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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Sing A Song Of Drive-Ins

Did The Boys Know A Place Even Better Than The Beach?

Shawn Nagy's Super Oldies is where I set my online dial each morning. They choose beyond rigid playlists of Sirius and whatever radio still plays way-back hits. The Beach Boys came up this week with a 1964 tune called Drive-In, which I don't recall as a single, and barely, if ever, heard anywhere before. Drive-In was written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love. There were plenty of pop songs about moviegoing culture and drive-ins in particular, but few spelled out why young people preferred under-stars viewing, though as Drive-In tells it, "viewing" was a least of reasons to attend. I listened closely to the lyrics and tried plugging my own drive-in concept to what the Beach Boys sang. We differed first and most decidedly on climate and when those outdoor screens were lit. California screenings could go year round, and did. Our drive-ins had a busy season (late spring, through summer), had to take winter months off but for brave sites that offered heaters and sometimes free coffee to patrons willing to brave the cold. Others just closed and took lumps of months without the cash flow. I'd not ventured a drive-in outside of summer before taking a date one January to a banged-up print of Thunderball, and that proved a mistake for myriad of reasons. North Carolina under-stars during winter was scarcely what the Beach Boys knew in the Golden State.

"Every time I have a date, there's only one place to go. That's to the drive-in," begins the song. Families sought drive-ins for a cheap night-out, grill meals for all, with kids within reach and likely to fall asleep. Teens conversely went to be with other teens, loose from constriction that was home, and assured privacy that was closed cars. To take a date was reason aplenty for going. "It's such a groovy place to talk and maybe watch a show," maybe being operative word, for did it ever matter what was on the bill? (exceptions, yes, like NC lure that was Thunder Road) The drive-in was about community and freedom to move about, socialize, enjoy like playgrounds, train rides, full-service food, that hardtops could not supply. Theatre seats were confining, and management didn't like us jumping in/out of them, except to go buy concessions. To talk at an indoor site meant disturbing others, never an issue in open air that was drive-ins. "Forget about the plot," say the Beach Boys, and indeed, who took time to divine that, with so much else to distract us? Drive-ins saw their height in tandem with television's rise at home. Both used movies more/less for wallpaper, or white noise at best. Concentration patrons applied from bolted-down seats was no more. People who went to drive-ins for the film were figured to need their heads examined.

"Don't sneak your buddies in the trunk, 'cause they might get caught ..." was the BB's bid for social responsibility, and makes me wonder if anyone ever suffocated for sake of free admission. And what's a record for how many sneaks could fit in a trunk? Maybe this is part-why so many venues charged by the carload. "If you say you watch the movie, you're a couple o' liars, and remember, only you can prevent forest fires" was saucy wink the band didn't generally go in for, but everyone knew the purpose drive-ins served for youth, which is why parents saw less comfort in offspring viewing outdoors rather that in. Much eventuality traced back nine months to stolen time at the Starlight. For myself, our own Starlight was site for oldies and second-runs not likely to play again within four walls. But for the Starlight, there would have been no Brides of Dracula or The Curse of Frankenstein in my young life, but short of a driving license (rare among those age 11), who could see such treasure long discarded by downtown first-runners? Drive-ins went away for most part, demise explained to me as result of the 70's gas crisis. Was that it, or did folks simply lose the habit? Where then, do young people go to gather, or do they gather at all, other than online? For modern relevancy, the Beach Boys song could as readily be celebration for spinning bees, barn raisings, or vaudeville. Nothing renders a lyric so quaint as mention of drive-in way of life so long past.


Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

I would opine that a vast majority of drive-in patrons did not go to make out. Our family, like many others, went to drive ins for economy. About 90% of the movies we went to see when i was a kid was at a drive in, mostly at the Havana in Aurora, Colorado (now a Toyota dealership). My parents were damaged goods from the depression. When we went to the drive in Mom would have homemade popcorn made and ice tea in a Coleman insulated jug. That really embarrassed me. I longed to BUY my goodies, especially when the smells wafted into our car from the snack bar. One of my favorite memories is going to the re-issue of MAD X5 WORLD. I had never seen so much laughter in one place in my whole life. People were getting out of their cars to walk around to catch their breath from laughing. I swore when I turned 16 I would patronize only indoor venues and buy my goodies at the snack bar. However when I turned 16 I was right back at the drive in ;-)

The final death blow to drive-ins was digitization. Many of the few remaining drive ins were killed by the five figure cost of digital conversion. One of the neat innovations of the later drive-ins was the soundtrack of the film being broadcast on FM radio. Oh how I hated those tinny speakers of the old drive ins.

10:08 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

My impression at our Starlight Drive-In was that many people went there to show off their cars.

10:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only active drive-in I know of - HAAR'S in Dillsburg, PA - is still in operation, although they subsidize by holding auctions during the daylight (something they've done since 1940).

And, based on their last schedule, they're screening stuff from the '70s and '80s:

10:37 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

My family went to save money (We saw Wayne's THE ALAMO there). As embarrassing as it was, I sometimes went alone to see monster movies that wouldn't come into town.
Our first and oldest drive-in as also named the Starlight, and it was between Bellefonte and State College. The Wolf, man.

11:46 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer recalls rainy drive-in nights:

In the throes of my infatuation with Merle Oberon, I stood under an umbrella in the rain at the Super 130 Drive-In in Edgewater Park, New Jersey, watching her in "Hotel."

Such was love, such was a lover.

Many years later, my wife and I took our young son to a drive-in in Doylestown, Pennsylvania more than an hour and a half away from where we lived, so that he would have the experience of having seen a drive-in movie. It was the theater's final week and the attraction was "Antz."

It was raining that night, too.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Brother Herbert said...

The Solano Drive-In in my hometown of Concord, Calif. was owned by the Syufy/Century chain back in the day and it seemed they always wanted to convert it into a hardtop. (And who could blame them? Why have only two screens on a huge, costly-to-maintain property when you could just as easily have twelve or more indoor screens?) Eventually Syufy sold it off and the property came under the West Wind brand, which gave it a digital makeover and runs it year-round to this day, although I'm not sure they run double features much if at all. When Syufy owned it, the policy was always a double feature where the first movie played again after the second one, so you could arrive for the second movie and still get a double feature. And like many surviving drive-ins, the Solano has played host to swap meets and other events on weekends for longer than I can remember.

Not terribly far from me was Red's Drive-In in Crescent City, Calif., which closed a couple of years ago. It was basically a backyard operation even though there was a huge parking area and screen and professional-quality 35mm projection. When my then-girlfriend and I went for the first and only time to see TOMORROWLAND, there were big, foreboding signs proclaiming the property was for sale (which indeed it sold not long after). But the small, sparsely-populated area simply couldn't support it, and as Tommie noted, this mom-and-pop show obviously couldn't afford to go digital and studios just aren't releasing new movies in 35mm anymore.

The Lakeport Cinema 5 and Lakeport Auto Movies in Lakeport, Calif. has five hardtop screens AND a single seasonal drive-in screen on the same property.

2:41 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

The last drive in near me now, The Mt. Zion Drive in near Grantsville, WV told us the digital conversion cost $75k. They held out on old 35 prints as long as they could, but who is going to see a drive in movie that's already out on DVD? They went dark two years ago.

3:24 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

"Did you hear about the Wisconsin couple who froze to death? They went to the Drive-In to see 'Closed for the Winter' ..."

I have vague childhood memories of my siblings and myself squirming around and paying intermittent attention to talky grownup movies. I remember "The Blue Max" because there were airplane battles. It included a long musical entr'acte (intermission?) with just a static shot of a medal; what was the point at a drive-in? They also tended to have new (and often lame) Walter Lantz and Terrytoon shorts -- the same ones showing on TV. Don't remember going to the snack bar at all.

The last drive-in I remember was in Minnesota, when an uncle took my cousins, younger brother and me to a double feature of "The Man Called Flintstone" and "Who's Minding the Mint?" (67, maybe 68). We were all preteens, but my uncle had us all scrunch down with a blanket covering most of our bodies so we could pass for younger (the cashier was doubtful, but let us pass).

I don't think I ever went to the drive-in as a teen or adult. In the 70s it seemed the deal was to head north to San Jose for the big new movies, or the Granada in Morgan Hill for 1960s Bs (mostly Universal and Disney, it seemed) and As that the first-run houses had finally wrung dry. When teens hung out, it was someplace without an admission charge.

I also remember being fascinated by this toy. Luckily I never got it and was spared the disillusionment.

3:40 PM  
Blogger merritt29 said...

My hometown of Hinton, WV has two active drive-ins within 30 minutes. It's amazing especially for a town of 2,500.

4:06 PM  
Blogger Jerry Kovar said...

The Ruskin D-I down here in SW FL just posted a plea today on Facebook imploring patrons to patronize the snack bar or they will be out of business. They have an honor system requesting folks to pay an additional $5.00 if they are bringing in outside food & beverages. Last weekend they checked parked cars and found that the honor system was not working. Shame since they did convert to digital, show only family movies (which could be part of the problem) and serve decent food at reasonable prices.

10:10 PM  
Blogger Phil Smoot said...

My neighbor 3 doors from me was Jack Pierce who ran the North 220 Drive-In Theater in Asheboro NC. He told me that I was his neighbor and he knew that I liked movies, so stop trying to sneak in as I'll always let you in for free -- Just buy a hamburger sometimes.

10:13 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

A brand new drive-in will be opening soon near me in North Carolina - 5 screens in Graham, NC, just off the major I40 interstate running between Greensboro and RDU.

7:16 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Based on the article, this sounds massive. Hope it all comes off as planned.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

That Jack Pierce was smart. He knew he could not keep you from sneaking in. He made the best of a bad situation. It is amazing how great those newspaper ads made so many lousy movies look. Is there a site devoted to them?

10:28 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

The comments of Tommie Hicks ring true! When I was a little kid, we lived on Long Island and the only way my parents were going to take their brood of six to see long, road show type must-see movies was via a trip to the drive-in months, sometimes years after first run. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS and, yes, kenneth Von Gunden, THE ALAMO. Also a lot Disney like DARBY O'GILL and THE PARENT TRAP and at least two HERCULES flicks.

When I was a teen, we were living in Connecticut where the drive-ins did use those death-machine-heaters in the winter and in the summer seemed to start the program right after supper! You had better be more interested in the second feature, because the first half of the first feature was pretty much just radio!

By the time I ended up in Minnesota, I was married but often car-less, so my wife and I would scrunch into the car of friend on the way in, then try to find a space that still had a speaker box (the majority had been yanked by then) and set up a couple of beach chairs (this was, I believe, illegal at the time)

Last drive-in I went to was just a few years ago outside of Pittsburgh. A STAR TREK movie, digital presentation... we were with my daughter and a bunch of 30-somethings. Very nice night!

10:34 AM  
Blogger Moviecall said...

Did you ever see a drive-in that was set up like a pie? Each car had it's own screen with the projector in the center. When I was growing up in Anchorage, Alaska some intrepid entrepreneur set one up and it was an abysmal failure - people sitting in their car in 20 degrees below freezing weather to watch a movie! Did some research on this concept and it existed at several locations in the mid-west but it appears once the novelty wore off they went out of business.

12:21 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

I'd guess that a lot--if not most--drive-ins closed due to growing/sprawling suburbs when the value of the land offered a big payout for owners.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

How did they figure KONGA was a caveman movie? And what the heck was LAST OF THE CAVEWOMEN?

10:07 PM  
Blogger Sean D. said...

We had some nice ones in Southern Illinois and Southwest Indiana but the weather meant seasonal operation. My hometown one in Carmi was were I saw most of the live action Disney double features and Star Wars about 8 times. They also were where I saw Pink Panther and The Inspector cartoons as those were their shorts of choice. They gave up the ghost around 1980 and became a storage area for the local oilfield companies.

The local Starlight Drive-In was a beauty. Concrete screen with the letters on the back lighting up. The screen was parallel to the highway, so I saw snippets of quite a few movies as we were eastbound after visiting my grandmother. Sadly the big screen bit the dust with the 1982 tornado. For a few months after, the owners had "Gone With The Wind" on the still standing marquee. They put up a metal frame replacement screen and soldiered on for a few years after that. The one time I remember actually going there was a Police Academy double feature.

Evansville had a couple, but I think real estate prices killed off the Sunset on Highway 41. The multi-screen drive-in that seemed like was constantly showing Flesh Gordon as a late night feature was torn down and is now the site of a multiplex with an Imax auditorium. The lone remaining drive-in locally is up the road in Reo, IN and converted to digital a couple of years back.

10:43 PM  
Blogger Phil Smoot said...

Jack Pierce knew how to run a Drive-In. The image was always bright and everything well maintained. He had 4 children and they all played with my brother & me at our house. One of his 2 sons was very athletic, and sometimes when Jack was out of town his son would go rappelling from the top of that giant screen -- Had Jack ever found out he would have blown his top!

12:47 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

The drive-in theaters around where I grew up started to disappear when multi-plexes began to pop up all over town in the 1970s. Maybe the multi-plexes were just more appealing. Truthfully, the drive-ins were beginning to look a little shabby. The one that stayed in business the longest did so by dumping family fare and switching to mostly gory, low-budget horror pics and cheesy R-rated "erotic" films. Just before they closed down they tried running XXX-rated stuff, but there were complaints about being able to see what was on the screen from the local highway. Ironically, porno was a bigger draw than anything else they'd run for a long time.

The only really clear "drive-in" memory I have is that it seemed like they always had one or two of those lousy late '60s-early '70s Walter Lantz cartoons on the bill. That, and my dad being a sucker for any Japanese monster flick they played.

7:07 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

I don't know about your Starlight, but ours was the first place I ever saw those pathetic hot dogs on rollers. I wonder if any ever made it all the way to the end of the summer season. They certainly tasted as if they did. I think a lot of the burgers and such were early microwave oven experiments. The Wolf, man.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

Only got to see a few movies at the drive-in when I was a kid. The first was THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL. Then it was a triple of the first three James Bond films. Another was THE YOUNG, THE EVIL AND THE SAVAGE, WHAT`S UP TIGER, LILLY? & YOUR CHEATIN` HEART. We only stayed for the first two. The last was a dusk to dawn of FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN, THE MUMMY`S SHROUD, ISLAND OF TERROR & THE PROJECTED MAN. I used to drool over the movie ads in the newspaper every week.

10:30 PM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...

The first time I went to a drive-in theater was also the first and last time I’d ever have the occasion to see Disney’s SONG OF THE SOUTH, which since the age of political correctness has been relegated to the skeleton closet of American history due, I suppose, to its rather soft-hearted depiction of the “patrician” Old South. It was in the late 50s, before I’d started First Grade, at a time of innocence in my life when the world seemed just as it should be. My parents had driven me to the North Wilkesboro Drive-In, which was located “out in the country”, miles beyond the city limits for which it had been named, in a repurposed cow pasture. I don’t remember much about the film but the characters of Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit and the catchy refrains of “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”, all viewed from the back seat of my parents’ Oldsmobile. Therefore I am otherwise ignorant of why all the furor exists over the exhibition of SONG OF THE SOUTH today, especially in the U.S., and I can only assume it has everything to do with the perpetuation of stereotypes.
Just now, almost sixty years later, an absurd and somewhat troubling question comes to mind, as it relates to ozoners and the subject of racial sensitivity: did Jim Crow laws back then also extend to drive-in theaters? Were people of color treated any differently than white patrons at these outdoor venues, as they were at many hard tops in the South, segregated and only allowed to sit in nose-bleed balconies “with their own kind”, affording them a severely keystoned perspective on the screen below? Or were minorities turned away from drive-ins altogether?
Maybe one of GREENBRIAR SHOWS’ readership can shed some light on this difficult subject.

10:54 PM  

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