European Times: Moscow - The drive-in cinema finally makes it to Moscow

CRUEL OBSERVERS might say it is already a dinosaur, an idea whose time has past and is doomed to swift extinction. But that has not deterred the Russians from proudly unveiling the country's first ever drive-in cinema.

A 40-foot-wide outdoor screen, the ultimate symbol of the car culture, has been erected in a western suburb of Moscow, not far from Boris Yeltsin's city apartment. It is a modest affair, with parking space for only 110 cars, but it is a beginning.

From now on, when cabin fever strikes, Muscovites can escape from their airless and tiny flats and - for about pounds 5 - take in a film at the Cinedrome, munching snacks or necking on the back seat. For all the Russian anti- American sentiment, stoked anew by the Balkans conflict, another piece of quintessential Americana has arrived.

It has been a long time in coming - 66 years, to be precise. The drive- in was invented in 1933 when a New Jersey entrepreneur, Richard Hollingshead Jnr, perched a projector on the roof of his car and beamed silent movies onto a screen in his drive. As Hollywood and the car industry boomed, 4,000 drive-ins opened in the United States over the next two and a half decades, before going into decline, supplanted by the television, the video and the rise of multi-screen luxury cinema centres. But the Soviets stuck to their gloomy town square cinemas.

You can see why. Building a drive-in in Moscow is a little like trying to pioneer cross-country skiing in Cornwall. Apart from the existence of 97 other cinemas in Moscow - almost all making a loss - and several big, new multi-screen centres, the geographical conditions are not exactly ideal.

On June summer nights, the sun is still setting at midnight, and it blazes anew by 4.30am. Performances at the Cinedrome are therefore this month due to begin at 11pm and 2am, during the few hours of darkness. (Yesterday - the opening night - it was to premiere a new Russian film called Sky in Diamonds.)

Then there is the question of the car itself. Russia only has 18 million private cars among a population of 147 million. Only one in seven Muscovites owns one. In fact, there are even signs that the horse is making a come- back. Izvestia newspaper reported yesterday that the number of horses and carts in parts of southern Russia was rocketing, pushed up by high petrol costs and economic gloom; the local police are even considering issuing the owners with drivers' licenses.

For all the imported Mercedes and Chevy Blazers that cruise the capital's streets, small Russian-made Ladas and Nivas are still popular. These are scarcely Cadillacs. They are small and cramped, a necker's nightmare. Pot-holes, loose stones and - in winter - chunks of ice mean that few cars survive long without acquiring cracks in their windscreen. (Some drivers even stick fake cracks on the glass, to deter windscreen thieves.) In these difficult conditions, the drive-in customer must peer through the glass in search of fun and relaxation.

Yet the drive-in's operators are optimistic. "We have already got 600 people who have booked to come this week. If we didn't think it would be popular, we wouldn't have built it, would we?" said Anna Nosenko, from the Gost Group, which is handling the public relations. The young are expected to flock in, she said.

Others were less enthusiastic. Asked whether she would go to a drive- in, Tatyana Busyreva, 38, owner of a Russian-made Zhiguli car, was curt. "Are you mocking me? There are two options when it comes to watching a film - either you stay at home sitting in your underwear on the sofa in front of a video, or you dress up and go to a good cinema with a big screen. Why should I sit inside my car? It feels horrible just to imagine it." Let's - for the Cinedrome's sake - hope she changes her mind.

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