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Remembering Drive-Ins

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Celebrate the allure of the American drive-in with this Cinema Junkie archive edition.

Show transcript

Beth Accomando: Welcome back to another edition of listener supported KPBS cinema junkie podcast. I’m Beth Accomando.

[Interlude]

Beth Accomando: This week I’m digging into the archives for a nostalgic piece I did way back in 1992, all about drive-ins. The piece ran on a KPBS program called These Days and was produced with the help of Dani Shapiro and Martin Lopez. San Diego still has the South Bay and Santee drive-ins. And drive-ins still maintain a certain mystic in America’s pop culture landscape. So I hope you’ll enjoy the show. I pulled a lot of clips from movies and from drive-in advertisements. And one woman even reveals a drive-in memory that many teenagers may share. Once again, I remind you that I do sound different in some of these old archive shows. So to usher you into December, here’s my tribute to the American drive-in.

[Interlude]

Drive-in advertisement 1: Welcome to your favorite drive-in theater and a sparkling new season. Watch our screen and local newspapers for all the fine shows coming this way.

[Interlude]

Dan Irwin: These Days in San Diego. I’m Dan Irwin. The drive-in theatre is a uniquely American institution that enjoyed its heyday in the late ‘40s and ‘50s. But like the large screen theater, the drive-in faces hard times now and some think it may disappear altogether before the turn of the century. Today, These Days film critique, Beth Accomando takes an extended look at the past, present and future of the drive-in theater.

Movie 1: I think this is going to [indiscernible] [0:01:44].

Beth Accomando: The sun is just about to set, and the large white screen looms blankly over the lot. Some horns honk as impatient viewers decide that it’s dark enough for the film to start. When the projectionist finally agrees with them, he turns the projector lamps on and an image begins to flicker on the screen.

Movie 2: It’s show time.

Beth Accomando: It’s larger than life and surrounded by the night and the stars.

[Interlude]

Female Speaker 1: I can remember being bundled in my PJs into the backseat of the car with my older brothers and my parents would take us to the drive-in.

Movie 3: A man she had loved was merely the hollow shell for the invaders from outer space.

Male Speaker 1: Well, it’s a part of American folklore, this whole post-horror baby [indiscernible] [0:02:34] and how are you, your are a mystic. That was part of it, I think. It was very popular for many people.

Movie 3: You are now inside a flying saucer. Our destination, the planet earth. We are the mysterian. Our race is all dying, our planet dead. Only you of earth, you and your women can give us life.

Male Speaker 1: Well, here are young kids, right. They call the Passion Pit?

Movie 4 Sandy: Danni, get off of me.

Movie 4 Danni: Sandy, what’s the matter with you. I thought I meant something to you.

Movie 4 Sandy: Never meant something to you. You mean I’m going to stay here with you in this sandwagon? You can take this pivot in.

Movie 4 Danni: Sandy, you just can’t walk out of the drive-in.

Male Speaker 1: And then when you finally got to a point where you had your own car, where you could do that scene on your own, that was a pretty powerful thing, you know, to go to the drive-in with a date with the opportunity of getting your arm around her.

Movie 5 Speaker 1: Mr. Ingleson, I understand that you were at the local drive-in theater the other night and [indiscernible] [0:03:32] going to the movies?

Male Speaker 1: You’re 16, you just got your license. What a perfect place to go. Just go to the drive-in and meet your friends there plus watch a movie too. I’m sure [laughter]. I think it’s definitely something that people will look back on in the history books and go wow.

[Interlude]

Movie 6 Speaker 1: What’s this all about? What’s everybody running from?

Movie 6 Speaker 2: It’s the end of everything.

Movie 6 Speaker 1: What do you mean?

Beth Accomando: Drive-ins, they’re like portals and time, pass through their gates and it’s like being transported back in time. Drive-ins haven’t changed much in their 60-year history. The biggest innovation was probably replacing the car speakers with radio sound where the movie sound track comes over your car radio. Yet the speaker poles still stand in their regimented rows firmly refusing to acknowledge that they no longer serve any purpose. And the audiences haven’t changed much either. You still find young families with their kids and young lovers with steamed windshield.

Movie 7: Once she touched the body of this masquerading alien who wanted to learn the secrets of human love.

Beth Accomando: Drive-ins have won a unique place in our popular culture, in part because they managed to marry Americas love of the movies with its love of cars. By the mid ‘50s, more than 5,000 drive-ins dotted the American landscape.

Male Speaker 1: The big boom came after the war when people were moving to the suburbs and buying new cars and having more children. Anyway, basically I think a babysitting device.

Beth Accomando: David Elliot is film critic for the San Diego Union Tribune.

David Elliot: Basically it was pre-video. People could sit and watch a movie and talk to each other and eat conspicuously and get up and go and it didn’t bother anyone else because you’re in your car.

Beth Accomando: But are drive-ins heading the way of the dinosaurs? Will they merely become a quaint tradition that we tell our kids about? That possibility worries John Chilson, who’s editor of Schlock, the newsletter of Lowbrow Cinema.

John Chilson: I went to the downtown public library a couple days ago and Xeroxed movie ads from I think it was October ‘62 and October ‘57 and the drive-in was huge. And you look in the paper today and there’s like three or four left and there’re disappearing at a fast rate.

Beth Accomando: For David Elliot it represents the passing of a particular kind of film experience.

David Elliot: It’s sad to see it go because it does represent a kind of very comfortable, easygoing kind of entertainment. The people who love piling in the cars and going and sitting and waiting for the sky to darken and suddenly the movie starts. And there were always cartoons and usually way back there were newsreels and things. And it was just a real evening worth of cheap entertainment.

Beth Accomando: One San Diegan who knows about drive-ins is projectionist Dick Coldoff. He installed the Midway which was the first drive-in theater in San Diego. And he worked at many of the other local drive-ins over the years.

Dick Coldoff: They flashed lights on the screen too before the show. “Anyone, let’s get going, start the movie.” You know, “We’re waiting till it gets dark.”

Beth Accomando: Coldoff also recalls working with Kenny Gallian, the owner of the Midway drive-in.

Dick Coldoff: He lived in the screen tower. They had an apartment there and he had this Cadillac. He would park it at the screen tower and when it’s time for him to go to work, he would jump in his car and drive through the back of the lot where the projection room was.

Movie 8: And now before the next show starts, let’s enjoy an intermission.

Beth Accomando: The drive-ins would run 10-minute intermission films in order to gain extra revenue and they were the first theaters to make use of this kind of onscreen advertising. Coldoff even saved one of the intermission films that ran for a year at the Midway.

Drive-In Advertisement 2: The show starts in seven minutes.

[Interlude]

Dick Coldoff: Over there at the Midway the contracted with local merchants where they would advertise their product on the screen during intermission, you know Midway Chuck Wagon, all you can eat 229, stuff like that.

Drive-In Advertisement 3: Midnight round-up at the Midnight Chuck Wagon. It’s the top.

Beth Accomando: When people think about drive-ins, many can’t remember specific films they saw yet everyone recalls the experience. John Chilson says that the experience of going to the drive-in was more important than what film was playing.

John Chilson: Going to a regular theater we would look through the paper to see what’s playing at the pump theater like, “Oh yeah, that’s coming. We got to go.” Like Trog, I’ve never seen the trailer for Trog and it scared the heck out of me. It’s like I got to see it, got to see Omega man. I got to see those early ‘70s stuff but the drive-in was just like yeah, we’re going to the drive-in. We can cruise around and check it out and whatever because it was night. After dark was just kind of like taboo when it’s dark. You parents called you at the drive-in. It was at night. We could just be outside screwing around, doing kids stuff.

Beth Accomando: Helen, who grew up while the drive-ins were still enjoying great popularity, went to drive-ins regularly. First as a kid with her parents, and later as a teenager with her friends. She recalls that each of the San Diego drive-ins seemed to cater to a different crowd.

Helen: There were certain drive-ins, like the two-view drive-in was the one that all the kids went to because they carried all the horror movies and the science fiction movies. And I think the campus drive-in tried to appeal more to families. They carried like Walt Disney movies or The Nutty Professor, that type of thing when I was a kid.

Beth Accomando: John Chilson also grew up in San Diego and frequented the local drive-ins.

John Chilson: I can remember going to The Big Sky down – it wasn’t idea, it was like Chula Vista and going to South Bay drive-in. It used to be just one drive-in and we’d go there. I mean I remember the trailers the most, those were upcoming, those were really cool.

Movie 9 Speaker 1: Incredible is the word for the world’s first monster musical.

[Interlude]

Movie 9 Speaker 1: Chi in magnificent Eastman color, the daring dancing and fighting and horrifying. The incredibly strange creatures who stopped living and became mixed up zombies.

Movie 9 Speaker 2: Look into the hypnotic eye.

[Interlude]

Movie 9 Speaker 3: [Indiscernible] [0:09:44]. Well so far the ghosts have noted only seven people, so won’t you come and make it eight?

John Chilson: Drive-in movies now I’ve noticed in the ads, it’s more of the top 10 contemporary horror stuff but in the ‘60s and ‘70s I think it was the dredges, the sleazy stuff. I was a teenage dot, dot, dot, or your invasion of the dot, dot, dot. And they usually just [indiscernible] [0:10:10] these together which were great, I mean they made them cheap and they did what they were supposed to do. People bring kids to the drive-in and drowse.

Drive-In Advertisement 1: On August 10 in a California drive-in it all began. It will grip you like nothing you have ever witnessed before. A fear that makes brave men run will freeze you in your seat, make your blood run cold and finally make you scream in terror.

[Scream]

Drive-In Advertisement 1: Warning – Drive-In Massacre has been deemed too terrifying for the average viewer. The risk is entirely yours.

Beth Accomando: Initially, the studios tried to ignore the drive-ins by denying them first-run releases. As a result drive-ins turned to westerns and series type pictures and later relied heavily on low budget exploitation films made by people like Roger Corman. David Elliot describes what the situation was like.

David Elliot: Drive-ins were generally, I think except for maybe a few markets, were big movie outlets. It was really one of the things that kind of showed the coming death of movie entertainment as we used to know it because it did break up the audience. Even though you are there in a field of cars, you are kind of isolated to a degree and it’s not really the full experience you get from sitting in a big dark theater, but it had its own charms and it did with anything charming [indiscernible] [0:11:40] which they tend to do, then they become instant nostalgia.

Beth Accomando: The nostalgic power of drive-in is still a potent force. While the number of drive-ins may be declining, interest in the type of movies that have come to symbolize the drive-in is still strong. Joe Bob Briggs, the self-proclaimed authority on drive-ins, hosts a weekly tribute to the genre with his drive-in theater on the movie channel. He even awards Golden Hubbies or Hubcap awards to contemporary films worthy of the drive-in genre. You can even rent a line of drive-in classics from the local video store.

Drive-In Advertisement 2 Speaker 1: Remember those starry nights when all your favorites were up on the silver screen. Now those nights are back to drive a whole new generation wild. For the first time on home video, RCA Columbia presents drive-in classics.

Drive-In Advertisement 2 Speaker 2: It’s what I’ve been predicting for years.

Beth Accomando: Joe Bob defines the genre as being made up of three types of movies: blood, breast and beast films. For John Chilson, there’s also a definite formula for the perfect drive-in movie.

John Chilson: I don’t think the plot is very important for drive-in movie because no one is paying attention. But it’s got to have gratuitous violence, gratuitous sex, lots of gore, plus if it’s made before 1971 that’s even better. The golden age of exploitation I think.

Movie 10 Speaker 1: You’ll feel the heart-stopping strength of the most fearful monster ever known.

Movie 10 Speaker 2: You think you’re going to make a slave of the world. I’ll see you in Hell first.

Movie 10 Speaker 1: It conquered the world.

Beth Accomando: David Elliot sees all this interest in drive-in movies as part of a nostalgic hick.

David Elliot: You know the [indiscernible] [0:13:20] excitement about old films especially from the ‘50s and ‘60s, the beach pictures which were not strictly made for drive-ins in most cases, but many of them had their best commercial chances in drive-ins. And that kind of movie was – you saw more of them in drive-ins, so it kind of added to the peculiar kind of slamming excitement of going there. Now there’re hardly any B-movie theaters left, and the death of the drive-ins is another symptom of that.

Drive-In Advertisement 3: Here’s a choice of food and drink to satisfy anyone and everyone. You’ll find something to please you, to add to your evening’s enjoyment, something to please all taste and age group.

Beth Accomando: The full-fledged snack bar, where you could find more than just popcorn and soda, was another novelty the drive-in pioneered.

Drive-In Advertisement 4: Haia, haia, haia, you go for that mouthwatering, taste tempting, meaty shrimp mixture all wrapped up in a crispy noodle jacket. It’s a treat you can’t beat. They’re shrimply delicious.

Beth Accomando: But for Helen, the food was less memorable than the snack bar itself.

Helen: The snack bar seemed like a bunker in World War II or something. It was just flat little box stuck in the middle of this vast parking lot of cars, and it always was grungy and your feet always stepped to the floor when you went in there. And the hotdogs always looked terrible but you ate them anyway.

Drive-In Advertisement 5: Hello, young lovers, whoever you are. We’re glad the love bug caught up with you, but we must insist that you do not allow his bite to affect your conduct while in this theater. Public demonstration of affection will not be tolerated. Enough said.

Beth Accomando: While the drive-ins insisted that they were founded for young families, they soon evolved into passion pits where young teens would go to escape the watchful eyes of their parents.

Movie 11 Speaker 1: How do you like this title: The behavior pattern of the young adult and its relation to primitive tribes?

Movie 11 Speaker 2: I’ve got a shorter title.

Movie 11 Speaker 1: What was that?

Movie 11 Speaker 2: Teenage sex.

Beth Accomando: The drive-in quickly drew criticism from pulpits across America. Helen recalls her parents’ reaction.

Helen: They weren’t too crazy about me going out, especially as a young teenager, you know, when you’re dating a boy that just has his license and they know if you’re going to go to the movies and they know it’s not going to be a walk-in theater, it’s going to be a drive-in.

[Music]

Helen: The most vivid memory that I have at the drive-in obviously, which is probably typical of somebody my age, is I lost my virginity at the Alvarado drive-in in 1970 and the movie just happened to be Tora! Tora! Tora!

Movie 12: [Japanese]

Helen: My boyfriend of the time had a van, and we’d been going out for quite a while and just seemed to be the best thing that could happen that night. I can’t remember another movie I’ve seen at the drive-in, and obviously I didn’t really see that movie but I’ve never forgotten the title: Tora! Tora! Tora!

Movie 12: Alert! All commands, air raid, Pearl Harbor.

Helen: It’s really kind of sad that kids nowadays they don’t have those kind of memories, they don’t have a place like that to go.

Beth Accomando: The Harbor Drive-In is one of San Diego’s four remaining drive-ins and it typifies some of the problems that such theaters face. The Harbor Drive-In, located in National City, was taken over by a new owner this year and it had to be cleaned up and repaired. According to Luzie, the theater’s manager, business has picked up slowly over the summer. And next year the theater hopes to buy a neon marquee to attract more crowds. Luzie said that comedies drew the most consistent crowds. But the theater’s biggest success was Edward James Olmos’ American Me. The film was popular with the heavily Hispanic crowds in the South Bay. On its best nights, the film brought in 250 cars and proved that the drive-in can still be a vital part of the community.

Movie 13: My mother was a beautiful woman. There were Pachucos, Zoot-Suiters and Proud Of It. In June of 1943, America was at war. Not only overseas, but with itself.

Beth Accomando: As these remaining drive-ins struggle to survive, a number of other movie venues have been popping up. There’s the Sunset Cinema where films are projected on a barge while viewers watched from the beach. Café Cinema, which plans to run experimental films and videos. And the Garden Cinema, an outdoor theater on gold fence where you can sit at tables and sip Italian sodas as you watch a diverse selection of films. Doug Yeagley, founder of the Garden Cinema, sees a link between his theater and the drive-ins of his youth.

Doug Yeagley: I think it brings the late ‘50s, ‘60s kind of a thing which is what drive-ins used to be about. I mean, that was a social gathering where your whole family, for instance could get together and everybody went to the drive-in. I mean, I mean that was like the major night out.

Beth Accomando: Ralph DeLauro, film programmer for the Garden Cinema, doesn’t exactly mourn the passing of the drive-ins, but he did note that if they were to disappear completely, teenagers would be missing one thing.

Ralph DeLauro: A good place to make love away from mum and dad. There’s something just very unique and very original about being outdoors. I don’t know whether it’s the combination of the sky and the air and the stars and the crickets, and what you consider your outdoor world. I think it puts people in a much more peaceful, more meditative, more receptive kind of spot. And I think there’s just something intrinsically so cleansing about being outdoors.

Drive-In Advertisement 6: The management of this drive-in theater is happy to announce you can enjoy your favorite form of movie entertainment regardless of rain. Now you can keep your windshield clear and dry with a drizzle guard. Simply attach it to your windshield, and in a jiffy you’re enjoying the movie without constantly running your windshield wipers. So next time it rains, don’t sizzle in a drizzle.

Beth Accomando: Even for those people who are not devotees, the drive-ins still seem to conjure up good memories of family and friends. As a movie venue, the drive-in seems threatened by TV, video, and multiplexes. And as a meeting place for young teens, it’s being replaced by shopping malls. Dick Coldolf worries that the drive-in may not be the only movie venue facing extinction.

Dick Coldoff: By the way things are going, I don’t think we’re going to have any big theaters left either. I don’t think there’s going to be drive-ins now, like today people go to the movies, they don’t know anything other than this cattle chute viewing, you know those small theaters. They don’t know what it’s like to go in a big theater where you have this military atmosphere of all the ushers directing you down the aisle with a flashlight.

Movie 14 Speaker 1: [Indiscernible] [0:21:12].

Movie 14 Speaker 2: Well, we’re closing the show.

Movie 14 Speaker 3: Nobody wants to come to shows no more. Kick baseball in the summer, television all the time. [Indiscernible] [0:21:25] I bet we could have kept it going, but I just didn’t [indiscernible] [0:21:28].

Movie 14 Speaker 4: There would be much to do any time when the picture show closed.

Beth Accomando: The closing of the movie house and Peter Bogdanovich’s last picture show signaled the end of an era. And the fate of the drive-in also seems to reflect the passing of an era. Your drive-ins remain a potent force in all popular culture and stir strong memories in people.

Helen: I can remember as a little kid they’d put us all in our pajamas and bundle us in the backseat of the car and of course we fell asleep 10 minutes into the movie, but it’s a good memory, something that we did as a family at the drive-in.

[Interlude]

Male Speaker 2: You could see most of these movies if you wanted to in a traditional theater, but you went for the drive-in kick.

[Scream]

Movie 15: Get in or you’ll be late for your own funeral.

Male Speaker 2: Informality, you know, come as you are, that sort of thing. And you’re out in the open.

Drive-In Advertisement 7: With this modern, safe, efficient in-car heaters, this drive-in theater will now remain open all year round.

Male Speaker 3: I just thought it was real intriguing to be able to do whatever you want in the comfort of your car and yet be able to watch a film. The whole environment was like being at the circus.

Movie 15 Speaker 1: These are the untamed of our world, killers by instinct, like the mountain lion.

Movie 15 Speaker 2: Then you wanted to take the pig and I gave you like a man.

Movie 15 Speaker 3: No, no, no, no, no.

Male Speaker 2: You know, there were always goofy things happening, you know, people tripping over the wires of their speaker systems and kids running around half naked and the mothers running after them, and people going to the candy counter and kind of coming back looking like Mardi Gra floats with all the stuff they had in their arms and all piles of stuff and you knew if they ate it they would end up being sick.

Drive-In Advertisement 8: Golden, pure, creamery butter, rich, flavorful, satisfying. That’s what it takes for the finest buttered popcorn, and that’s what we use. See for yourself why there’s no show time treat to equal the crisp delicious flavor of hot popcorn that’s baked in real melted butter.

Male Speaker 2: Watching the video, you sit there and you watch it and you can fast forward it and you pause it or whatever and you’re with a couple of friends. But I think the drive-in it’s, I don’t know, I think they’re missing out on the – just being outside, watching it, it’s such a different experience.

Male Speaker 4: It gave people a kind of movie experience which maybe really did help create more of a feeling of excitement and affection for movies.

Male Speaker 2: I think just the excitement of going to it and I think they’ll miss – future generations are probably going to go, “What? You pull your car up and watch a movie in a lot, are you crazy or something?”

Beth Accomando: While some people mourn the seemingly eminent demise of the drive-ins, other people like Joe Bob Briggs continue to insist that drive-ins will never die. In his biweekly newsletter We Are The Weird, Briggs runs a column devoted to highlighting successful drive-ins. And each column ends with a rallying cry. With eternal vigilance, the drive-in will never die.

Drive-In Advertisement 9: As you leave the theater folks, please be careful. Don’t let this [breaking sound] happen to your car. Be sure to remove the speaker before you leave. If you should accidentally pull a speaker loose, please turn it in at our snack bar or box office. Thank you.

[Interlude]

Beth Accomando: Thanks for listening to this achieve edition of the KPBS CINEMA JUNKIE PODCAST.

[Interlude]

Beth Accomando: If you’re in a charitable holiday mood, please consider supporting this podcast by going to kpbs.org/feedthejunkie and you can receive a cinema junky toad bag at the $60 donation level. Or if you’re looking for something a little cheaper, just leave us a review on iTunes. Also note the podcast will be going on break for the last two weeks of December. Till our next film fix, I’m Beth Accamondo, your resident cinema junkie.

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Cinema Junkie

Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place