Drive Ins

My son recently wrote a paper for his English teacher about the time honored classic novel, ‘The Outsiders’, by S.E. Hinton. Sheesh. I had to read the very same book for MY 7th grade English class…um….WAY too many years ago….when it was considered ‘compelling contemporary literature’. Anyway, in one section of his paper he was to outline ways in which the book mirrors his own life. What did he say? “Pony Boy, Dallas, Soda Pop, Two Bit (etc.) liked to meet at the drive in. My family likes to go to the drive in too.” Hee.

I am glad he remembers. It’s kind of like passing down a family tradition. Thursdays were pay day for my dad and we always went to the bank to cash his check, paid some bills and went out to dinner somewhere. A lost tradition due to today’s convience of direct deposit. Friday nights in the late spring and all summer were devoted to our family fixation with the movies. We would pore over the newspaper listings to see what was on, pick one and be ready to go after dinner at home. We would load the car with pillows and blankets, popcorn or chips, candy, a gallon jug of kool aid and off we would go.

When I was growing up, Waterford and outlying townships used to be a mecca of drive ins to choose from. It was our Friday night tradition in the summer. Two movies for the relatively cheap price of one. Kids under 12 could get in free. My sister was ‘under 12’ till she turned sixteen and finally put her foot down.

There was the Pontiac Drive In which had a very nice playground with a mini ferris wheel and boat ride for kids. The Waterford Drive In had a little train on a tractor that would wind it’s way around the parking lot and another vehicle there would spew out choking mists of bug repellent on some hot summer nights. The Blue Sky and Commerce theaters were miles away from home which meant a longer drive till we finally stumbled from the car to our beds after going to the show. My sister was small enough – for a very long time – to make her bed in the back window of our car. She would cram a pillow under her head, wrap one arm around the dog and squeeze them both under the cool glass of the back window and leave the entire back seat of the car to me. On very rare occasions we were allowed to sit outside the car in folding chairs, huddled under a blanket,,,not to keep warm but to keep the mosquitos at bay. Sound came from a box on a pole that you would hook on the inside of your window – and risk popping out that window if you forgot to replace the box before you drove off. I remember hating the bathrooms…..at any of them.

There was generally a cartoon before the feature. If we were on the playground and the cartoons came on, that was the clue to race back to your car and not miss it. Sometimes the sun hadn’t gone down quite enough and the cartoons were washed out, but that didn’t matter. It was followed by a feature flick, then a ten minute refreshment time – complete with a generic ‘commercial’ for the refreshment stand. There were only a couple of different ones but the one that stands out most in my mind is one of two little space guys in flying saucers that zoom in for popcorn and coca-cola and then blast back into space. The screen was then filled with a huge clock marking 15 minutes – and a medley of calliope music that I can still hum today….mega years later. Every minute we would get an update. “Our show will start in 10 minutes….or nine or eight….” I used to hate that freaking clock. In all honesty, however, it probably served a good purpose in helping me learn to tell time!

Following the 15 minute break we would be treated to my favorite part of the night – COMING ATTRACTIONS!! I still love watching the previews at the movies…and so do my kids. The second feature is when we usually fell asleep. It was a rare occasion when we managed to stay awake during two movies. And if we actually did, the drive home would certainly do us in. We would carry pillows and blankets inside and drop onto our beds with our play clothes on.

I still remember some of the movies we saw at the drive in. I remember watching Agnes Moorehead and Debbie Reynolds navigate their way through wild river rapids in ‘How the West Was Won’ from waaaay back in the make out section. Got there kind of late that night, I guess. I remember watching ‘To Kill A Mockingbird” from the back seat of the car with my Mom, her aunt Dort and Dort’s daughter, Debbie. I had gotten lemon drops for a candy treat that night and heard the word ‘rape’ for the very first time in my life. I think I was about nine. Occasionally we would go and park next to a family or friend. I remember seeing ‘Soylent Green’ with Charlton Heston parked next to my Aunt Cleo. I remember taking peeks over at she and my Uncle Tom as they slept through most of it and left before the second picture. My dad was a war movie fan and we saw plenty of those….’MASH’, ‘Kelly’s Heros’…to name a couple. We saw Elvis movies, Disney movies, Pink Panther, Beach Party movies,etc. I think the only genre that we didn’t see were the slasher movies or horror flicks.

Once my sister and I couldn’t get in for free any more, drive in visits were fewer and farther between. One summer when I was home from college and my sister was working at McDonalds, we went to the drive in together regularly for kicks. And I almost kicked out the dash board of her little car watching ‘Jaws’. I didn’t go in the water for the rest of that summer either. We saw every kind of movie possible….including the slasher/horror thing my parents always avoided. That was the movie about some ‘fry kids’ that developed ‘special skills’ because their school bus went through a radio active cloud of some kind of chemical. Eeeew. Probably the single reason neither of us can stand black nail polish as that was the clue that you were about to be ‘fried’. And one night we took my dad’s van, backed it into a spot, opened the doors to get a better view, wrapped up in blankets and promptly fell asleep till the end of the second movie. Kinda scary when you think that anyone could have jumped in there with us. LOL

Every one of the drive in theaters of my memories are closed. I drive by their locations occasionally. The Waterford Drive In is just a big open field. The Pontiac has been sealed off and the Commerce just had their big screen torn down. It had been closed for years and years. But my children have drive in memories. They actually prefer the drive in over the multiplex theaters of their world. We just happened to learn about a semi-local drive in and went for a lark one weekend a while ago. We just keep going back.

Our trips to the drive in involve a 55 minutes drive and a stop at a gas station for jumbo sized Slurpees and candy bars. Sometime we pop popcorn or buy chips but in the interest of supporting this little piece of Americana, we buy our popcorn there. It’s expensive.

Going to the drive in is still fun. Ours is a double screen – which means screens are facing each other and one screen shows one set of movies and the other shows another. You get the sound for which ever screen your vehicle is facing. There is still an interesting comraderie with drive in patrons. People still chat, share snacks, walk their dogs, open the back end of bigger cars to get a better view. My kids still occasionally sit outside in folding chairs huddled in a blanket to keep mosquitos at bay. Playgrounds are not there but kids still play in the drive way while they wait. Frisbees, baseballs, soccer balls…you name it. My son made a couple of bucks one night by washing windows of cars while we waited for the show to start. He was doing ours and people on either side asked him to do theirs. He talked about going into business doing that for a while.

Kids are no longer free but the admission price for ‘under 12s’ is minimal. There is rarely a cartoon before the show. Sometimes the movie starts before the sun goes down and it’s hard to see on the screen. They still have a 15 minute refreshment break between features. And they still play the same basic medley of calliope music. They still screen ‘Coming Attractions.’ One really nice improvement is that movie sound now comes from your radio speakers. And I still hate the bathrooms.

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