Some people â€“ figuratively-speaking â€“ 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, Iâ€™m quite aware half-of-our readers havenâ€™t a clue what Iâ€™m talking about).
It was the Summer of 1987. Iâ€™d just returned from what was likely my last family holiday – after all, Iâ€™d just turned thirteen, and it ainâ€™t cool to be hanginâ€™ with the oldâ€™s when youâ€™re that age, yo! â€“ at the coast somewhere. Good holiday too from memory â€“ I was swimming with Dolphins, caught â€œSpaceballsâ€ at the local theater (remember seeing â€œLeonard Part 6â€ and â€œSuperman IV : The Quest for Peaceâ€ the same week â€“ but letâ€™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 â€“ money to play the computer games in the caravan park recreation room.
Iâ€™d decided that when I returned from whatever-the-heck-that-place-was-called I was going to get a job â€“ and it wouldnâ€™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 didnâ€™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.
(Iâ€™d been to the Drive-In quite a few times in my younger years. My earliest memory of one involved seeing a â€˜glimpseâ€™ of 1980â€™s â€œFlash Gordonâ€ play on a screen as we turned a corner. Later, I remember actually being taken â€˜inside the fenceâ€™ to see â€œThe Pirate Movieâ€ â€“ remember the Christopher Atkins/Kristy McNichol thing?. And in later years Iâ€™d seen everything from â€œKing Solomonâ€™s Minesâ€ to â€œCrocodile Dundeeâ€ and â€œTop Gunâ€ at the Drive-In).
And it worked. The elderly owner of the theater (he was about 80 at the time â€“ 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 jobâ€™s needed doing around the Drive-In Iâ€™d be offered a lifetime Gold Pass to the Drive-In (for family, friends â€“ whoever was with me) and unlimited Coke (not the snowy kind).
I started that night. It may have been a Thursday â€“ Iâ€™m not quite sure. What I do remember is the movie that was showing â€“ it was â€œMasters of the Universeâ€, the poorly-received film adaptation of a popular cartoon series screening at the time. Dolph Lundgren starred alongside â€˜thenâ€™ â€œFamily Tiesâ€ hottie Courteney Cox.
My duties that night varied â€“ 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 â€˜Coming Attractionsâ€™ 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 â€“ that young guy whoâ€™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 someoneâ€™s ass was pressed against the wheel), Iâ€™d have to stick my light in their direction like a nosy Night Watchman.
And as the monthâ€™s progressed, and I became a permanent fixture at the Drive-In (Iâ€™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 couldnâ€™t tell you anything showing beyond that point is because the manager hadnâ€™t booked them in yet), Iâ€™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 â€œThe Untouchablesâ€ 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 â€“ Iâ€™d go to the Drive-In with my friends. They thought it was great. Weâ€™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 â€“ I remember taking a girl to see â€œCry Babyâ€ (kinda romantic right? Sitting out on a blanket under the stars watching a John Waters flick!?), and another time â€œIf Looks Could Killâ€ (she was obsessed with Richard Grieco from memory) and another time taking two older girls with me to see â€œThe Godfather IIIâ€ and â€œKing Ralphâ€ â€“ 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. Iâ€™d even go down there (I say â€˜down thereâ€™ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ with bells on. Over the course of the next few years Iâ€™d see about four hundred films, meet some of the townâ€™s wackiest and whoriest, and witness the demise of the James Bond series (Believe there were about two cars in the night â€œLicense to Killâ€ aired).
It was 1991 when I finally said goodbye to my job â€“ and by that stage it was a proper job; my torch may have even had my name sticky taped to the side â€“ and not by choice. The Drive-In had been through some rough patches (theyâ€™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 didnâ€™t come anymore. It couldâ€™ve been the fact that the managerâ€™s relationships with the distributors had started to sour (Iâ€™ve heard rumours he owed them quite a bit of money) and as a consequence he couldnâ€™t get any new release films (I recall him actually screening â€œRent-A-Copâ€ with Burt Reynolds a week after it hit home video), and I donâ€™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.
Iâ€™d later work in a couple of cinemas as an usher â€“ I even became a film booker (theyâ€™re the guys that decides what films will be showing at a given venue) for one â€“ and even, very briefly, another Drive-In, but Iâ€™d never return to the wonderment of working that torch. The batteries had gone dead in the thing. Non-rechargeable.
Drive-Inâ€™s seem to be slowly coming backâ€¦ 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 heâ€™s done a beautiful job of restoring it. Iâ€™d go so far as to say itâ€™s even more presentable than some of the local multiplexes. And the food? Shits all over the commercial chain garbage. Itâ€™s also good value, food and the film â€“ 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 â€“ Iâ€™m paraphrasing â€“ â€œMan, 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?â€
And here lies my answer.