I Found It at the Drive-In

Special guest post by Jeff Lundenberger @jlundenberger

I Found It at the Drive-In

My host, Aurora, recently shared a piece on this blog celebrating the 84th anniversary of the birth of the drive-in. In it, she mentioned a history.com statistic that there are less than 500 functioning drive-in theatres in the U.S. today. This bit of information sent me directly to the website of the Lynn Drive-In in Strasburg, Ohio, the local drive-in of my youth, and I was relieved to discover that it is still open. The website proudly proclaims its status as “Ohio’s Oldest Drive-In Theatre Since 1937.” It now has two screens – I think a summertime trip to Ohio for an investigation into that development is in order – both with double features every night of the week. “Come as you are in the Family Car,” the home page invites, and I’m happy for the Ohio families that are still able to patronize this fading American institution. Hopefully they are creating future memories like the fond, but dim, memories I have of going to the movies in the twilight outdoors of my earlier days.

How the West Was Won might have been the first movie I saw at the drive-in. It was released in February of 1963 and I probably saw it that summer. I have a distinct memory of seeing the film, but my parents don’t remember any of it, or any of the other films I recall seeing with them. That was the only time I’ve seen How the West Was Won from start to finish, at that trip to the drive-in, whatever year it was. At least I assume I saw the whole thing. I have little memory of the actual movie. I’ve seen parts of it since, catching it randomly on TCM now and then, and there are sparks of recognition, like waking in the morning and trying to piece together a hazy dream. The only thing I’m sure of is the song A Home in the Meadow, sung by Debbie Reynolds in the film. I was pleasantly haunted by that tune for days afterward. It seemed like a song I had known since before I was born. Later, I was happy, if a bit confused, when the same tune turned up with different words in the Christmas Carol What Child is This?

My aunt, uncle and six cousins accompanied us to at least one movie – this might have been it. I remember the two station wagons, Ford Country Sedans, parked side by side, both filled to the brim with children making faces at one another through steamy windows. This wasn’t the only outing we had with my mother’s sister and her family. Somewhere there is a picture of us at the Cleveland Zoo, looking more like a class trip than two families on a local vacation.

We weren’t poor, but with so many of us mom economized by popping batches of corn that filled a big brown grocery store bag, the outside speckled with patches of grease. There was pop (aka soda) in a cooler, but how I longed to get something from the concession stand (goaded, no doubt, by the on-screen prodding of the preview) that tempted from the little building that also housed the film projector. We were only permitted to go there to use the restroom, accompanied, of course, by a parent. I stared down the rows of candy as I waited for my mom and sisters to finish their business – surely mom would relent and buy me something. We returned to the car empty-handed.

As I look up the release dates for other films I saw as a child, I see that 1964 must have been a big year for me and the movies. I don’t remember going to see Mary Poppins, at the drive-in or otherwise, but I received the soundtrack record for my birthday, and I do remember being completely mystified by the Sister Suffragette scene and song. I remember standing in line outside a theatre for A Hard Days Night, taken there by a friend’s mother. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was released in November, 1963, and so it must have been the summer of 1964 when my uncle, as a birthday gift, took two cousins and myself to see it. The three of us were all born in the same year, one each in June, July and August. I was the oldest of the bunch, if only by a matter of weeks, and I wasn’t happy that I had to sit in the back seat. Chalk it up to the early diva in me.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, too, is a movie I’ve seen in its entirety only as a child and, again, my few memories of seeing it then are interwoven with the several times I’ve seen parts of it over the years since. I do remember Jimmy Durante, before dying on the side of the road, telling a group of people about some money buried underneath a big W. I remember Phil Silvers in a convertible in a river. I remember the palm trees that create the big W, men atop impossibly tall fire truck ladders, and Ethel Merman slipping on a banana peel. I think.

 

Who would take their eight year old child (and his younger siblings) to see Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie? Take a guess. My parents have never been review-readers and I’m sure they must have thought it was just another Hitchcock suspense film with an ambiguous ending. Were they surprised when they discovered that the film included sexual repression and violence? I asked – they don’t remember. I remember a yellow purse, black hair, the entire screen turning red, and a little girl killing a man with a poker under very peculiar circumstances. Like Marnie Edgar, I’ve had hidden memories jogged to life, not by the hysterics of my mother but by later viewings of this film. Fortunately, my hidden memories don’t carry with them a debilitating psychosis. Or do they? I admit, I have something of an obsession with Sir Alfred and his films. I blame – and thank – mom and dad.

I saw Woman of Straw at the drive-in. It, too, was released in 1964 and I’m guessing it was the first film of a double feature with Marnie. It would make sense, since both star Sean Connery. An online plot synopsis mentions Ralph Richardson in a wheelchair, and that revived my only recollection of that film: a wheelchair.

I think my parents took us to the drive-in to see the animated Disney version of The Jungle Book in 1967 and The Odd Couple in 1968. Funny, my memories of those two more recent films are less certain than those of the earlier ones. I watched The Odd Couple a few months ago and it provoked those recognizable flashes of familiarity. That must have been when I saw the trailer for Rosemary’s Baby, which left more of an impression than the feature. Mom answered with a firm “no” when I asked if we could return to see it. That also could have been the night we took to the open air to watch a film. It was a balmy summer night and we put a blanket on the hump of ground that raised the car to an optimum viewing angle. It was perfect for an outdoor sofa and it was bliss, watching a movie under the stars while the sounds from the tinny speakers echoed across the field.

The Ray Harryhausen films The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), their thin stories made palatable by their charming, almost tactile stop-motion special effects, were perfect drive-in material. I saw both of them in the years of their release, with two different friends. My Golden friend shocked me when he took apart the speaker and unhooked its wires, a much easier operation than I would have guessed, making of it a bulky, metal souvenir. I was sure we were going to be arrested and couldn’t relax until we had left the lot and were on our way home. Tiger was much less stressful.

A double feature of Friday the 13th Part 2 and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre drew two friends and myself to an unfamiliar Ohio drive-in one summer night in 1981. This time out I was content sitting in the back seat, it being a hot and humid night. We laughed and talked throughout Friday – it didn’t take us long to figure out that most of the high and horny teens were going to get it, one way or another. Chainsaw was another story. Before the credits had finished I had crawled into the front seat. There we were, three sweaty, screaming adults, car windows closed because everyone knows that chainsaws can’t penetrate glass. It might be the most disturbing movie I’ve ever seen. Part of me would like to see it again, to see if it still as terrifying as I remember. Most of me says just let sleeping Leatherfaces lie.

I went to the Lynn for a XXX double feature with a couple of friends one year. Late at night, on weekends, cars lined up for a mile or so down the road for the after midnight porn. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

I saw Blade Runner, in 1982, at yet another local Ohio drive-in. I loved the film and its evocation of a film noir future, and this was my second time seeing it. My cousin took us in his pickup truck, me and another cousin who he was dating… from the opposite side of my family. Ohio isn’t THAT bad. How was I to know that this would be my last trip to the drive-in? We enjoyed the movie, I visited the concession stand several times for snacks, he drove us home, and that was that.

Home and theatre collide at the drive-in. We face the big screen, surrounded by others, the extent of the public experience limited to the family and friends seated with us in the safety of our vehicular capsules, a communal isolation. It’s the best of both worlds. The images are larger than life. You can trek to the concession stand for snacks – or bring your own. The kids can wear pajamas. I guess you can too, if your sartorial concerns are less stringent than mine. And, if you have to shush someone, take comfort in the fact that you’ll be shushing someone you know. I had great fun at the drive-in and would happily go again if there were one nearby. Not for a film I was genuinely interested in, mind you. As much as I enjoyed the experience, it’s not the ideal atmosphere for watching a film with serious intent. But I would have appreciated Alien: Covenant, which I saw recently at the mall, much more if I had seen it with that spoonful of sugar that is the lowered expectation of the drive-in.

The magical appeal of that union of movie and night persists. A local hotel here in Asbury Park is now showing open-air movies on the roof, the rescued sign from Asbury’s old Baronet Theatre glowing proudly above the screen, and the last few summers have featured movies on the beach (Jaws being a big hit). Who knows? Maybe the architects who created movie palaces with ceilings of sky, stars and drifting clouds were anticipating a theatrical future that included the classic drive-in.

About the author: Jeff Lundenberger is an avid classic film fan, was a TCMFF Social Producer and is active across social media sharing his love of movies. You can follow Jeff on Twitter and Instagram @jlundenberger.

6 thoughts

  1. Maybe Ohio is the state for drive-ins. I grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, and there were lots of drive-ins scattered on the edge of town. By the time I could drive in the mid-70s, most of the movies were either X-rated or R-rated sexploitation flicks like “Women in Chains” or “Big Doll House” (I saw a few of them). My favorite memory was as an undergrad in Athens and seeing a double feature with several friends in my roommate’s convertible: “The Warriors,” followed by Cheech and Chong’s “Up in Smoke.” Both were good movies for their genres, but they were made better by the “snacks” we brought along.

    1. I’m from a pretty small town (Bolivar, current population 994) and the closest drive-in was the next town over. There was another one within driving distance but we always went to the nearest one. I think the “snacks” might have been an influence on my speaker appropriating friend. Thanks for reading!

  2. I agree that the drive-in provides the best of both worlds. When I was little, my parents used to put us kids in our pyjamas and let us fall asleep in the back seat…but more and more kids came along, and that was the end of the Drive-In Days.

    It appears you enjoyed a truly eclectic array of films – comedy, suspense, horror. Thanks for sharing all these wonderful memories!

  3. I was shocked to see that number – I assumed that there were less than fifty drive-ins left at this point, not 500! I only had one experience at a Drive-in: seeing “Face Off” in the summer of 1997 as an adult with my girlfriend. That Drive-in closed the next year, and we broke up perhaps only a few months later.

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