The iconic drive-in theatre of the fifties has largely disappeared from the landscape of America, replaced by mega theatres, surround sound, gourmet meals and alcoholic beverages. Notwithstanding the relative comfort of today’s movie going experience, nothing can replace the authenticity of the Saturday night drive-in movie. Evansville boasted four drive-in theatres across the city from east to west. While we were fortunate to have two drive-in theatres in close proximity to our house, the premier outdoor theatre was Sunset Drive-in located north on Hwy 141 as one traveled out of town towards Terre Haute. The theatre’s multi-colored neon sign blinked on and off announcing its current showing and enticed passing cars to turn into the driveway, which led to a ticket booth where the price of admission included all the occupants within the car. A bargain at any price considering the cost of entry into any of today’s blockbuster or lackluster movies.
The outdoor theatre was not fancy, but rather simple like the times and the people who climbed into their sedans and station wagons to experience Hollywood at night and out of doors. A neon sign, a ticket booth, a gigantic screen and rows and rows of metal poles holding two speakers each, accommodating between 500 and 700 cars, constituted a drive-in movie. A single story concrete building usually rested in the middle of the parking area, which housed the projection room, the concession stand and the public restrooms.
On a hot, humid Saturday night when families wanted to escape the indoors and enjoy a night under the stars, any of those drive-in theatres held a thousand people in the grip of the action and cinematography on the outdoor screen. The drive-in was one of the largest gathering of parents, children, teenage paramours and groups, listening to the sounds of cinematic dialogue mixed in with the laughter, cries and whispered conversations of Middle West families.
The anticipation of going to the drive-in was unbearable as we waited for the sun to begin its descent behind the horizon. We loaded ourselves into the care with various accoutrements, which included a picnic dinner or just popcorn and Kool-aid. The not so healthy concession stand offered hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, ice cream and candy of all types for sale, and on occasion our parents gave us money to buy one treat. The animated advertisements for the available snacks and food flashed repeatedly across the screen and succumbing to the constant begging for a greasy hamburger or chemically laden hot dog was probably easier than listening to our incessant and annoying pleas. If allowed, we ceremoniously slathered the delicacy with catsup, mustard, chopped onions and pickle relish from the condiments table, ultimately hiding the taste of the original food. Instead of a hot dog, sometimes we bought cotton candy, ice cream or a NEHI orange to wash down whatever else we ate. Mostly we devoured our own freshly popped and buttered corn, packaged in individual brown paper, lunch-sized bags. We drank Kool-aid poured into paper Dixie cups filled with ice, and our lips and tongues remained stained with the color of whatever flavored Kool-aid Mother prepared.
Even though the movie couldn’t start until the sun had completely set, we didn’t wait until then to leave. We arrived early enough to find just the right spot, not wanting to park too close or too far from the screen. Teenage couples usually grabbed those spots quickly, desiring privacy away from the watchful eyes of parents and the curiosity of small children. Daddy preferred to park somewhere in the middle, not too far from the concession stand but not right next to it either. The frequent trips to the bathroom were difficult to navigate in the dark, but being too close was noisy and distracting. The cone-shaped beam of light from the projector, exiting the building toward the screen, helped provide enough lighting and a point of reference for the parent whose turn it was to make the trip to the restrooms. Even in the fifties, parents did not allow their children to go to the restroom alone. Safety first was a parent’s creed then, as it is now.
As we drove slowly into the large parking lot, the crunching sound of the tires on the gravel intermingled with the sounds of adults and children who had already arrived and had exited to find their spot in front of, on top of, or beside the cars. The cars, one by one, lined up between the metal poles that housed the rectangular speakers, traversing the small mound of gravel, which elevated the car’s front end and allowed for better screen viewing.
Once we arrived, Daddy positioned the car onto the gravel mound, pulled the emergency brake and turned off the car. We had also brought folding lawn chairs and a blanket or two because no one stayed inside the car during the movie. Sitting on the gravel was not only dangerous, but extremely uncomfortable, so as we tumbled out of the car and hurried to the front of the car, Mother spread the blankets on the hood of the car. Daddy lifted us up onto the car’s metal fender and from that position, hoisted us onto the hood. Sitting with our legs stretched out in front of us, we leaned against the windshield, settling in to watch cartoons streaming across the screen. Road Runner, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig-these characters were the pre-show entertainment and not to be missed.
Daddy positioned the speaker on the half-raised car window and turned up the volume. Every car’s speaker projected the sounds, which accompanied the action on the screen, and early surround sound permeated across the humid evening air. If we were lucky, an occasional cool breeze blew through the drive-in and slightly relieved the heat of our sweating backs and necks, which rested against the glass windshield.
We saw Old Yeller, Shane, and Dog of Flanders at the drive-in; three classic movies of the fifties. Fess Parker as Davy Crockett graced the screen in his coonskin cap and buckskin clothes on multiple occasions. Walt Disney entertained us endlessly, and I am certain that Bambi took his lesson from Thumper on the downside of malicious gossip, while I reclined on the hood of Chevy or Ford. Audie Murphy, one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II, starred in his own autobiography, To Hell and Back, with bravery and determination, albeit not very good acting. And, Tinkerbelle. Well, she flew through the Evansville nights on her journey through Neverland and the Magical Castle, to the amazement of a generation of small children with sleepy eyes and popcorn filled-stomachs.
Today, I pay ten dollars to see a movie and more than that to buy popcorn. The special effects are amazing and there are few rules about violence, gore and the privacy of bedrooms. Everyone is immune to the language and little is required of one’s imagination. No theatre allows you to bring in your own popcorn, but I do manage to sneak in Twizzlers now and then. The seats are stadium-grade and talking and texting is verboten. Admonitions of such behavior fill the screen as I settle into my seat and expect to be entertained.
Even so, I often remember those carefree, noise-filled nights at the drive-in with my family. I hear the scratchy sound of the actors’ voices coming through the speakers, the smell of cigarettes in the open air, and the sound of babies crying themselves to sleep while two young parents try to catch a movie without having to pay a babysitter. I hear the crunch of the gravel under the weight of people passing our car on their way to the concession and the hushed whispers of parents talking to their children trying not to disturb the other movie patrons. And, if I close my eyes and concentrate on nothing more than the past, I can still see Alan Ladd riding off into the sunset on the Wyoming range, leaving Brandon De Wilde, as he must, with that long remembered pleading voice echoing in my head. “Shane! Shane! Come back Shane!”