Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Screen Dreams

By Jerry Renshaw

SEPTEMBER 2, 1997:  It's about 1965 or so. One of my earliest movie memories is going to see It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World at the drive-in in our small Southern Illinois farm town. My dad would have iced down a bunch of grape and orange Nehi sodas, we'd light up one of those useless mosquito coils, and dig in on a washtub-size pan of homemade popcorn. When I'd get too restless, the folks would make me go play on the swings, jungle gym, and teeter-totter up by the screen (in hopes that I'd wear myself out and crawl into the back seat of our Kennedy death-car Lincoln Continental to pass out, no doubt).

Fast forward to 1978, same town. A cluster of pickups and beat-up Sixties muscle cars are congregated at the 460 Drive-In. That first summer out of high school is often one of the most irresponsible and careless times for people, with college, the Army, jobs, or aimless oblivion just around the corner. For those three short months, though, we all put our guardian angels on overtime and let the devil take the hindmost, with the 460 DI being the epicenter of a lot of our reckless youth.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre, They Came From Within, Dawn of the Dead, Phantasm, Swinging Cheerleaders, Swinging Stewardesses... we saw them all. Every Saturday night, a cheap styrofoam cooler of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and a grocery bag full of junk food snacks ensured that someone would throw up before the night was out. It also ensured that none of us goons would hook up with a girl that night. With my friend's younger brother (affectionately known as "The Derail") working the box office, we could get in free more often than not, and then he'd come around with a garbage bag full of leftover popcorn from the concession stand.

We'd pull the Ford pickup around with the tailgate facing the screen, get out the lawn chairs (or sometimes a sofa), kick back with some cold ones, and pretend like we knew what the hell we were doing. If the movies were too dull, we'd just split and go on an aimless drive through the country, try to avoid the cops, and maybe wind up at one of our regular spots in the middle of nowhere.

Fast forward again to 1986. I'd just moved to Austin and had discovered the Southside Drive-In on Ben White as a regular hangout for our personal cadre of Illinois expatriates. We went to see Haunted Honeymoon, a horribly lame and unfunny horror comedy starring Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner. It rained off and on all night, so I had to run the windshield wipers and defroster on my ancient Impala which, of course, ran the battery down. Eventually, my car was the very last left on the drive, and I had to have the projectionist give me a jump before I could leave. On the way home, the Impala died again at a stoplight and wouldn't start, forcing me to ditch the car, and walk the last two miles or so home in disgust. Little did any of us know that the days of drive-in movies in Austin were soon to be over, with the Southside slated to become a driving range. At least one of the last drive-in movies I ever saw there was Lamberto Bavas' excellent Demons.

In many ways, the drive-in was a terrible way to see a movie. A Schwarzenegger-style explosion through a metal drive-in speaker sounds kind of like 70 geese farting in unison through kazoos. There are bugs, screaming rugrats running around like little apes (like me at 6), hellraising idiots (like me at 18), choruses of honking car horns at the slightest goof by the projectionist, and the aforementioned problems with rain, windshield wipers, and car batteries. But at the same time, the drive-in was a great way to see a movie, with the freedom to party if old enough, or tear around like a wild Indian if young enough (or, of course turn the back seat of Mom and Dad's car into a bordello). Too bad that's nearly gone for future generations.

The traditions and history of the drive-in live on, however, in cyberspace, as one of the coldest of technological advancements helps bear the torch of an institution that's nearly quaint by today's standards. One of the best and most expansive drive-in websites is called simply Drive-in Theater (http://www.driveintheater.com). Its webpages cover drive-in history, from 1933 to the present, drive-in oddities (such as the Fly-in theaters for cars and private planes both), biggest, smallest, and so forth. (For instance, the All-Weather Drive-in in Copiague, N.Y., covered 28 acres, with space for 2,500 cars, a full cafeteria, a restaurant, indoor seating, and a shuttle train to bring customers back and forth to the concession stand). One of my favorite curiosities is the short-lived trend toward DIs with as many as 260 screens(!), one per car, with the images projected through one central projector and a Rube Goldberg system of mirrors to all the screens.

One of the more interesting pages is a directory of all operational drive-ins in the U.S., on a state-by-state basis, and a brief rundown of their status when possible. Here in Austin, our nearest ones are the Astro DI in Dallas and the Mission DI in San Antonio, which is listed as up for sale and undoubtedly means a shaky future for it.

The most intriguing, though, is the Zocalo Theater and Performing Arts Company's drive-in in Houston. Open the last Saturday of every month, the Zocalo was built in 1993 and features offbeat, independent, and locally produced cult movies and video sounds -- as if it's worth a road trip to Houston to me. (I also found out that the last operational DI in Southern Illinois is the Egyptian DI in Herrin, a frighteningly hardscrabble coal town about an hour from my hometown.)

From Drive-In Theater, one of the more worthwhile links is Evil Sam's Drive-in Guide (http://www.driveintheatre.com); note the slightly different spelling. This site duplicates some of the same information as the Drive-in Theater, such as old drive-in movie newspaper ads and a directory of open DIs, but also includes information on how to research an old drive-in (for those with too much time on their hands). One of the more spooky pages is the "Graveyard" page, with text about the fates of defunct DIs nationwide and lots of pictures of the ruins of old concession stands and gorgeous old screens and marquees, weeds growing up around them as they succumb to the ravages of time and the elements. Time and again, these great, oddly American institutions are reduced to nothing more than a bottom-line business decision.

Drive-in Theater Workshop (http://www.win.net/~ltreed/di/index.htm) is full of arcane technical facts on drive-in construction, design and management, covering such details as what kind of paint works best on the screens. Among the technical minutiae (presumably for the budding DI entrepreneur) is some fascinating info on the Alexander Film Company, at one time the number one producer of intermission films for drive-ins.

Other links go to individual DI Web pages from across the country, as theater owners keep pace with the times and devise their own Web pages, including the oldest operating DI in the U.S. (open in 1934!). Check out the pages for the Holiday DI in Hamilton, Ohio and the Dromana Twin in Melbourne, Australia in particular. The most fascinating one, however, is for the Metro DI in Rome, Italy (http://www.geocities.com/motorcity/1503/metroeng.htm). Full of great graphics and lush, rich colors, this site covers (in somewhat fractured English) the Metro's program schedule of cycles of car movies, American "B" movies, road movies, Fifties SF (some in 3-D), musicals, terror-at-the-beach movies, and all-trailer nights, broken down by nights of the week. The question is, how soon can I go to Italy? Or at least, when are they gonna move Rome over here? If it works over there, why can't it work here?

Fast forward again to 1996. While visiting my folks at Thanksgiving, I borrowed their Buick and went to poke around at the old 460 DI. Closed since about 1982, the 460 is now an oilfield-equipment storage yard, but it's wide open, with the screen and concession booth still standing. I had hoped to find a metal speaker, a strip of intermission film, a tiny piece of equipment, anything I could glom onto as a souvenir. The concession stand, however, was full of broken oilfield junk randomly shoved in for storage, empty Busch cans, broken glass, and trash. About the only thing resembling a souvenir was a hot dog wrapper, which hardly qualified. I was sorely tempted to clamber up into the projection booth but the building was in such rotten shape I was afraid the floor would cave in and dump me on top of a dang piece of oil-production machinery. Kicking absently at a piece of the popcorn machine, I left dejected, lonely, and empty-handed. Damn.

On one of my last nights in town, I went to the public library (same librarian as when I was eight, by the way) to scan the microfilms of the local daily for drive-in ads. Missile to the Moon, Monster on the Campus, Riot in Juvenile Prison, I Bury the Living, The Return of Dracula, Island Women (Wild! Wanton! With Marie Windsor!), Mondo Pazzo, Promises! Promises!, Love, the Italian Way... the glorious B-movie titles fairly screamed at me. Some of them I'd seen on my own substitute for the drive-in, a VCR. All of them I at least wished I'd seen.

Then, there it was. On my birthday, in August 1960. Return of the Fly, with Vincent Price, playing at the 460 Drive-In. Cool. I left the library.


Jerry Renshaw reviews videos for The Austin Chronicle, plays in Tallboy, is a true connoisseur of bad film and can cite 10 directors worse than Ed Wood, Jr. upon request.


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