By PATRICIA DAGANSKAIA, Special to The L.A. Times

MOSCOW--Kicking back in your car at the local drive-in, your high school sweetheart at your side. A classic American experience. Except that the car is a boxy Moskvich, not a brawny Mustang. And the drive-in is in Moscow, not Milwaukee.

Russia's first drive-in theater opened last week at an abandoned velodrome outside Moscow--just 66 years and 11 days after its American debut. As might be expected, a few things got lost in the translation. Like the sound. One mother and daughter sat staring at a silent screen because nobody told them that they should tune their radio to a specific frequency. Biker Sergei Chernoshchyokov found himself similarly out of luck, having rolled in on his majestic yet radio-less Harley-Davidson. Even those who could hear sometimes couldn't see. The screen is just 29 feet high, compared with the average U.S. drive-in screen of 127 feet. Those in smallish Russian cars strained to see around Jeeps and Mercedeses. And that was after waiting until midnight, when the sun sets during Russia's "White Nights." In the interim, moviegoers consoled themselves with free beer, and by the time the film started, they barely noticed that it was the wrong flick--instead of the Russian-made "The Diamond-Sprinkled Sky," they got the U.S.-made "Virus."

The late screening hours and less-than-optimum viewing conditions led Russian film director Karen Shahnazar to suggest that the drive-in is less for film-lovers than for party-lovers--or just plain lovers.

"I would not want to show my serious films here," said the director, who attended the opening. "But I might pop in to have a drink and watch an action film, although the screen is pretty small."

With eight months of snow and four months of White Nights, the Russian capital might seem the last place on Earth suited for the American icon of the 1950s.

The owners acknowledge that it is a longshot.

"We had a bet with an American that we could do it," said Alexander Volkov, one of three businessmen behind the venture. "And so we have." Just barely. The paint was still wet as the public arrived, and there was no sign of the promised Rollerblading waiters carrying drinks and cabbage pie--a snack thought more suitable to the Russian palate than popcorn. Moviegoers who managed to get both sound and vision had other complaints. Most prominent was the price--at $8 a person, the "Kinodrom" costs four times as much as a regular Moscow theater. Many who took advantage of the free admission on opening night said they wouldn't return.

"We saw the cars and came to see what all the fuss was about," said Alexei Kaminsky, 21. "But we won't be coming back. Not at 200 rubles a time." Quite how the organizers will sell the concept to cash-strapped Russians is unclear. With shows scheduled for midnight and 2 a.m., the target audience appears to be the young and rich with flashy cars and a love of night life. It may seem reckless to combine alcohol and cars, but owner Volkov calls it fair, saying, "We mustn't discriminate against the four passengers in the car who want to have a good time."

Not all the details are worked out yet. The drive-in will have to close in October unless organizers find a way to combat the mighty Russian winter. "We are trying," Volkov said. "Heating the cars and poor visibility are the technical problems we need to solve. But I'm sure we'll sort them out." Despite the obvious obstacles, the organizers hope to expand. "We are opening two more this July," said marketing director Oleg Vasenin. "One in Moscow and another in Chelyabinsk," 950 miles east of Moscow. Oddly enough, the entrepreneurs have a recipe for success similar to the one used in 1950s America.
As they did in the U.S., cars have for the first time become commonplace among Russia's middle class.

Moreover, most young Russians have to live with their parents until they marry. To promote the drive-in among budding lovers, the organizers are even considering supplying free condoms.

What's next? It remains to be seen whether Russia will follow the movie theater with other drive-in establishments found in the U.S., such as churches and wedding chapels.

"Anything goes here now," said 21-year-old Yulia Draitzer. "But I certainly wouldn't want to get married in the front seat of a Lada."


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