In the brightly-lit diner-like concession stand, there were photos of all the icons—James Dean, Roy Rogers, the Mouseketeers, Ozzie and Harriet, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and beyond. Behind the counter, the ubiquitous popcorn ($1.95 for a large), hot dogs, French fries, Coke, cotton candy, that great American cuisine that fit the size of the customers inside. There was a pinball machine, a jukebox and Jerry Lee Lewis blasting over the speakers. Outside, kids were swinging on the swings in front of the giant screen, cars were parked on little mounds with boxed speakers hanging from the window attached by wire to poles. The children sat in the front seats, the parents, and for a different reason, the teenagers, in the back. The screen lit up and lo and behold, there’s Mickey Mouse, larger than life! The drive-in movie had begun.
Is this a memory from the 1950’s when I first experienced the thrill, magic and downright weirdness of drive-in movies? It could be. But it actually is from last night at the Cherry Bowl Drive-in Theater in Honor, Michigan, where my daughter, niece and I fulfilled an annual tradition to see whatever they had playing—in this case, Brave and Spiderman. The first, a Pixar animation, was tolerably good given our low expectations and the second we don’t know. Since “dusk” in Michigan is 10 pm, we opted out of the double feature and Spiderman with its midnight start time. My daughter (27) and niece (17) are just getting too old to make it through. J
The Cherry Bowl is an extraordinary 59 years old, a last gasp of a bygone era holding on to every nostalgic string it can pull. (Call their number —231-325-3413—to get a taste of their hyper-50’s circus-barker like invitation, almost two minutes of chatter before they tell you what’s playing.) It boasts “family entertainment” only (G and PG), though often that means violence is fine, but sex a no-no. Approaching the kiosk, there are four Burma Shave-type signs:
1) We welcome children
2) But we have none to spare
3) So when you drive inside
4) Please drive with extra care.
Ticket per person is $8.50 (for a double-feature, that’s a bargain these days!), you can choose between the umbilical cord speaker or turn on your radio and hope your battery doesn’t die and opt to bring beach chairs and sit outside your car.
In a lifetime of work related to teaching and music, I sometimes wish I could talk about my years as a busboy, apple-picker or construction worker, but truth be told, I’ve only had one job unrelated to my chosen field and that was at 16-years old in Berea, Ohio— as an usher at a drive-in movie theater. Every summer of my high school years, I visited my friend Bruce Crookston and when he got this summer job, he managed to get me hired also, at a whopping $0.75 an hour. We arrived about an hour before the movie, changed the towels in the bathroom, walked the aisles turning all the knobs to off so the sound from empty speakers wouldn’t disturb the neighbors, reported broken speakers (amazing how many drove off and forgot to disconnect the speaker) and picked up trash. Once the movie started, we roamed around for a while looking for trouble spots or shining our flashlights into backseats hoping to vicariously experience a little action and then mostly sat and watched the same motorcyle picture for six nights straight until we had memorized all the dialogue.
On weekends, we went into our high-action mode, equipped with cool walkie-talkies and entrusted with the responsibility of not letting in more cars than there was room for. One person was out in the field scouring parking spots, another at the top of the hill by the kiosk awaiting instructions about what was available and a third at the bottom of the hill waiting to hear where they were available and directing the cars with a flashlight. If anyone seemed too suspicious, we did the trunk check, often to find some sexy giggy girls awaiting their release.
I’m sure there are scores of books written about how the automobile changed history. All the decisions to build roads instead of more railroad tracks, the birth of the commuter and subsequent suburbs, the death of the small town downtown in favor of driving to the mall on the outskirts, drive-in fast-food, drive-through banks, drive-in movies (!), the creation of factory jobs and whole cities (Detroit), the outsourcing of those jobs (see Michael Moore’s Roger and Me), the need for more fossil fuel and the subsequent wars. Politically and ecologically, it has been an unqualified disaster. But who could have resisted our ancient urge to move and travel and exchange goods and feel independent, as free as the roads and gas stations available could make us?
Culturally and mythologically, the car has been a potent force in America. Travels with Charley, On the Road, It Happened One Night, family vacations piled in the car, hitchhiking, the post-graduate road trip. The car indeed became our mobile home, where we lived whole lives—carried on conversations where no one could get up from the dinner table, listened to music on the radio (and later four-track or cassettes or CD’s or I-Pod plug-ins) or books on tape, thought our solitary thoughts, looked in wonder at the passing landscape or explored the mystery of procreation while parking up at Lover’s Lane or at—the drive-in movie.
Though cars are everywhere these days, as a shaper of culture, we’d be hard pressed to find something more American. As these blogs testify, I’m a world citizen, appreciative of and enchanted by the ringing of the gamelan in a moonlit night in Bali, the gentle sounds of bossa nova on a Rio beach, the blare of bagpipes on a Scottish moor, the exuberant polyrhythms of drums and bells in a Ghana marketplace.
But none of it strikes home quite as deep as a trip to the drive-in movie on a summer’s night in Michigan.