Saturday, September 8, 2012

Growing Up at the Drive-In With Jimmy Stewart and Friends

I grew up at a drive-in theater, literally. A few years after my dad returned from WWII, my great uncle decided to buy land and build a drive-in movie theater outside our home town of Galesburg, Illinois. It was 1948 and this new outside movie idea was really catching on.

          It was a simpler time and people enjoyed simpler entertainment, but it left me with wonderful memories and a half-cocked belief that anything could happen if you dreamed big enough and were part of a movie. I'm sure many of my ideas about love, honor, values, heroism, courage, character, dreams, and even death came from those early movies.

          I was probably six by the time I was old enough to remember much about this drive-in theater my father managed. It was 1952 and the drive-in was a huge draw, particularly on weekend nights.

          As manager, my father booked the shows, trained the high school boys that worked in the concession stand, maintained the grounds, checked on the films to make sure they had been sent in or out, ordered the supplies for the concession stand, kept an eye on the ticket booth, and--along with a few other ushers--walked the perimeters checking for "problems," like alcohol (which was illegal on the grounds), or the possibility that children were being conceived. It was a family-centered place, you know!

          During those years when our family owned the theater, it was extremely clean and well maintained. Picnic tables and a playground were added near the screen so kids would have something to do before the show. The policy was to charge for adult tickets but kids got in free. This did cause an occasional problem with movie companies who produced children's movies and who did not believe in free tickets for children.

          I'm sure I was oblivious to all of my father's headaches and responsibilities because I simply saw this as a marvelous playground. At night my mom would put my brother and me in pajamas and we'd go to the show, often falling asleep in the back seat before it was over.

          Even now, sixty years later, I can hear the sound of the car tires as we turned off Losey Street and onto the whirring brick sound of Kellogg Street, waking me up because, even in sleep, I knew we were almost home. It's a distinctive sound that stays in my memory forever.

I remember watching The Greatest Show on Earth seven times in a row, and going back home each day to have my own circus parade with my friends, around and around the block. I grew up with Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Kirk Douglas, Cary Grant, Charlton Heston, Lauren Bacall, Sophia Loren, Humphrey Bogart, Debbie Reynolds, Grace Kelly, Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, and so many others. I still can remember the sad ending of The Benny Goodman Story or the courage of Jimmy Stewart in The Spirit of St. Louis. I rode around the arena with Ben-Hur, was terrified with Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window and Vertigo, laughed with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemon, and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, and was entranced by John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man.

          I can still see in my mind, on the walls of my father's office within the screen building, wonderful movie posters, probably considered collectibles these days. To me they were part of the enchanting place that was "the movies."

          We--my brother and I--shared other memories too.  Some nights after my dad had to close the place at one or one-thirty a.m., we'd drive to the bank with the night's receipts, a policeman following behind us. Then all of us would go to a restaurant and have breakfast. I'm sure if a parent were to do this today with his six-year-old, people would be calling DCFS. A child out in a restaurant at 2 a.m.? But I still remember fondly those summer breakfasts at the Huddle Restaurant. Even the policeman, Bill Allison, would often join us.

          The sound of the car tires, the gray metal speaker sitting on the front car window, the fireflies dancing around just after dusk, the shadows as people moved back and forth past our car to the concession stand, the smell of popcorn, and the triangle of light as the projector sent the film onto the huge screen: these are my precious memories of growing up in a small town in the 1950s.


  1. How thrilling! I miss nighttime in a small town.... (One of my favorite movies is Some Like It Hot).

  2. Thanks, Paula, for the comment. I saw Some Like It Hot a few years ago at the Orpheum Theatre in Galesburg and it hadn't lost any of its humor or effectiveness. Great movie!

  3. Yes, I remember "The Greatest Show on Earth" It seems we saw it at least 3 or 4 years in a row.
    My Dad also worked on the expansion of the screen so that the wider movies could be shown!
    Remember people chasing their spotlights over the blank screen before the movie started? Why did people have spotlights then?
    -Le Hook

  4. I didn't know that about your dad. I do remember about the screen being widened. I have no idea why people had spotlights on their cars, but I do remember them shining their spots on the screen before the show. Since the local airport had a search light that rotated too, the theatre had to negotiate with them to keep it from beaming toward the screen and the cars. Funny the things you remember!