Summer at the drive-in

Round up the family for a night of cinema, cool air and nostalgia


The central structure of the West Wind Sacramento 6 Drive-In houses an entombed circular snack bar, a six-pronged projection booth and a lot more driving games than one might expect. Surrounded by limp, paint-scratched chains, copious pavement scars and a sad row of swings, it’s one of the most unattractive and yet strangely comforting sights imaginable, a remnant from the past shuffling with zombie-like unawareness through our present.

One the last few hundred operating drive-ins in the world, the Sacramento 6 feels like an old friend, in that you not only excuse its flaws, you embrace them as strengths. I grew up near the Sacramento 6, on the other side of Folsom Boulevard, but my parents never took us, probably because drive-in culture was significantly less family-friendly than it is today. That long-unsatisfied enticement is probably the main reason that I have been occasionally obsessed with the drive-in as an adult, satisfied with muddy projection and screen obstructions even while growing into an increasingly snobby cinephilia.

But then there always seemed to be a sense of urgency to the pilgrimages, since the Sacramento 6 seems to be under constant threat of closure. There was a “final season” of contemporary classics back in 2004, scuttled plans for a luxury mall in 2007-08 and, always, talk of a doomsday end. I’ve been suckered into writing those “last picture show”-style epitaphs for various publications too many times. At this point, I’ll believe the Sacramento 6 is dead when I see it, and even then I’ll remain skeptical.

Under that perpetually dangling dagger, the Sacramento 6 experienced a minor resurgence. Now operated by Syufy Enterprises subsidiary West Wind, the ol’ girl is probably cleaner and more lovingly maintained than at any time in the past two decades. Look past the dilapidated playground and broken picnic tables and crater-sized potholes, and you’ll see that the surrounding shrubbery has been pruned to prevent screen obstructions, the signage has been vastly improved and the snack bar sports a fresh coat of paint.

Compared to the theatrical experience, the drive-in is a bang-for-buck bargain for families, and still the best way for parents with small children to get out of the house and see a movie. Family caravans made up the bulk of the audience for our screening of The Jungle Book, all of them sporting pro-level equipment like folding chairs, ice coolers and multiple audio systems. Children poured out of minivans, while one family backed their truck toward the screen, then set up the bed with blankets and pillows.

This certainly wasn’t the ideal way to appreciate The Jungle Book, which is actually quite beautiful if overlong, and filled with state-of-the-art digital effects. At the drive-in, the image appeared murky and occasionally unreadable, especially during the night sequences, while latecomers shined fiery headlights onto the screen and into our eyes. And yet with the cool night air on our faces and contraband beers in our hands, it felt like the ideal way to appreciate just about any movie, and that’s the enduring magic of the drive-in.