Monthly Archives: June 2011

Drive-in Movies and Mosquito Coils

Drive-in movies were popular dating destinations when I was in high school. It was first-come, first-serve on the parking spots and you’d arrive early to guarantee a good one. Not too close to the screen, not too far from the snack bar, you’d pick your spot and hope a family car full of rowdy toddlers didn’t park next to you.

Each parking place had its own speaker, pulled off a post and attached to the car window. In earlier days thoughtful theater owners located small bleachers down in front of the parking spots. Neighborhood kids would congregate there and watch for free, hoping enough sound would bleed out from unused speakers for them to follow the action. (That is, if they were paying any attention to the movie and not yelling at each other the whole time).

Of course, cars didn’t come with air conditioners in those days and rolled-down windows were open invitations for mosquitoes to make themselves at home with you. Since no self-respecting teenagers would go out slathered with insect repellent, a considerate date would head to the concession stand for a Pic mosquito coil, place it prominently on the dashboard and light it up. The thin wisps of smoke supposedly kept the biting bugs at bay.

The cartoons would begin at dusk followed by concession stand commercials. Dancing popcorn boxes and singing soft drinks signaled time for the girls to make their way to the ladies room. There they would meet other friends and catch up on who was dating who, while the guys hit the snack bar for hot buttery popcorn and large fountain cokes.

On the 100 block of Cashua Drive between West Evans and King Avenue (later the location of a Kroger, then a Winn-Dixie supermarket), the Circle Drive-In screen faced the street. It was clearly visible from certain vantage points on Cashua but if you wanted sound with your movie you had to buy a ticket and drive on in.

I liked the Circle Drive-In but the Palmetto was my favorite. Out on Highway 52 between Florence and Darlington (Efird Pontiac located there in recent years), the Palmetto snack bar offered the best hamburgers with chili and good old greasy, not crispy, french fries.

One memorable evening at the Palmetto, I was double dating with a friend, my date and I occupying the back seat. We’d sat through all the cartoons and commercials, enjoyed burgers, fries and cokes, and it was finally dark enough for the main attraction to begin. It may have been the newest Audie Murphy or John Wayne movie but as the opening credits began to roll, something else began to roll. Thunder.

A flash of lightening suddenly split the sky and the bottom dropped out. As car windows started going up and windshields fogging over, most dating couples probably didn’t care. But our car had a problem the others didn’t have, a leak across the top of the back windshield — drip, drip, drip, right down our necks.

We kept sliding forward until our heads were right against the back of the front seat, not cool with our friends. A steady drizzle was soon falling into the car and onto the back seat. The cloth seat cover acted like a wick and before long the wet spot spread from the back of the seat cushion all the way to the front edge.

With the thunder, lightening and downpour we couldn’t see the movie, we couldn’t hear the sound, and with all the windows rolled up the car interior began to steam-heat up. The guys kept saying “It’ll quit any minute.” I was thinking, okay, you guys sit back here and us girls will take the front seat! The back of my blouse was already wet and now my skirt was getting soaked too.

Our disgruntled dates finally gave in to our threats to find somebody else’s car to ride home in, cranked up and took us home. I refused to ever ride in that car again, friends or no friends, although I did go out on a few more double-dates with them.

Outdoor theaters are making a comeback in the United States, according to Reuters News Service. In the 1950’s there were more than 4,000 across the country. Last year there were only 420 but twenty of those were brand new drive-in cinemas.

Today’s drive-in movies don’t need speakers on a post, you just tune the car radio to an FM frequency and listen to the sound in stereo. Double-daters can leave the windows rolled up (no smoky mosquito coil required) and watch the feature in air conditioned comfort, thunderstorm or no thunderstorm — as long as the back windshield doesn’t leak!

Going to the Movies

Saturday movie rituals were set in stone for 1950’s kids in Florence. Get up, do your chores, get your movie money, and trek downtown to the theater. Admission was a dime and a snack could be had for fifteen cents so a quarter would do it.

Kingstree’s Jimmy Richardson (who grew up in Florence) and Florence optician Jimmy Rhodes recall double-features at the State Theater on East Evans Street. McLeod Hospital occupies that space today. Kids patronized double-features when they had enough tolerance to be glued to hard seats for such a long time. I stuck to the Carolina on South Dargan Street or the Colonial on West Evans.

The smell of hot popcorn dripping in butter and dashed with salt wafted to the sidewalk, drawing you in. Ticket in hand, the concession stand was next. With your fountain Coke you could might enjoy Red Hots, Three Musketeers, Milk Duds or Candy Coated Almonds.

If your total worth for the morning was a quarter, it was a difficult decision: popcorn, candy and no drink? Candy, drink and no popcorn? Split a popcorn and candy with a buddy? Good solution.

What a morning it would be! Cartoons starred Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, Donald Duck, Porky Pig and Petunia, Micky Mouse, or Tom and Jerry. The Newsreel might demonstrate a brilliant new invention or feature a “Rally Round the Troops” speech by the President.

Next might come a Short. What’s a Short? Well, it’s a 15 or 20-minute film that could be a complete story featuring the zany antics of the Three Stooges or Little Rascals. It could also be a Cold War Atomic Bomb scare film, but they didn’t always put them on with kid movies.

Often we’d see the latest cliffhanger Serial episode. Serials were 20 to 30 minutes long, a dozen or so episodes to the whole story. The exciting derring-do of Superman, Batman, or the Green Hornet would alternate with space adventures of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers.

One week Buck would blast off from earth on the way to some galaxy or other, and by the end of the episode he’d be arm wrestling with alien octopi and dumped into a dungeon. Next week he’d win the wrestling match and escape from the dungeon, only to be led by an enticing beauty into the midst of a another mess. We enjoyed the Serials, but they were just warm-ups for the main event — the Movie!

Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Lash LaRue, Zorro, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry — all were our heroes in the early 50’s. Plots and characters were easy to follow. Good guys wore white hats, bad guys wore black hats. (Lash LaRue was an allowable exception, garbed in black from head to toe.)

At least one faithful sidekick always hovered nearby and could be an grumpy old codger or a naive greenhorn, usually hilariously funny. Naturally a bank robber, cattle rustler or otherwise all-around bad guy was up to no good, and naturally a damsel in distress was tied to the railroad tracks, cheated out of her ranch or robbed of her inheritance. Hoppy to the rescue! Or “Who was that Masked Man?” and his faithful companion Tonto.

Week in and week out, same sort of plot, same sort of ending. Dependable! Good guys always beat bad guys, won fair lady’s heart and saved the day. Plots varied with Monday to Friday films, less shoot-em-up in the musical romances and comedies, more in the detective and war stories. Grownups preferred those.

The Carolina Theater housed a wonderfully dim second-floor balcony where friends could giggle and tell secrets to their heart’s content, contributing bits of unpopped corn or sticky Cracker Jacks over the railing to friends (or enemies) below. If an occasional sprinkle of fountain Coke got added to the mix, the offender might be hustled down the stairs and out of the theater in a flash by an eagle-eyed usher.

The Colonial balcony was a favorite hide-away for boys. My brother Harold remembers the spacious ceiling space in front of the big brass rail as perfect for sailing improvised flying saucers: flattened popcorn boxes.

The Colonial was in the City Hall building, smack in the middle of the 100 block of West Evans. At one time it had been the O’Dowd (Opera House first, Theater later). For a while after moving pictures came to town, the auditorium alternated between live performances of stage plays or traveling vaudeville troupes and movies, either silent or “talkies.”

Advertisements for both often appeared on the same page in the Morning News Review, a flyer for a stage show at the O’Dowd on the left, one for a film at the Colonial on the right. It was puzzling to discover they meant the same auditorium. Eventually the Schnibben family bought out O’Dowd interests and only the name “Colonial” remained thereafter.

The building was set back from the street, the walkway to the ticket office flanked by a pair of ponds complete with lily pads and large, multicolored goldfish. Wrought iron fences kept our feet from slipping in, and trying to spot the swishy tails kept our attention occupied while standing in line for tickets.

It was fun going to the Colonial to watch the fish, even if not attending a movie.

The theaters occasionally hosted live entertainment even in the 1950’s. Lash LaRue came in person to crack his bullwhip from one side of the stage to the other. The Duncan Yo-Yo man came to town regularly, giving a demonstration out in front of the Colonial before moving inside to do fancy tricks with the latest yo-yo model.

Harmonica performances, talent shows, civic and school events shared the auditoriums with movie-goers.

In the 1910-20’s Florence had boasted at least six theaters: the O’Dowd, Orpheum, Imp, Majestic, Airdome and the Mirror. With the advent of film Vaudeville slowly dwindled away, the need for so many theaters with it. By the mid-1920’s Florence was down to three, the O’Dowd, Colonial and Bijou.

In the early 1950’s we still had three downtown theaters, the Colonial, Carolina and State, and our Saturday ritual of meeting friends at the movie was an integral part of our lives. Today you can buy just about any of the old Cartoons, Shorts, Newsreels and Movies on videotape or DVD, even the scary Atom Bomb films. It’s just not the same, though, without the balconies, Cracker Jacks and flying popcorn boxes.