Rockville Drive-In gets a weekend revival

WASHINGTON – Something that vanished more than 30 years ago will be recreated this weekend in Rockville.

A temporary drive-in movie theater with a big, inflatable screen is going up in the Montgomery County Public Schools’ Board of Education parking lot on Hungerford Drive for three nights of free movie screenings.

The Comcast Outdoor Film Festival runs Aug. 16-18, and proceeds from concession sales will benefit National Institutes of Health charities.

The original Rockville Drive-In sat right next to the Board of Education parking lot for decades, and Seth Jason remembers it vividly.

Jason was the last projectionist to work at the drive-in, and WTOP was there when he visited the spot where it once stood. It was Jason’s first time back to the location since it closed in 1981.

“This is pretty amazing,” Jason said as he took in the sight of what the drive-in is today: The College Square townhome development off Hungerford Drive on Ivy League Lane.

The Rockville Drive-In opened in the 50s, and Jason started working there as a high school student in 1978.

First he was an usher and trash collector and later he worked in the projection booth running two carbon arc movie projectors.

The Rockville Drive-In was the first in the area to deliver movie sound to cars in a new way.

“In 1977, they went from the box on the side of the car to AM radio,” said Jason.

“The signal literally stopped here at the end of [Ivy League Lane] and people would park at [the] Board of Education trying to watch the movie for free, except Rockville City Police would come in there and throw them out,” he remembered.

When he worked there, Jason says every screening was a double feature and the price was cheap.

“In summer of ’80 and ’81, I believe Sunday nights were $7 a carload,” Jason said.

Some of the movies Jason recalls screening include the now-classic “Caddyshack” and “Blazing Saddles,” as well as films that are less likely to be remembered such as “Corvette Summer.”

Jason says trucks had to park in the very back of the drive-in.

“You can imagine what younger people did in the back row,” he said with a laugh.

Jason remembers one night sending a young female usher to knock on the door of a van to let them know a movie had ended and it was time to leave. She came back blushing. It turns out she had opened the van’s door, and had seen two people inside.

“There they were, naked as can be,” he said.

Jason says many firefighters would come to the drive-in because they were granted free admission.

“Down the road was Rockville Station 3, and it was hysterical. You’d be in the middle of the movie in the old days of the house siren, and you’d sit there and all of a sudden hear [the] ‘reeeear’ of the house siren, and all these guys, their headlights would go on and they’d pull out the back gate to go hop on the fire trucks,” Jason said.

Another part of the drive-in experience was the snack bar, and Jason says he’s ready to reveal some of its secrets.

“We still popped our own popcorn, for the most part. We did get a popcorn delivery of these big bags, but what we’d do is we’d mix it in with the fresh popcorn so when you walked into the snack bar you smelled it and you saw it popping. But we didn’t pop all that popcorn.”

There was another secret about the popcorn that Jason revealed.

“We put extra salt on the popcorn, so you’d buy more sodas,” he said.

Once, Jason said, another projectionist put on a movie everyone thought was a western, based on its title. Once the first images hit the screen, it looked like something wasn’t right.

“There’s an airplane, and these two people in the airplane. The stewardess goes ‘it’s time to land.’ The guy looks at the girl, and opens up his pants, and we realize that this was not going to be a western, this was pornography. The projectionist shut down the projector, horns honked and the manager got on the system and said ‘sorry, we’ll do a refund.'”

Jason says he’s glad the Rockville Drive-In, in a way, is returning for a few days so people who haven’t experienced one, can.

“It’s just a beautiful piece of American history.”

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