Another Perspective

Going to the Movies, Then and Now

A drive-in offered a lot more than the thumps of surround-sound.

By 12.2.03

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In the summertimes in the 1950s, when my sister Michele and I were of grade-school age, we used to go to a drive-in theater on the then-deserted highway running north from Crystal, Minnesota, toward Osseo. Surrounded by a corrugated metal fence, the theater sprawled over some tens of acres, with a looming screen up front. Scalloped rows of metal posts marched away from the screen like the pattern of scales on a fish. On each post hung two big, heavy, silvery Deco speakers, looking like upside-down Philco console radios. These, you hooked to the half rolled down window of your car. High fidelity sound, such as it was then, boomed into the automobile, wondrously coordinated with the mouths and the moves on the screen above.

It cost a dollar per car to get in, and that was for a double feature.

Mom and Dad would take Shelley and me there at twilight. There, we'd join hundreds of other families doing the same thing. The theater offered train rides behind a miniature diesel engine pulling half a dozen open cars. A big man, his knees and elbows poking awkwardly out the top of the engine, drove us through tunnels on either side of the screen, around back and back to the front again. That little engine, a half-muffled gasoline job, made a wondrous rattle, and I used to love the smell of the exhaust in the tunnel. It'd get shut down in an EPA heartbeat today.

Movie time came with the sunset. We would retire to our car with all the other families, and with a few treats from the snack shack -- strangely, I don't recall what we ate. In the back seat, Shelley and I would change into our pajamas.

The first movie was always something for the youngsters, generally a Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedy. Disney had not yet gotten into the kiddie feature biz in a big way, so Martin and Lewis filled the bill for harmless family entertainment. By the end of the first movie, we had begun to doze. The second movie offered something racier for adults, perhaps Teacher's Pet, with Clark Gable and Doris Day, or Pillow Talk, with Rock Hudson and Doris Day (the ever-reliable Doris Day).

Shelley and I never saw a moment of those later films. We had always fallen sound asleep. Finally came the best part, when we barely, sweetly woke up as the car pulled into our driveway. That was always the last thing we remembered. Mom and Dad would pick us up and put us into our beds, and we'd never know.

Last weekend, the long Thanksgiving weekend, found our two boys, Bud at nine years old and Joe at four, plus a friend of Bud's, Liam, visiting for a sleepover, getting all cranked up and mad at each other in the middle of the afternoon. We took the whole crew to the neighborhood multiplex to see Master and Commander.

"Is this age-appropriate?" Bud asked, with a tone of belligerence, as we rushed to make the 3:20 show.

"No," said Sally firmly.

And no, it probably wasn't, though it was exactly the kind of movie I would have loved as a nine-year-old, besotted with seafaring tales as I was. The makers must have known that children would come, because they cut away from the goriest parts, focusing instead on the characters' faces in extremis.

Master and Commander featured some version of ultra-stereo boombox sound, which would have been unbearable in the old drive-in. ("Cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them, volleyed and thundered" -- I don't think Tennyson had surround-sound in mind.)

Good stuff, though, very good stuff.

"I think that's the first two and a half hour movie I've seen in more than a year," Sally said, remembering our other excursions to shows like Finding Nemo and Jungle Book, Part 2.

It cost $23 for the tickets and $18.11 for two medium popcorns and three small sodas. And when we got home, the boys headed straight for the TV, except that we forbid it.

Not for the first time did I recall Mark Helprin's defining line in Bob Dole's 1996 acceptance speech at the GOP convention, about the old days.

"I remember, and it was better."

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.