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!