Now Playing: DRIVE-IN MOVIE 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.