Caffeinated Clint : Torchboy at 13

Some people – figuratively-speaking – grow up on a football field, some in a ballet studio, others on a cricket mound. I grew up at a Drive-In Theater. (And yeah, I’m quite aware half-of-our readers haven’t a clue what I’m talking about).

It was the Summer of 1987. I’d just returned from what was likely my last family holiday – after all, I’d just turned thirteen, and it ain’t cool to be hangin’ with the old’s when you’re that age, yo! – at the coast somewhere. Good holiday too from memory – I was swimming with Dolphins, caught “Spaceballs” at the local theater (remember seeing “Leonard Part 6” and “Superman IV : The Quest for Peace” the same week – but let’s leave them out for the sake of keeping this story warm-and-fuzzy), surfed the big waves at the beach, and replayed the terrific new album from Icehouse in my tent. There was only one thing missing – money to play the computer games in the caravan park recreation room.

I’d decided that when I returned from whatever-the-heck-that-place-was-called I was going to get a job – and it wouldn’t involve searing my eyebrows off from cooking fatty chicken on blistering heat (that would come later in life). Nope, I was going to get a job at the local drive-in theater. I didn’t know if there were jobs going, or even if I was too young for such a position, but I was determined one-way-or-another not to walk away from the open-air theater without some form of employment.

(I’d been to the Drive-In quite a few times in my younger years. My earliest memory of one involved seeing a ‘glimpse’ of 1980’s “Flash Gordon” play on a screen as we turned a corner. Later, I remember actually being taken ‘inside the fence’ to see “The Pirate Movie” – remember the Christopher Atkins/Kristy McNichol thing?. And in later years I’d seen everything from “King Solomon’s Mines” to “Crocodile Dundee” and “Top Gun” at the Drive-In).

And it worked. The elderly owner of the theater (he was about 80 at the time – no joke, a former racing car-driver) agreed to give me some of employment. It was illegal for him to be employing me at such a young age (you had to be sixteen in order to be paid a wage) but in exchange for whatever odd job’s needed doing around the Drive-In I’d be offered a lifetime Gold Pass to the Drive-In (for family, friends – whoever was with me) and unlimited Coke (not the snowy kind).

I started that night. It may have been a Thursday – I’m not quite sure. What I do remember is the movie that was showing – it was “Masters of the Universe”, the poorly-received film adaptation of a popular cartoon series screening at the time. Dolph Lundgren starred alongside ‘then’ “Family Ties” hottie Courteney Cox.
My duties that night varied – I think I was taught how to work the slide machine at one stage (changing the advertisements before the movie), shown how to make a ‘Coming Attractions’ catalog (from press kits), and ultimately, forced out into the dark, with a torch, to keep an eye on the cars.

Yes, I was that guy – that young guy who’d walk up to your car, knock on your window, shine a torch in and suddenly get a glimpse of your boob.

It was my job. I had to. Whenever someone would flick their lights up on the screen for no reason at all, or beer their horn (usually becomes someone’s ass was pressed against the wheel), I’d have to stick my light in their direction like a nosy Night Watchman.

And as the month’s progressed, and I became a permanent fixture at the Drive-In (I’d immersed myself in that world so much that I could tell you the double features for the next six months – - and the only reason I couldn’t tell you anything showing beyond that point is because the manager hadn’t booked them in yet), I’d start to take my job pretty gravely. I was the Paul Blart of the Stargazer. Never again would a horny young couple think of 69ing whilst “The Untouchables” was playing in front of them. Never would kids think of sneaking into the Drive-In in the boot of a car. Never would kids try to sneak in through the fence to watch whatever Zalman King movie was showing that week.

I was pretty popular there for a while. On my nights off from work – I’d go to the Drive-In with my friends. They thought it was great. We’d go down there on our bikes (Blankets, Pillows and Potato Chips in a big) and watch whatever was showing. I even took a couple of dates there – I remember taking a girl to see “Cry Baby” (kinda romantic right? Sitting out on a blanket under the stars watching a John Waters flick!?), and another time “If Looks Could Kill” (she was obsessed with Richard Grieco from memory) and another time taking two older girls with me to see “The Godfather III” and “King Ralph” – strange double feature now I think back; even stranger that these sixteen year-olds wanting to kick with a kid quite a few years younger. I’d even go down there (I say ‘down there’ because we lived atop of a hill and the Drive-In was at the bottom of it; it was a bitch walking back up the hill every night I tell ya) to watch films when it was raining – I remember sitting under the projection booth (which shielded the rain) whilst watching some poor Ralph Macchio movie one evening. And Dusk-to-Dawn Movie Marathons? I was there – with bells on. Over the course of the next few years I’d see about four hundred films, meet some of the town’s wackiest and whoriest, and witness the demise of the James Bond series (Believe there were about two cars in the night “License to Kill” aired).

It was 1991 when I finally said goodbye to my job – and by that stage it was a proper job; my torch may have even had my name sticky taped to the side – and not by choice. The Drive-In had been through some rough patches (they’d always get the films much later than the local Village cinema, so that never helped with turnout) but it had really hit rock bottom. People just didn’t come anymore. It could’ve been the fact that the manager’s relationships with the distributors had started to sour (I’ve heard rumours he owed them quite a bit of money) and as a consequence he couldn’t get any new release films (I recall him actually screening “Rent-A-Cop” with Burt Reynolds a week after it hit home video), and I don’t doubt that played a part in its ruin, but I think people just lost interest in the Drive-In. It was no longer a tourist attraction. The novelty had worn off. Nobody wanted to hang a clunky speaker from their car window anymore (though now you just tune your radio to get the sound of the film); Nobody wanted to wait a month to see the new Tom Selleck pic.

I’d later work in a couple of cinemas as an usher – I even became a film booker (they’re the guys that decides what films will be showing at a given venue) for one – and even, very briefly, another Drive-In, but I’d never return to the wonderment of working that torch. The batteries had gone dead in the thing. Non-rechargeable.

Drive-In’s seem to be slowly coming back… slowly. A friend of mine has one here in Melbourne and it does very, very well. I think it does well because not only is it one of the only theaters in the area (well, within 20 minutes of our suburb anyway) but he’s done a beautiful job of restoring it. I’d go so far as to say it’s even more presentable than some of the local multiplexes. And the food? Shits all over the commercial chain garbage. It’s also good value, food and the film – two films for twelve bucks. Pretty damn good.

I bring up the subject of my youth and working at the Drive-In theater because of an email I received from a producer friend this week. He wrote – I’m paraphrasing – “Man, I just drove 50 miles to go to a Drive-In theater! It was amazing! It was brilliant! They had a double feature on for nix! Have you ever been to one?”

And here lies my answer.