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Now showing: Drive-in theaters, those beacons of gentle summer nights

Now showing: Drive-in theaters, those beacons of gentle summer nights
For 55 years, the Van Buren Drive-In in Riverside has been putting on light shows after dark. It probably belongs in the Smithsonian. (Ana Venegas / For The Times)

For the record, I hate when things change. If it were up to me, Babe Ruth would still be in Boston; Sonny would still be with Cher.

Riverside’s Van Buren Drive-In plays right into such sappy traditionalism. Smells of childhood and warm pie. Probably belongs in the Smithsonian, in a special section where you don’t have to exit your car.

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You remember drive-in movies, right? Like dream catchers, like sacred hoops, where love, longing, ambition and romance all tumbled together in flickering rat-a-tat-tat light beams out on the edge of town.

God save the queen and drive-in theaters. God save summer.

Let me take you on a date to this humble Van Buren, with the ranch-themed snack stands and the prairie sunsets. So soothing, so redolent of simpler times (which is sort of my ZIP Code).

To me, the 55-year-old Van Buren ought to be a protected landmark, guarded on horseback by a bronzed and sneering Clint Eastwood, though to look at it tonight you’d never think it was in any sort of distress.

No, the Van Buren is jumping this summer evening, with lines of cars waiting to enter and a sellout looming an hour before show time.

Apparently drive-ins, like vinyl records and VW buses, just refuse to die. We’ll get into why in a moment, into how lasting power is the ultimate sign of quality. But right now, as the audience buzzes with pre-show excitement, the why is pretty apparent.

Kids dart among parked cars, playing tag. Moms and dads relax in lawn chairs, chatting with neighbors, sipping cold drinks while admiring the blazing Riverside sky.

Summer is so simple, really. Sometimes all you need is someone to chat with.

Sometimes all you need is someone to chat with. At the Van Buren, movie-goers watch from the backs of SUVs, or set up blankets and lawn chairs.
Sometimes all you need is someone to chat with. At the Van Buren, movie-goers watch from the backs of SUVs, or set up blankets and lawn chairs. (Ana Venegas / For The Times)

“This is better for meeting people,” Savana Spina explains of her preference for drive-ins over standard movie houses.

Spina, a regular, is here tonight with her son, Cisco, 2, her mom, her aunt, her grandma and a thousand of her best friends. “There’s lots of families, lots of diversity,” she says of her love of the Van Buren.

On the marquee, a slew of summer releases: “Toy Story 4,” “Secret Life of Pets 2,” “Child’s Play,” “Men in Black International,” everything a sequel or spinoff. We have reached the point where we are watching the sequels of sequels of sequels.

No biggie. Better for cross-branding, of course, and Happy Meal tie-ins. Bad for audiences, that’s all. To me, storytelling is nothing more than a series of charming or alarming surprises, and there are few surprises in sequels of sequels.

I won’t rant much more over them; they have pluses, mostly minuses. I just have to say I dread the prospect of “Toy Story 47,” when Sheriff Woody gets a new hip, while lamenting how Andy’s great-grandchildren have abandoned him so completely.

Honestly, will poor Woody ever learn what fickle creatures kids can be?

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Naturally, many of us remember movies before sequels, when everything was an original, a passion project, like lasagna made from scratch.

Of course, back then drive-ins provided a genre all their own: “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Last House on the Left.” Or Cheech & Chong’s hugely prescient “Up in Smoke.”

I remember seeing “Soylent Green” at a suburban Chicago drive-in, another flick that seemed to clearly sketch the future (I also took it as a subversive swipe at snack-bar food).

I fondly recall the sensational “Billy Jack” series too, which quenched America’s never-ending thirst for quick and stupid justice.

Drive-ins, which continue to offer double-features, is where binge-watching all began. Tonight, everyone seems to have a memory.

“My parents clearly wanted to see ‘The Dirty Dozen,’ not knowing that the second feature was ‘Naked Under Leather,’” remembers Kathleen Springer, to this day a fan of drive-ins.

“We used to go to the one in Anaheim, which was right where the stadium is today,” recalls Milton Abrera, while waiting at the snack stand with his two daughters, who are at a drive-in for the first time, and presumably will one day bring their own kids too.

A.J. Page and son Jaxson Page, 5, of San Diego, watch a movie from the bed of their truck at the Van Buren Drive-In.
A.J. Page and son Jaxson Page, 5, of San Diego, watch a movie from the bed of their truck at the Van Buren Drive-In. (Ana Venegas / For The Times)

So any obit on drive-ins would be premature. Indeed, there seems a quiver of life in the SoCal drive-in scene, where for a while we were down to a few drive-ins in Riverside, Montclair and the City of Industry, small scraps in a region where dozens of screens used to grace warm July nights like mood lighting.

Now, the Paramount is back in South L.A. after more than two decades. Modest start-ups, such as the Electric Dusk Drive-In near Dodger Stadium, are giving it a shot, as are dozens of outdoor pop-up screens, from Hollywood cemeteries to hotel rooftops.

The takeaway? Our natural habitat is the outdoors. Our best creature comforts turn out to be one another.

The mind mellows on nights like this. Memories ping, they pong. The pulse slows. Someone pops the top of a beer.

Notably, there is barely a hint of weed here at Van Buren’s main screen, another sign that this is a family place, that the crowd is respectful.

Or maybe the rebellious teens are just all parked way in the back, as they’ve always been, in that dark corner where love, longing, ambition and romance all still tumble together.

Up on the screen, some little girl is fretting over the first day of kindergarten. And Buzz Lightyear is typically flummoxed, a goofy sidekick in need of always proving himself. I see in him a hint of Cervantes.

And Sheriff Woody? Well, Woody is lamenting — jeeeesh, the guy’s always lamenting — about how quickly life passes. He suffers, as the French used to say, from “hypochondria of the heart.”

Ironically, he is voicing this to a packed drive-in where kids are spilling out of backed-in cars, in joyous scrums of blankets and sleeping bags, amid young parents who must wonder themselves how long these fine family moments can last.

Forever, that’s all. Thanks to drive-ins. Thanks to summer.

Essentials

Van Buren Drive-In is about 80 minutes from Los Angeles (best case), at 3035 Van Buren Blvd., Riverside. Double features start at sundown. Arrive an hour early for big releases. Any lane gets you into any screen. Admission is $9 per person, $1 for kids 5-9, under 5 free.

Other options:

Vineland Drive-In, 443 N. Vineland Ave., City of Industry

Paramount Drive-In Theatres, 7770 Rosecrans Ave., Paramount

Mission Tiki Drive-In Theatre, 10798, Ramona, Montclair

Rubidoux Drive-In Theatre, 3770 Opal St., Riverside

Electric Dusk Drive-In, 2930 Fletcher Drive, Los Angeles

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