A couple of hours before twilight, cars spill through the just-opened gates at the Cottage View Drive-In. Tires crunch across the sprawling gravel lot as the drivers quickly claim the best spots: front and center. A passel of little girls hop out of a minivan and start to dance to the Jackson 5's "A-B-C." The thumping bass keeps time for a group of boys playing bean-bag toss nearby. Two pink-clad BFFs play cards while sprawled on princess sleeping bags in the back of an SUV. Moms, holding tight to their children's hands for a trip to the biffy, are rewarded with a whiff of fresh popcorn as the concession-stand doors swing open.
Until the sky darkens and movie trailers flash across the screen, it seems like little has changed since this hilltop drive-in screened its first flick in 1966. Chrysler minivans and Dodge Durangos have replaced station wagons. Vehicles no longer nose into spots, but back in, throw open the hatch for viewing from a cargo area filled with pillows, blankets and kids. And since the 1990s the sound of cars crashing and symphonies swelling is transmitted through each car's surround-sound system, not tinny-sounding speakers hooked onto the window.
What has changed is the number of outdoor movie screens. Encroaching development and rising land values have obliterated almost all of the drive-ins statewide. Where once there were 87, now there are only six. The Cottage View is threatened by a Wal-Mart, which is awaiting approval from the city of Cottage Grove.
"We'll have to wait and see about next summer," said Stephen Mann, president of Mann Theatres, which leases the land the Cottage View sits on.
But tonight, as the sky goes from a fiery orange to a velvety black, the Padelford kids are lined up in the back of their Yukon like a package of Twizzlers. All that matters to them is the return of their old friends Manny, Diego and Sid in "Ice Age: Continental Drift."
"It only cost $20 for our whole family," said Becky Padelford as she lounged on a canvas chair by her husband, Ron.
"I remember going as a kid," Ron said. "A drive-in is what summer's all about."