Back To The Drive In!

Posted: May 18, 2014 in The Roper Files
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During the course of the last twenty or so years just remembering the drive in theater experience has served little or no purpose other than to make me just feel old. Younger people have NO idea what it was like for a community to come together under the stars, sit on the tailgates of their pickup trucks, SUVs and watch a movie. The combined smell of hot buttered popcorn, burning PIC coils, the sound of tinny country music coming from those aluminum speakers mounted on the car windows in between the movies….all of these things have become shadowy fragmented memories in the dusty cob-webbed part of my mind; kids today have no idea what this was like.

During the 80s and early 90s the multiplex theaters, cable TV, home video, the advent of the home theater system and the ease of picking up a movie at the video store collectively nibbled away at any appeal the drive in theater could have ever had for most families and once the drive ins one by one disappeared they turned on each other until only Netflix and Redbox remained standing. Today picking up a movie to take home and slip into the DVD/BluRay player has become as sterile an act as buying a soft drink from a vending machine and considering the average film Hollywood chooses to offer these days is just a tad bit more entertaining.

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I’ve written about this subject here before on my humble little blog. The general response I get goes along the lines of “ I “watched” most of the movies from the back seat” (hyuk hyuk) I’ve driven all over Texas taking photos of what’s left of old abandoned drive ins for years and felt like an archeologist doing it; taking snapshots of decaying screens and crumbling snack bars, slabs of concrete where ticket booths once stood, tiles where the restrooms once were, sawed-off poles where speakers were once mounted.

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Sometimes I get chased off by homeless people who have moved into the empty projection booths and claimed them as their “turf” or security guards who think I am scavenging for scrap metal to sell. I’ve tried in vain to explain to puzzled police officers what I was doing there; my explanation about taking photos of a vacant lot where a drive in used to be from some time before when the still-wet-behind-the-ears police officer half my age was even born doesn’t always “wash” “Come on, be honest; what are you REALLY doing here?” As the late great Rodney Dangerfield used to say: “It ain’t easy being me.”

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The last functioning drive in here in Fort Worth was the Mansfield; I can even remember the last double feature they had: ALIENS 3 and BATMAN RETURNS (goddam I’m feeling old right now) Somewhere around 1992 the owner called it quits, tore down the screens and the snack bar and only a crumbling pile of roofing tiles sits where the ticket booth was today. And here in the second largest state in the US according to http://www.drive-ins.com/ only a mere seventeen drive-ins remain open today. But fortunately one of them includes The Coyote here in Fort Worth which opened last year. Needless to say I’m sure I wasn’t alone when I was skeptical about its potential to be commercially viable for multiple reasons but if the long slow-moving line of cars, trucks and SUVs at the ticket booth last night was any indicator, it might just make it.

As much as I cherish the drive in experience, I had been waiting for just the right movie before I would pry my ass off the futon and go check out the Coyote. To me a “drive-in movie” has to have one or more of three main elements: sex, violence or monsters and so far the Coyote has catered to a family audience showing films like THE BUTLER which was a good film but not by my definition a drive in movie. However this week I folded when I noticed the GODZILLA re-make on the bill. A good cheesy monster movie on the big screen under the starry Texas sky? I am there! We bought tickets in advance online ($16) tossed chairs and a portable radio into the car and off we went.

The Coyote is a three-screen theater on a large plot of land just north of downtown Fort Worth and appears to be a very well-run operation that employs a lot of people. It’s very glitzy with lots of festive colored lights, a huge snack bar, restrooms designed for crowds ( a big plus) and even has a place for bands to play by the snack bar while the crowds wait for it to get dark enough for the movie to start. I remember walking to the snack bar at the Mansfield drive in with my friend Tom back right before they closed and looking at the roof and thinking how cool it would be to have bands playing on the roof (“Rock and Roll drive-in!”) The drive in was miles from the nearest residence and there was no one else to disturb; well the Coyote has taken my idea and run with it apparently.

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The snack bar has a large variety of semi-reasonably priced snacks and even a wet bar for those so inclined. Several off-duty members of the FWPD direct traffic in and out of the drive-in and there appeared to be numerous staff members everywhere to help direct traffic, answer questions and otherwise make sure the evening went well and as planned for everyone. The place was packed when we got there and we had to drive around for a few minutes to find a decent place to park but found one and we got settled in in no time.

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I sat the folding chairs in front of the car, lit PIC mosquito coils, sprayed the wife and I down with repellent (the Trinity river flows not far from the Coyote) , bought a large popcorn and two large drinks ($16 total), positioned the boombox behind us on the car hood and dialed it into the theaters station. Let the movie begin! All around us families were doing pretty much the same thing; I was overcome with a glowing sense of nostalgia looking at the kids sitting on pickup truck tailgates waiting for sundown so the movie could start. The drive-in was packed with a wide cross-section of people of all races and creeds and everyone seemed to be in a good mood. Despite being packed into a small space, everyone I saw was smiling; I didn’t see anyone pushing, shoving or otherwise behaving in any rude fashion whatsoever. The drive-in was in some strange way restoring my faith in mankind. This is the way our society is supposed to work.

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The sun finally went down and the movie began. Godzilla lumbered across the big screen, fought two other monsters and triumphantly sauntered off into the ocean presumably to return for future sequels two hours later. I didn’t for once mind the special effects being CGI instead of the guy in the big floppy rubber suit; it was nice to sit under the starry Texas sky once again and watch monsters on a drive in screen for the first time in over twenty years. My wife and I sat next to each other in our chairs, held hands and smiled at each other as the monsters roared and battled each other on the giant screen. This is the way movies were intended to be watched.

 

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