Every now and then one of my favorite memories of yesteryear crosses my mind: drive in movies. It’s been a several years since I wrote about them and they were so important to my younger years that they bear a second look. There are not too many drive-in theaters around anymore and they are fading fast as Hollywood abandons film for digital projection. Many drive-in operators can’t afford the cost of converting to digital. Of course, we can’t blame it all on digital; air conditioning and daylight savings time are also factors in the great decline. Fewer people are willing to sit outdoors on a sticky summer night to enjoy a movie in the wild than those who would settle for the slightly tamer indoor experience. Also the heyday of drive-ins was before daylight savings time pushed sundown and the start of the movies past 8:30 on summer evenings.
As a 7 year old, nothing compared to being packed into the family station wagon along with my siblings along with a basket full of snacks and a cooler filled to the brim with ice and soft drinks. Mom always packed her kit of insecticides too. The drive in operators always fogged the theater to knock down the mosquitoes but when there was a lot of rain, that wasn’t always enough. Off we would go to Loews’ Normandy Drive-Iin. In the beginning, “The Normandy” was a single screen theater with the audience treated to the panoramic post sunset sky arrayed behind the eastward facing screen. As we were impatiently waiting for the sun to set low enough for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” or “Peter Pan” to start we were often treated to the flashes of “heat lightning” from distant thunderstorms mixed in with the deep blues, purples, grays and corals of the summer evening. Sometimes there were lightning bugs in the grassy area between the rows of cars and the screen. Lowes added swing sets and those little turntable merry go rounds later and then we were out there playing until the start of the movie.
By time my teen-aged dating years arrived, Lowes added a second screen and a second, later showing of the feature. That was a good thing, because when double dating, it was difficult to pick up your date, the other couple, grab a burger, fries and shake and still make it to the first showing that was timed for families who wanted the movie over in time for kids to be in bed early. But for us, the second screen, the one where the teenagers were was the place to be and be seen. Let’s see now, who is going out with who. And who is out there alone with no double date; that was when it was getting serious.
By the time I was a senior in high school the next big thing in drive in movies came along: the double feature. Now we have all died and gone to heaven. The average movie length was less than 90 minutes back then and by the time one got settled in, trip to the concession stand made with soda, popcorn and date stashed in their proper locations for the evening the movie was almost over. With the double feature one had lots of time to enjoy the evening and the intermission left plenty of time for concentrating on socializing with your date.
Wait! You say, “The perfect location!” What’s that? Well, for you who have never double dated at a drive in movie, the couple in the front seat has to scrunch together on the left side behind the steering wheel so the couple in the back seat could scrunch together on the right side so that everybody can see. It’s all very complicated. Oh yes, don’t forget the rule that states that the couple in the front seat cannot turn around and look at what is happening in the back seat.
Over the years I had so many fun experiences at drive in movies: I fell in love with Debbie Reynolds in “Tammy and the Bachelor,” wanted to be Jimmy Stewart in “Strategic Air Command” (after all June Allyson was quite a catch,) and watched in awe as Gary Cooper stood his ground in “High Noon” with off and on support from his pacifist bride, Grace Kelley.
I’ve had the chance to experience drive in theaters in several locations throughout the south. Although there was no “Double Screen” drive in movie in South Carolina when I came up here for college, I got to visit most of the drive-ins here in Columbia and I have great times here. I even had free passes to a couple in payback for recording pre-show and intermission tapes for the management. Because my show was in the evening, I didn’t get to use those passes as much as I would have liked but I have great memories of summer evenings in the fresh evening air full of fun, special friends and an occasional mosquito or two1. Oh MY!