Monday, May 17, 2004 | 8:14 a.m.
It's Saturday night at 6:30.
There's a gorgeous evening sky even by Las Vegas standards with the sun setting into a pinkish-orange haze over the mountains.
With help from a soft breeze, the temperature is rapidly settling into the outdoor-friendly mid-'80s.
All in all, it's a near-perfect night to be at the drive-in.
Judging from the number of cars lined up in front of the box office for the Las Vegas Drive-In, 4150 W. Carey Ave. in North Las Vegas, many residents have the same idea.
With the first movie showing still two hours away, this contingent of early bird patrons are what Mike Townsend, the manager of the Las Vegas Drive-In, calls "the diehards."
"Even when it rains, they'll sit here with their windshield wipers going, watching the movies," Townsend said. "They're the diehard drive-in people."
They don't come more diehard than the Hanlon family, who, at least this night, hold the distinction of being the first in line.
Filling their large maroon SUV to capacity one adult, three children and a nephew the Hanlons are a weekend fixture at Southern Nevada's only drive-in.
They even know which of the theater's five screens are best for darker films, and which screens have obstructions from nearby bright lights and casino signs.
"No. 5 is the worst because of the Fiesta lights" from the nearby casino, said Lisa Hanlon, 38, a Las Vegas resident. "The No. 1 and 2 screens are the best because they don't have the light" pollution.
Even an occasional helicopter or plane taking off or landing at the nearby airport doesn't bother her.
Those aren't distractions, she insisted. "That's cool."
Hanlon's reasons for coming to the drive-in are simple.
It's convenient and it's affordable ... very affordable.
Children under 12 are free, and anyone else is $6 about $2 less than a non-matinee ticket at a walk-in theater. There are even $4 "Discount Tuesdays."
"It's cheaper for me to bring my family here than go to the theater," Hanlon said. Plus, "you get two movies for the price of one."
On this night she and her family brought their customary folding chairs, blankets to stay warm and a cooler they packed with several snacks and drinks.
"I save $20-$25 at least because I bring my own food," Hanlon said proudly.
While she acknowledges that "once in a while" she'll go to an indoor theater, Hanlon simply prefers the drive-in, where they "crank up" the car's stereo "as loud as it can go, so we've got our own theater going on."
Even the winter months don't stop the Hanlons' weekly appearances at the drive-in.
"I just grab that ol' sleeping bag and wrap up," Hanlon said, pointing to a sleeping bag in her car.
It would be easy to refer to the Las Vegas Drive-In as the city's best-kept secret.
But that's not accurate.
There are times -- especially during the theater's busiest months of June to September -- when the line of cars extends beyond the theater entrance onto Carey Avenue about a quarter-mile down the street to the Department of Motor Vehicles building.
On this night Townsend said he expected sellouts from the summer-event film "Van Helsing," which was released to theaters nationwide the day before, and the high school satire "Mean Girls."
In fact, for "Van Helsing" the drive-in "oversells" its tickets for the movie, meaning there most likely won't be enough space to accommodate all the vehicles -- which, this particular night, included a party of vintage hearses.
But overalls are not a problem.
The cars, trucks and SUVs that arrive late can simply park in front of the concession stand or even at an adjacent screen and tune their radios to the "Van Helsing" frequency.
About five years ago Townsend did away with the old-fashioned radio boxes on poles that cluttered the parking lots to allow for more room.
And as proof that technology didn't leave the drive-in behind, the theater uses shortwave signals over the FM band to deliver each movie's sound.
While the signal remains mono, nevertheless, it still sounds better emitting from multiple car speakers or even a boom box rather than a single-speaker radio box.
But that's not the theater's only change.
About five years ago a fierce windstorm ripped away the covering for screen No. 4. While no one was injured by the real-life scene from "Twister," the screen's skeleton still looms over the drive-in.
Perhaps the remains are a testament to the perseverance of the Las Vegas Drive-In.
Or maybe they're a preview of the theater's eventual demise.
Townsend optimistically chooses the latter.
"In the summertime I will sell out every screen and people are still on the ramp waiting to come in," he said. "I can't believe when people say the drive-in is becoming obsolete."
Bit o' history
According to www.driveintheater.com, the drive-in is the brainchild of Richard Hollingshead.
Hollingshead experimented with a projector on the hood of his car, a sheet hanging between trees in his back yard and a radio for broadcasting the sound hidden behind the sheet. He had cars parked around the screen, with windows rolled up, down and in between. He even tried to simulate various weather conditions, such as using his lawn sprinkler as a substitute rain storm.
In the early '40s his idea had caught on. But shortages for building supplies and rubber for car tires, brought on by World War II, slowed construction of the new theaters.
After the war, drive-ins became popular again. By 1958 there were close to 5,000 theaters nationwide.
By the late '60s, however, the novelty of watching movies outside began to wear off, and drive-in theaters started their great decline.
This trend continued into the '80s, when there were more abandoned drive-in theaters than remained open.
Today there are approximately 500 drive-in theaters in the United States.
Nevada has also experienced the decline.
While there were 11 drive-ins in the state in the late '60s, now there are only two: The six-screen Las Vegas Drive-In and the four-screen El Rancho Drive In Theatre in Sparks.
Unlike the El Rancho theater, which also doubles as an occasional swap meet, the Las Vegas Drive-In is open year-round.
It also remains the city's lone drive-in, which makes it "the greatest drive-in in town," Townsend joked.
At the height of the drive-in's popularity in the '50s, the outdoor theaters were considered affordable family entertainment.
As more and more of middle-America turned its back on drive-ins for the convenience of the cinemaplex, however, the family-friendly perception changed.
Thefts. Muggings. Knife fights. Shootings. Even the occasional murder.
Newspaper headlines, schoolyard gossip and the occasional urban legend dictated that the drive-in was now a haven to violent gangs.
Not so with the Las Vegas Drive-in, Townsend said.
"I've been out here seven years and there's been no problems," he said. "Of course, with the summer heat people get a little riled, but it's nothing too serious ... or to where people need to fear the drive-in."
Sure, there are the few amorous couples doing "what people have done for years at drive-ins," but Townsend said he has never had any complaints.
"So, obviously, people are fairly discreet about it if they are doing anything," he said.
And, yes, there are those who still try to sneak friends into the drive-in via the car's trunk, all in the name of tradition. But they rarely get through.
"The staff are trained in what to look for," Townsend said.
The biggest problem for the drive-in involving patrons are the nightly dead car batteries at closing time from those who leave their radios on for several hours without running their cars.
Which is why the drive-in has a pair of jumper cables at the ready.
It's all part of the family-oriented service the drive-in offers.
"We generally cater to a lot of families," he said. "We regard this place as the home of family entertainment and a chance to come in and be at home."
It's about an hour before showtime and Juaquin Veles, 44, has his family of four -- his wife and three daughters -- piled into the bed of his pickup truck to watch "Van Helsing."
With blankets padding the metal bed, pillows for added comfort and a cooler full of drinks, Veles' daughters were enjoying their first drive-in experience.
"I like being outside instead of inside," one said.
Her father echoed that sentiment.
"It's pretty good weather, which is why we're here," he said. "I like to go to the theater, too, but I prefer to come here. It's cheaper and you can be outside."
Shawn Ward, 37, also was enjoying a night at the drive-in with his wife, three children and one of their friends, as they took in a double feature of "Envy" followed by "Starsky & Hutch."
It was a different story than the last time the Wards were there.
"We barbecued and smoked everyone out. We got everyone mad at us," he said. "This time we cooked at home."
Having learned their lesson, this night's dinner included barbecue chicken sandwiches, baked beans, chips and drinks.
Despite the previous problem, Ward said he and his family make a point of coming to the drive-in once or twice a year.
"But every time we come here, we say, 'Why don't we come out here more often?' " he said. "It's cheap entertainment."
While Ward remembers coming to the Las Vegas Drive-In as a teenager and piling friends into his pickup, 40-year-old Misty Zeigenbein's memories go back even further.
She and her brother, Jeff Rees, 36, frequented the drive-in with their family in the mid-'70s.
At the time there was a playground next to the concession stand to occupy their time away from the movies. And if they got bored playing with other kids, they would walk around the theater and marvel at everything around them.
"I just liked being outside," she said.
Nearly three decades later, and it's a similar story for Justine and Dawn Gogatz, 11 and 10, respectively.
Prior to this night, the sisters had never been to a drive-in.
In fact, their only experience with a drive-in comes from the movie "Grease," when the '50s gang piles into cars and heads to the drive-in, which is considered a prime make-out spot.
One film into the double feature, however, they said they were enjoying their experience.
"Whenever you get tired you can go in the back seat and go to sleep," Dawn said.
"I like this better than a (walk-in) theater," added Justine. "Plus, it's a 2-for-1 price."
Ask most anyone why they're at the drive-in and they'll say it's a better bargain, or that they enjoy being outside.
Roxanne Clark, 32, has a more practical reason.
Her 9-year-old son Sterling is autistic and has a tendency to lose interest quickly while watching a movie.
"At a theater he'll walk around," she said. At the drive-in, though, "he gets to wander around when he's not interested in a movie and it's not a big deal. So it's better that we're here."
And the movie is just part of the entertainment. It's cheaper and you can be outside.