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Pictures in the Rear View Mirror
Susan Hornfeld : Movies at the Starlight Drive-in

Pictures in the Rear View Mirror

Movies at the Starlight Drive-in

By Susan Hornfeld

Putting the finishing touches on my make-up and checking my flip in the mirror, I repeat to myself the most important thing to remember about my date; the name and synopsis of the movie that is playing downtown tonight, just in case. The way I see it, ours is a little white lie; because we are going to the movies; just not the one downtown. We’re going to the drive-in.

It all started back when

My love affair with the drive-in started just after I learned to walk. Mom and Dad would put my sister and me in our footie pajamas, load us in the car and head for the drive-in movies near the beach. Like everyone else we waited patiently in the snaking line before reaching the ticket booth. Though it was still light, and the movie wouldn’t start for almost an hour, cars crisscrossed the lot jockeying for just the right position facing the screen. Ticket in hand, my Dad was now free to look for THE perfect spot.

If you have been to the drive-in you know that best spot is a matter of personal preference. My Dad, the engineer, liked to park at the epicenter of the field. That sited our car halfway between the movie screen and the concession stand. By his calculations and experience, this position made for the best view of the towering screen without leaning forward, lying backwards, or hanging our heads out the window to get an unobstructed view. And with two little girls, proximity to the snack bar’s bathroom was a necessity.

Once the quadrant was selected, the next most important requisite was testing the speaker for clean sound with no static. The theater provided a type of sound check by playing popular music prior to the start of the show. If the speaker in our spot was not acceptable, Dad would pull out and work his way across the row until he found the best one. After hooking the bulky silver speaker over the lip of the car window, you could see the tension born of the effort he made to find THE parking place, dissipating.

Just Follow the Dancing Hotdogs

Once the technical portion of the operation was over, we waited only long enough for Dad to click off the ignition, and for the Ford motor to stop knocking before erupting into excited calls for hot dogs, popcorn, soda, and candy. As soon as the preferences of each of us had been made clear, it was usually Mom who fetched the food. She was the best at discerning which snacks did the least harm and had the most nutrition, no easy task at a drive-in concession stand. In an effort to contain the high jinks fizzing over in the back seat, Dad launched into a duet with the speaker as it spewed out one of his favorite songs, “Love Letters in the Sand.” Before the next tune rang out, Mom appeared, both arms laden with treats. Moving the speaker to his lap for the operation, Dad prepared to receive the cardboard carrying trays through his window so Mom could resume her seat and dispense the food.

By now twilight was stealing onto the field and the screen came to life with dancing hot dogs, popping corn, and singing candy bars. For the next few minutes the night would ring with the squeak of slowing swings, the pounding footfalls of snack bar latecomers, the short sharp horn blasts of late arrivals desperate to find their spot before the movie started.

Above this din was the call of a Mom who had misplaced Jimmy during the run up to the movie. But as the last child found their way back to the car, the dancing hotdogs gave way to a preview of coming attractions. Though still not fully dark, the screen began to shimmer with a flickering light. Twenty foot actors moved across the bright square, dissected by text proclaiming the highlights of each coming attraction.

The Siren Call of the Giant Screen

Mesmerized, my sister and I sat back staring with open mouths as the credits rolled across the screen. Reaching into my popcorn box my fingers found only the cardboard bottom, rather than the expected buttery kernels. When I asked Mom to get me some more, she shushed me saying that I would have to wait until Intermission. When I looked at my sister, she pulled her popcorn out of my reach sending the clear message that she would not be sharing hers with me. I screwed up my face in preparation for crying, but thought better of it as Marilyn Monroe made her first appearance on the screen in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Like most kids at the drive-in I slept through the first half of the movie, but woke immediately when the Intermission snack bar advertisements began. By now I was thirsty and had to go to the bathroom. (What did you expect, I was five and had eaten a box of popcorn almost as big as me and downed a coke over an hour ago) So Dad went for the snack refill, and Mom took us to the bathroom. With hundreds of kids in the same situation, the lines were long and Mom nervously checked the screen for the countdown to the end of intermission. Once back in the car, I opened the proffered box of malted milk ball, popped one into my mouth and snuggled into my corner of the back seat. The last thing I remember before succumbing again to sleep was the desperate whisper of a man clutching a fistful of food searching for his car in the sea of darkened vehicles.

When next I awoke, I was in my bed at home and judging by the light slanting in through the window, it was morning. Not only had I slept through the rest of the movie, but also the ride home and the transfer to my bed. Pulling on my shorts and top I ran into the kitchen begging to know when we could go the drive-in again. With a yawn, my Mom gave the quintessential Mother answer of, “We’ll see.”

Still Magic After All These Years

It was with this same child-like anticipation of drive-in magic that I waited for my date. As my folks waved us off, we started towards downtown and the “Planet of the Apes”, but hung a right at the next crossroads and headed for the drive-in screening of the “Valley of the Dolls.”

The Drive-in, or “passion pit” as my Dad called it, had taken a bad rap in the intervening years, but I found it to be just as enchanting at 16 as it was when I was five. Except now it held the added value of being that rare place where my boyfriend and I could sit close, talk and laugh together in quiet voices, and indulge in intermittent kisses that never progressed to the level of contact my Dad was so worried about.

True, the rickety playground was gone, and hordes of children in footed pajamas were missing. But sprinkled in among tonight’s crowded sea of Malibus and Cameros, were teenagers, just like me, remembering the magic of the drive-in they first discovered in the backseats of the 1950’s Fords of their childhood.

Though I am generally an obedient daughter, I just couldn’t muster any guilt about our deception. I was right where I wanted to be. Watching the mosquito coil burn down on the dash, feeling the breeze pick up and slip though the car from window to window, straining to hear through the tinny speaker, and following as the giants of the screen strode back and forth across the windshield. Maybe it was bad, but it was worth it.

Besides, if I closed my eyes I was five again, just nodding off, but alert enough to see Mom slide across the seat snuggling up to my Dad as he put his arm around her and pulled her in close for a kiss. In a way you could say that I was just following an old family tradition; one in which drive-in movies played a starring role. •

© 2012 Susan Hornfeld. All rights reserved.

Susan Hornfeld lives in Michigan with her husband Roy and Baylee, the dog. More »