "porno" is not the right word here. "Some of these pictures are very good, 'Angel Above, Devil Below,' for example. I saw the film the first night and it was good -- well-acted, well-scripted, well put together. Unfortunately, so did the sheriff. I think they still have a copy over in the department."

What had happened was a community group -- or a competitor -- from Niagara Falls was calling the Niagara County Sheriff's Department every week.

All that came out of that period were a few fines. But Cohen got a lot of ribbing from his friends about his encounters with the law. They even made him a "Porn King" T-shirt. He took it all with good humor: "I never could wear it; I'm just too right-wing."

FOR ALL ITS woes, the drive-in concept somehow held on. Many theaters got through a rough period in the late '60s by choosing films based on the amount of blood and guts spread across the screen. Those on the lower end of the horror/splatter taste spectrum found drive-ins a convenient place to drink beer, hang out and party. One thing was clear: Drive-ins were no longer family places.

To make things worse, film companies started to treat drive-ins as second-class movie houses, a habit that lingers to this day. "We pay through the nose for first runs," says Cohen.

His son concurs: "There's no doubt that we are discriminated against. When we tried to get 'Crocodile Dundee' they stated flatly, no drive-ins. Then we find out later that it did open in drive-ins in other parts of the country. They just don't look at the figures. On Memorial Day we outgrossed all the indoor theaters with 'Back to the Future III.' " And even with a rainy spell last weekend, Cohen says "Dick Tracy" has done well.

The younger Cohen sees a good future for the Transit. "It will stay as long as land values don't escalate. Ten years from now it might not be the same. But if film distributors would look at the figures today they would have to say drive-ins aren't dead."

Everyone in the drive-in business agrees that the big threat to survival is skyrocketing land values. Steve Valentine, operator of the Buffalo Drive-in, describes the situation: "Here you have this 18-acre parcel, and it's sitting around for six months unused. If the land values go through the roof, you almost have to sell."

Valentine sees the success of the Buffalo Drive-in in its three screens. "You live and die by one screen. With three you can have two mediocre pictures and one great one and still do fine."

What has helped, he thinks, is "the baby boom thing, the thirtysomething crowd."

"There is a swing back to the family," he says. "We gear our product accordingly. We will watch our R-rated movies and pull them if necessary. We've gone as far as pulling a film already on the screen. It doesn't happen often, but it has happened."

The drive-in competes so well today, Valentine believes, because it has a different clientele from indoor theaters. "It's the nostalgic experience, no question about it. People come up to us and say, 'Don't close; you're all that's left of a piece of Americana.'

"It's come full circle. It's not the old run-down 'passion pit' anymore. It's right back where it was, stronger that ever. I mean, we increase our gross every year. Something's going on here."

WHILE COHEN sees the Delevan Drive-in as a "miniature," Leifer calls it a gem. It's bringing in good grosses and seems to be gaining in popularity.

"Believe it or not," he says, "people come here from Grand Island, and I had three young girls introduce themselves who drove down from Niagara Falls."

Gems should shine, and that's what Leifer is working on. In his view, what makes drive-ins go today is care. The public won't tolerate a shoddy operation. "You have to give them first-class movies in neat and clean surroundings," he says. "And you have to serve decent food, not the old drive-in slop of the past."

The Delevan has the advantage of being located in a fairly wooded area, with a trim grass lot that gives the feeling of a golf course with humps. There are no poles in the ground. Like most all drive-ins today the sound is transmitted over AM or FM radio. Leifer says his sound is a bit different because he has a license to broadcast. The other drive-ins send the sound over the old underground wires or use such a short-range signal that it never gets outside the grounds.

Leifer's care and attention seems to be paying off. Jude Barkley likes the Delevan Drive-in so much that he went there one drizzly night last week to celebrate his graduation from Holland High. He saw "Bird on a Wire" and "Shocker."

His date, Stacey Smith, sees the place as the best way to catch first-run movies in an area with few theaters. "It takes time for a movie to come out on video, and then when it does come out, if it's popular, you can't get it anyway."

Back at the Transit Drive-in on opening night of "Dick Tracy," people are sitting on lawn chairs out in front of their cars or are perched up on improvised seats in the backs of pickups that had been turned hind-end-to. Kids find car tops handy, and some old-fashioned folks hug in the front seat of their car, ignoring the massive black van in front of them blotting out half the screen. And toward the back, a monster truck with wheels as high as the concession stand lifts its two tattooed occupants skyward for perhaps the best sightlines in the place.

By 7:30 most of the front row is filled by cars and wagons packed with kids and the occasional dog. Judy Prior of Buffalo and a couple of friends are settling into a bank of lounge chairs in front of her Chevy wagon. "It's togetherness and peace combined," she says, rearranging a cluster of teddy bears into blankets. "When you have four, and throw in my sister's two boys, it's pretty great to be able to put them all into the car and get a first-row seat. The kids can use the swings and run around till they drop. They'll all sleep through the movies, and we can sit here and watch and drink iced tea."

Meanwhile, radio personality Larry "Snortin' " Norton is reving up the audience, getting them to blow their horns, and Rick Cohen is loading up the projector. "Dick Tracy," in all its candy-apple-red and turquoise glory, is soon cutting through the night sky. The people sit back in their plastic chairs and pull beers from styrofoam coolers. They look happy.

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