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Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Drive-In Memories
I watched a documentary tonight about the rise and fall of the American drive-in theater, and I thought it might be fun to share some of my own drive-in memories. You can let me know if it is.

First, some background, since I know so many people who have never attended a drive-in theater. And even if you do go, today's drive-ins aren't the same, I don't think. You generally get only one movie, as opposed to the two or more that were mandatory in the old days, and the movie is usually some big, homogenous blockbuster that might even still be playing in the multiplexes, so you aren't even getting the thrill of discovering something A) new and obscure or B) bold and exploitative. Drive-ins began to die out in the late 1970's, simply because land became so valuable that it was more profitable for drive-in owners to sell their property to developers to turn into shopping centers.

There are still a couple of drive-ins around here, but, eh, it's just not the same. It doesn't feel special, as it once did, to go to them. There are no promotions or gimmicks or music or any sense of community. You show up, pay money, park, and watch a movie. One. And you're outta there way before midnight.

Champaign-Urbana used to have two drive-ins: the Widescreen, which was on North Cunningham in Urbana, and the Twin City, which was on North Market in Champaign across the street from where Market Place Mall is now, where Heilig-Meyers is. My recollection is that the Widescreen was more likely to show mainstream movies, whereas the Twin City showed harder exploitation items. That's why my family--mom, dad, little brother and me--almost always went to the Widescreen. I only remember going to the Twin City once, in 1981 to see FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (we left before the second feature, WOLFEN). 1981 was also the year the Twin City closed, so I likely saw one of the last features there.

The thing I mostly recall about the Twin City is that you could see the screen from Interstate 74, and I'm convinced the first time I saw a naked woman was as a very young boy seeing all kinds of pink naughtiness bouncing around that silent arena on the way home from a family trip.

My folks used to take my brother and me to the Widescreen a lot. I remember sitting in the back seat in my pajamas eating popcorn out of this gigantic green Tupperware bowl and drinking Coke out of a Tupperware sippy cup. We always brought our own refreshments. This would have been in the early-to-mid 1970's. I don't know if it was on its original release or a re-release, but I clearly recall seeing PAPILLON at the Widescreen. I didn't realize it until I saw the film as a teenager, because I only remembered a beheading (PAPILLON was rated PG) and someone eating a bug. My parents were very strict about taking us to see R-rated films (there was no PG-13 then), and I didn't see one until I was about 14.

We saw a lot of Disney films at the Widescreen: GUS, THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG, NO DEPOSIT, NO RETURN, THE NORTH AVENUE IRREGULARS. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that I saw just about every Disney picture that came out during that time. I also recall my folks being mortified by a PG movie we went to. It was a western about a treasure map that was tattooed on the asses of hot women, and the heroes had to go around stripping chicks to see the tattoos. Again, when I got older, I found out that was THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER with Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh. It's on VHS, but I have never gone back and rewatched it, although I have meant to for many years. I also recall being bored silly by THE NORSEMAN, a Viking picture I was excited to see because it starred Lee Majors, then the star of one of my favorite TV shows (still is, I guess), THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN.

The Widescreen closed in 1986, and I was just going away to college by then. I transferred to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and I was lucky enough to attend the Egyptian Drive-In in Energy, a few miles from Carbondale near Marion, a few times.

I believe the Egyptian had the largest drive-in screen in the world, and my first visit there was for a double feature of RAMBO III and ROAD HOUSE. I also saw K-9 with THE DREAM TEAM there. What was wonderful about the Egyptian is that it was independently owned by the old woman who started it with her husband back in the '40s. The concession stand was covered with autographed photos of celebrities who had visited over the years. It also had a DJ booth, and this woman would entertain before and between movies by playing old rock and country records with patter in between. It was a very festive place to be, and I'm sorry I didn't go more often than I did. My last visit was to see FATHER'S DAY and AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY while I was in town to help a friend move into an apartment in Carbondale.

Gibson City hosts the Harvest Moon, which I've been to a couple of times (the last was to see THE MARK OF ZORRO), but it just doesn't hold the same allure for me. There are only 14 drive-ins left in Illinois, though, and even if I never go back to one, I hope they last forever.

Posted by Marty at 9:34 PM CDT
Post Comment | View Comments (7) | Permalink

Thursday, September 22, 2005 - 12:17 AM CDT

Name: Hal Horn

I have fond memories of the Skyview Drivein in Ardmore, OK. They would play 2 movies per night; I remember going there several times in 1980 (I saw the likes of TOM HORN and THE LONG RIDERS there after first run), and they would also have movies a couple of years old to pair with a similar movie: CADDYSHACK was paired with ANIMAL HOUSE, MEATBALLS was brought out of mothballs to pair with WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM, and the first two Cheech and Chong movies were paired. Good times. Needless to say I loved these double features.

My most vivid memory was being in the back seat for LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT circa 1975. Yeah, I was 7 years old or so when I got to see this sickie. I'm glad I grew up in the latchkey era. :-) Though the wife's revenge on her assigned biker dude scared the hell out of me, much more so than the old man and his chainsaw. LAST HOUSE left sucha vivid impression on me I can't even remember what the other show was. It was a while before my parents took me back to the drivein. I should have at least pretended to sleep through it, I guess. :)

Skyview closed around 1982 or so, and I don't think southern Oklahoma has had a drive-in since. A real shame. I know it's a new world, but I feel like the kids today are missing something.

Thursday, September 22, 2005 - 12:20 AM CDT

Name: Hal Horn

By the way, Marty, that western with the treasure map tattooed on the asses of the two ladies: was it LUST IN THE DUST? (1985, I believe) Starred Divine and Tab Hunter, but I don't remember anything else about it other than a scene like the one you described.

Thursday, September 22, 2005 - 6:07 AM CDT

Name: Robert

The first glimpse of a drive-in I ever got was in the mid-70s during summer vacation. We were spending it with relatives in Prince George, B.C. A drive-in sat at the base of a large hill, and we had to ascend the hill to reach the house. Returning late one evening I caught some glimpses of BENJI unspooling. My own first-time attending such a venue would not come until 1988, at the late Hillcrest Drive-In. That was for a double feature of KANSAS and BLOODSPORT. The Hillcrest had opened in the 1950s and ceased operations in the fall of 2003, when the owner of the land decided there was more money in condo development that an ozone theatrical experience. The operator of the Hillcrest during its last few years, who had his own fond memories of going to drive-ins in his native Trinidad, desired to build a brand new drive-in. Following some construction delays the Twilight Drive-In opened in Langley, B.C., just within the last month. They show a double feature each night, with a third film on the weekend.

Unfortunately I missed out when the drive-ins were still in relatively high numbers during the 1970s. Whereas now they tend to be season here, the older ones tended to operate year round, closing only for Christmas. Double features were standard, triple features not uncommon, and during those holiday weekends anywhere from four to five films would be scheduled for a marthon viewing experience. You might have an all-horror slate, or a mix of action and crime movies, exploitation features, and general release Hollywood hits. I think I've sent you the ad which offers up a quad-jam of Burt Reynolds in THE LONGEST YARD, Joe Don Baker in FRAMED, Lee Marvin in THE KLANSMEN, and Ken Norton in MANDINGO.

By the early 1980s these establishments were dropping like flies, killed off by the value of real estate and the explosion of home video entertainment. The Hillcrest survived the longest, and thankfully we now have the Twilight to carry on the tradition.

Thursday, September 22, 2005 - 7:40 AM CDT

Name: Marty McKee

No, it was definitely THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER. I was in college by the time LUST IN THE DUST came out.

Thursday, September 22, 2005 - 11:05 AM CDT

Name: Hal Horn

Marty: my bad, I've actually seen both films, (GUNFIGHTER and DUST) now that imdb has jarred my memory. Thanks. One thing I forgot, DUST definitely didn't have "hot" women in the scene. :) The mind loses a few things in 20 years. It's been about that long since I've seen either.

I also saw COMA at the drive in, now that I think of it; my folks had no qualms about having me in the car for R-rated movies, as I said above. Looking back I can't believe how permissive that era was, in general. Not that I'm complaining. :-)

Friday, September 23, 2005 - 7:08 AM CDT

Name: Jeff Flugel

Hey Marty! It's funny you mention your childhood drive-by drive-in flashes of hometown of Centralia, WA had a porno drive-in theater back in the 70s and 80s. It was away from the interstate but some of my friends who lived nearby got an eyeful from time-to-time.

My last drive-in experience was in upstate Pennsylvania back in 1990, where me and some British friends caught a showing of TOTAL RECALL. (I remember them being quite shocked at the film's casual and extreme violence.)

I never really went to the drive-in much when I was young, so therefore don't feel quite the pang that you do (never did like the tinny sound that came from that little speaker box that you parked next to) at their gradual demise, but I am enough of a film-buff to wish I had spent more time at drive-ins in their heyday, and to appreciate the sense of nostalgia surrounding them.

And as to your query about your musings on old TV shows...I for one am reading and enjoy your comments, both here and on Mobius. I like a lot of these shows, too..and even when I don't, your posts are still entertaining. So, keep 'em coming!

Sunday, September 25, 2005 - 10:09 PM CDT

Name: Kevin
Home Page:

Hey man, I saw Rollerball at the Twin City with the was a great moment in my young life. Fantastic blog, Marty!

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