They used to rise from the towns and cities like joyful rectangular monoliths. Huge white walls looming happily over flat acres of fenced-off gravel. Evenly spaced posts dotting the landscape. And when night came, these passion pits came alive, as moving magic lantern pictures appeared, dancing images suspended in the air of the dark summer evenings. Couples in their cars busy not watching.
Most people who remember Drive-In theaters miss them. Miss them in the same way we miss dance halls and Dayliners.
Our own fair town, years ago, when the population was a fraction of what it is now on account of we hadn’t hit boom times yet where what we now call a “deficit” used to be called a “surplus”, we had two Drive In theaters, and one of them was a Multi. Three giant screens out on south 40th avenue. There’s a church there now, and I’m not sure what that says about drive-ins, but I’m pretty sure there’s an insightful or possibly wildly misinterpreted social message there somewhere.
And for those who didn’t drive in, but happened to drive by a drive in at night when a movie was on were often treated to about 20 seconds of neck-cranking, distracted-driving free movie.
And if it was a particularly racy movie consisting of scenes slightly exceeding a PG rating (which for some unknown reason happened occasionally I’m told) drive by-ers would pull over to the side of the road and watch the action (on the screen) from outside the official driving theater parking lot that you had to pay to get into.
The old 2/11 Drive In on the north side of town, at the turn off to the lake was surrounded by streets that were particularly clogged on nights when steamy flicks like Valley of the Dolls or Barbarella happened to be projected about 30 feet high for all to see for free.
It wasn’t all that stellar for these cinema stealers of course, on account of every movie outside the gates of a drive-in was a silent movie. You had to pay at the gate for the privilege of pulling up to a post, pointing your jalopy at the big screen, rolling down the window and removing a ridiculously heavy metal box from the post.
Your speaker, technically one per car, was made from some mysteriously heavy pot metal and featured a prong at the top to hang about 300 pounds of speaker (1700 kilograms) on the inside of your window which you then attempted to roll up as far as it would go without breaking the roll-up handle on your car door, or shattering your window itself.
This marvel of technology — the Drive-In theater speaker — had a volume dial at the bottom and when the movie started and the speakers were switched on each and every one of them sounded exactly like a 6 inch (15 decimeter) plastic RCA transistor radio with a cracked speaker at full volume submerged in a bath tub. And there wasn’t a single drive-in theatre in history that didn’t have someone drive off with the speaker still attached to their car. Dragging a broken cable alongside the car for several days before somebody pointed out to the oblivious drive-in driver that there was a big grey thing attached to the inside of his window.
But nobody seemed to care about things like speakers, because like I said, nobody was watching or listening anyway. We were all much too involved in deep conversation with members of the opposite gender, or if you went to the drive in with your buddies, you spent most of the time hiking over to the concession building or skulking around spying in on various cars. Especially the ones with steamed up windows.
What got me thinking about those delirious drive-in days was an article in the news recently that described a special drive-in theatre experience being celebrated in Paris, France, of all places. There’s a lavish 100 year old exhibition hall there called the Grand Palais (which is French for “big honkin’ palace”) and someone got the bright idea to put a drive-in theatre right inside the Big Honkin’ Palace.
Thing is, you don’t even have to bring your car! Not only is the huge screen there, but the Paris people also have thoughtfully provided the cars too. A whole palace full of little Fiat 500 automobiles are there for the taking, which doesn’t sound like all that much fun on account of there’s hardly any room in those tiny cars if you get my drift.
And no 300 pound crackling muffled incomprehensible drive-in speaker either. The Grand Palais drive-in patrons receive wireless headphones. The wimps.
Oh, and they also get a nice glass of Champaign. Which is sort of comparable to our drive-in days when many theater-goers (I’m told) would sneak in a few beverages of their own, hidden in ingenious places in their ’58 Fords and ’63 Pontiacs.
This of course, was in addition to the 17 friends that were hidden in the trunk, sneaking in without paying and who would be surreptitiously freed when it became sufficiently dark. The key to that maneuver was to park along the back rows where nobody could see what you were up to. The back rows of course, were always full.
And speaking of back rows, it was a perfect place for a hearse. Our first band vehicle happened to be a 1951 Buick Hearse. It perfectly fit all the guys in the band plus our equipment (both of which were much smaller then) and it was perfect venue vehicle to house your 17 friends or perhaps seven or eight couples. But we had to park it along the back row, sideways, so the monstrosity wouldn’t block other vehicles’ view, where we could utilize about 6 speakers and the inhabitants of said hearse could sit on the pallbearer jump seats and along the coffin rails looking out the vast side windows. We’d open all the dark purple velvet curtains first of course.
Now you just can’t beat that, even with a big honkin’ palace and dozens of Fiat 500s. Besides, I bet there weren’t too many steamed-up windows at the Paris Palais Drive-In.
They wouldn’t want to spill their Champaign.
Harley Hay is a local freelance writer, award-winning author, filmmaker and musician. His column appears on Saturdays in the Advocate. His books can be found at Chapters, Coles and Sunworks in Red Deer.