I’ve written before on this site about the new drive-in theater that has opened near where I live; the Coyote just north of downtown Fort Worth. They opened in 2013 with three screens and business has been so successful for them they have erected a fourth screen in the last year. Since they cater to families anxious to share the nostalgia with their kids, the Coyote pretty much only shows “family films”.
They are the one, the only, the sole drive-in theater within an hour’s drive of my home. There are three more in North Texas that I am aware of but they are all a considerable driving distance from my house. The Coyote caters hard to families, running mostly PG family movies. Off-duty police officers provide security and they reserve the right to search your vehicle. They have the only drive-in game in town and market themselves as a novelty form of family entertainment.
We had our nine-year-old grandson staying with us again this summer and two of my wife’s older children spent a couple of weeks with us during the latter half of August. Of course we dragged them to the drive-in theater a couple of times while they were here since drive-ins are even scarcer in Canada than they are here. And boy have I been getting caught up on my “family films”: this summer alone I have sat through MINIONS, INSIDE OUT and most recently we took the kids to see SHAUN THE SHEEP.
Now mind you I actually LIKED Shaun the Sheep in spite of it being a “family film” but as we sat in our lawn chairs broiling in the Texas summer heat (it’s still hot here even after the sun goes down) my mind couldn’t help but drift back to the early 80s when Joe Bob Briggs still had his column in the Dallas Times Herald and the few remaining drive-ins left in the Dallas/Fort Worth area DIDN’T cater to families.
In the early 80s I had a friend named Tom who purchased a used1976 VW camper van from an attorney. It had a fridge, a 4-burner stove and the top popped open so that six people could watch a movie at the drive in in perfect comfort. We began to scout out the remaining drive-ins in the DFW area.
The drive-ins by this point had endured the advent of cable TV and the mass realization of millions of former film goers that they could run the “audio out” cables on their VCRs into their stereo receivers and turn their living rooms into state-of-the-art theaters. And then there was the video stores which in the early 80s began popping up everywhere; people could rent movies for as little as a dollar. Why drag the whole family to the drive in and pay $4 a head to see THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or MAD MAX when they could rent the movie for the whole family for a dollar? The drive-ins by the mid 80s were all pretty much in their death throes and they knew it. Eventually they just quit trying; sometimes they would get a pair of movies that became stock features, change the B-features they were paired with from week to week and switch screens every week as if the regulars like us wouldn’t notice. (“Rambo AGAIN?”)
It was about this time we noticed there was a sub-genre of films that would occasionally pop up on the drive-in screen; movies with an extra dose of sex and violence. Some would call them exploitation films; we called them “drive-in movies” though because they were meant to be shown in drive-ins or other such theaters that were desperate to sell admission tickets.
Unless they were showing something everyone wanted to see (a first run of a FRIDAY THE 13th sequel or cult favorites like THE ROAD WARRIOR) it wasn’t unusual for Tom and I to pull into the drive in theater and see the place nearly empty. It was shocking to pull in and see the theater packed in fact on the rare nights that happened.
And security was lax to put it lightly. The only time I ever saw police officers at the drive-in was at the entrance to the four-screen Century in Grand Prairie where officers stationed at the box office made everyone open their trunks and ice chests; weapons and drinks in glass containers were forbidden. A case of beer in aluminum cans? Enjoy the show, boys.
Unlike the Coyote who have a strict policy on outside food and drinks we would load up on our own liquid refreshments before entering and we also would take frozen dinners in those boiling bags and heat them up in a pot of boiling water on Toms stove. Sometimes we fixed our own hot dogs as well but we always made our way to the snack bar for a large tub of popcorn at some point of the evening. No one ever searched our vehicles; they didn’t want to scare off the ever-shrinking number of paying customers with such Gestapo tactics.
One night we pulled into the drive-in and were flabbergasted to see the place packed to capacity for THE RIGHT STUFF. Another night we pulled into a double feature of the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD billed with the infamous BLOODSUCKING FREAKS only to find it hard to get a parking spot; the place was packed. As Night ended and Bloodsucking Freaks began ( BF is basically 90 minutes of nude women being systematically tortured; the management obviously had NO idea just how offensive it really was when they booked it) ; five minutes into the film and the car engines started and the brake lights came on in near-unison as carloads of horrified families sped for the exit. (“ I think the kids done seen enough of THIS one!”) Within mere minutes the drive-in was almost empty we were the sole members of the audience.
However the drive-ins couldn’t afford to exist forever just for the sole pleasure of Tom and I; by the mid 80s the handwriting was on the wall. One drive-in after another closed. First our beloved Cherry Lane, then the Southside Twin. The lone hold-out was the Mansfield which struggled against diminishing crowds until 1992, then they too called it quits. The screens were torn down, the snack bars and ticket booths bulldozed and the properties either became flea markets, WalMarts or were leased to gas drilling companies. It saddened me to see them go, but there was nothing I could do about it.
For years after that if I wanted to see movies it was either rent them from the video store, wait until they played on cable or just flat out buy them. I got my first DVD player in 2000 and my gigantic VHS collection began to be replaced by a growing number of DVDs, which began to seem like a bad crack habit after a while.
In 2013 the Coyote was erected with three screens and a fourth added in 2015. Most of what they run are family films with a big emphasis on Pixar and Marvel films. All four lots are usually packed to capacity seven nights a week. It’s a joy and a privilege taking the grandson and my stepchildren to experience the thrill of watching movies under the starry Texas sky.
But once in a while I still imagine I can see the opening scenes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre flickering in all of their 35mm glory on the screen back-lit by the red glowing Texas sunset on the brand-new screen of the Coyote. Or I can close my eyes and imagine hearing the Ennio Morricone soundtrack of The Good The Bad and the Ugly playing on tinny aluminum speakers as a faint whiff of popcorn drifts through the air. I could try to explain these things to the kiddos but it’s probably best not to even try…