My Idea Of A Filmgoing Oasis
Imagine --- sitting on a camel, corn dog in hand, watching The Cape Canaveral Monsters --- is that not a glimpse of paradise? Picture an ostrich race during intermission between The Absent-Minded Professor and a Three Stooge comedy. In the sixties, there were drive-ins … and then there were DRIVE-INS. The Oasis just outside Chicago was among the latter. I can’t believe such a place existed, and but for photographic evidence shown here, I still wouldn’t. Built at a cost of $555,000 over a twenty-acre spread, The Oasis sat 1,600 cars, along with seventy seats in each of two indoor theatres facing a 52 X 125-foot screen. The approach took you by desert tents and concrete camels with sheiks mounted thereon. Sand dunes were painted on fences running hundreds of yards alongside the entrance road. This was suburban Chicago, one minute from Oak Grove, Illinois, and 22 minutes from the city’s loop. Folks from the neighborhoods must have thought they’d cross hemispherical lines as they neared The Oasis. Plastic palm trees dotted the landscape. Waterfalls spouted forth from what appeared to be desert wells. It was a work of engineering and showmanship genius, the brainchild of one Oscar Brotman, exhibitor turned attorney, then back again to his first love (he’d run four theatres before turning twenty-one). Oscar was forty-four when he opened the Oasis in 1961. I thought how neat it would be to track him down and get some dope on what it was like running the most exotic drive-in anywhere in these United States, but then it hit me --- the man would be ninety today, if indeed he’s still among us.
Maria Montez might have ridden her Sahara caravan through these imposing mosque-like portals, though if you’ll observe closely, there’s several boxoffices therein for what must what have been ongoing boffo attendance. I’d have sat through four hours of Andy Pandas just to bask amidst such splendorous trappings, and so what if the movies tanked? You could still ride camels, or elephants, for a quarter. Ostriches ran nightly --- camels too (wonder if patrons wagered on the outcomes?). You could pet the tamer beasts; this in addition to petting that doubtlessly went on in cars. Oscar got the animals from Disney, shortly after Swiss Family Robinson wrapped. Never let it be said that Walt wasn’t the showman’s friend. This playground sure beat hell of the ones we had in elementary school. There were four cafeteria lines serving the usual fare, plus something called apple taffy, which is a new one on me, though I’d concede Northern palettes may run contra to my own. Advertising circulars went on every tray, pushing whatever attractions were headed for the Oasis. The point is all this could be had for an admission of $1.25, with children 12 and under free. "Early bird shows" kicked off at 5:00 on Sunday afternoons, presumably for those with vision adequate to divine moving figures faintly visible in summer daylight. With camels running dead heats around that track, I wonder how much difference it would have made what they flashed on the screen, never mind it's being discernable! Shopping sprees were not unknown among Oasis patrons. There were vendors salted in lounges throughout the concession areas, peddling combs, brushes, pens, lipstick, perfume, toothbrushes, and Mexican jumping beans. Why weren’t we all living near Chicago in 1961?
Oscar shunned sex pictures. Guess that meant no Brigitte Bardot, nor any of those nasty art pictures along the lines of La Dolce Vita and Satan In High Heels. No doubt he chilled on stateside sizzlers like Baby Doll and Peyton Place as well, though when you’ve a family friendly park as enticing as this, why gum it up with pictures likely to offend? Safer by far to go with attractions like those shown on the marquee here, and what’s wrong with a night spent watching Hondo, with an elephant ride in the bargain? Who among us would be so proud as not to take Oscar up on an entertainment offer like that? Our own Starlite Drive-In, located just off hairpin curves leading to Statesville, NC, was far more prosaic in its bill of fare. We had hula hoop contests, free (live) turkeys, nickel hot dogs, and pumpkin giveaways for thanksgiving shows. Sometimes you had to catch the turkeys, but that only enhanced overall gaiety. Our beloved Starlite was using remnants of prints long since abandoned by hardtops within a radius of two hundred miles. That stuff you saw on The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction about backwoods theatres running silent movies wasn’t too far off the mark where we were concerned. The Starlite unspooled The Oklahoma Kid and Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man in the mid-sixties. Red River and The Outlaw were still booking with us in the seventies. Were these somewhere concealed in the Starlite's hollow outdoor screen? No camel rides where I lived, but livestock roamed open drive-in fields, as I’ve alluded to before. All of which makes the prospect of an Oasis Drive-In seem all the more incredible, for if places like this truly existed, I can only imagine people lucky enough to have attended would carry those happy recollections to this day. Were any Greenbriar readers among them?