Drive In Movies

My first exposure to a drive-in movie was after I returned to the States from Germany in 1958.  I landed in California a newly-minted, but savvy, driver; having gotten my International Driver’s License in Germany at age sixteen.  Unfortunately, the state of California had decreed that I must go through a driver’s education course before I could get my California license.  Even my dad thought it was outrageous, particularly because he had to undergo a road test himself to regain his US license.

Nevertheless, I pushed onward and endured several weeks of novice drivers that ground gears, screeched tires, slammed brakes, and generally turned my perspiration into a river.  I was ever so glad to have it come to an end and take the driver’s test – which I passed with ease.

Once my little VW convertible arrived from Germany (via the Panama Canal to Oakland) I was free to go cruising all over the area.  Since my car was totally unique (there wasn’t another like it in Northern California I think) I had what is now called a “chick magnet”.  Hardly a day passed when I didn’t have at least one pretty girl sitting in the car as we headed out for lunch, went to the library after school, or just cruised up and down Petaluma Boulevard all night on Friday.

My dad also shipped a car home from Germany.  It was called a Volkswagen Deluxe Bus.  It was black trim over red and had three bench seats.  The top slid back and let one stand up with the wind blowing your hair.  I had almost as much fun with his car as mine, but he rarely let me drive it.  Most of the time, he would tell me he needed it because he was “on call”.  This, I assumed, meant that he could be called to go down the base at any minute to resolve some difficult weather prognostication.

It was this very same bus that made me a hero to the general population of school as it would fit up to eighteen kids in it.  When, on Friday or Saturday night, the drive-in theatres would declare “carload” night an entire carload could get in for two dollars.  Most cars of the day would rarely fit more than six or, if they were really friendly, eight, but mine would take an entire football and a basketball team.

Drive-ins of the day would feature as many as four films a night depending on length of movie and weather.  Since California boasted good weather, we almost always got to see at least three movies every time we went.  The breaks between movies wasn’t very long, but gave a person time enough to grab yet another hot dog, box of popcorn, and a drink before the next feature.  If you were still in line, you could watch the beginning of the movie through the huge plate-glass window at the front of the refreshment stand.

Since my car was pretty tall, I learned right off that people wanted me to stay near the back of the parking lot.  This turned out to be a real boon as I could park perpendicularly between two speaker posts and put one in the front and one in the back and be assured at least one of them would work.  If both of them worked, so much the better.

Most movies shown at our local theatre were sci-fi and horror movies like “The Blob”, “The Fly”, “I Married a Monster from Outer Space” (which is a pretty good movie by the way), “Earth vs. the Spider” and “Attack of the Puppet People”.  I was a great deal more partial to some of the more romantic movies of the time like “Houseboat” (with my hero Cary Grant), “Bell, Book, and Candle” (with the delectable Kim Novak – but don’t tell my girl). As far as the more raucous movies went, a full busload of kids was fine, but for romantic movies my little convertible was just fine.  Just I and my girl snuggled up with a gearshift between us.

For the first movie we would leave the top down and chatter with our neighbors as well as watch the movie, but when the second movie started (which was usually the feature) the top went up for some serious necking.  Never believe anyone who says that serious necking cannot be carried out in a Volkswagen.  It can, and has, been done.  Many a warm California summer night has steamed up the windows of that little car.  And, yes, it is definitely possible to go from the front seat to the back seat without opening a door.

What better life could there be but to be a teenager, have a movie in front of you, a girl beside you, and a popcorn tub sitting on the seat between you.  If there is one, I couldn’t imagine what.

There existed a state of war between the theatre owners and the patrons.  They would try and make sure that everyone who got in paid their fee, and we would try to get as many of us in free as possible.  This led to a veritable host of methods for sneaking kids in without paying.  Each one attempting to get more kids in than the one before.  The old standards of stuffing a trunk worked a few times, but if the wait to enter got too long there was a distinct danger of suffocation.  The old ‘blanket in the back seat’ would hide maybe a couple of kids with others actually sitting on the back seat.  Since there was usually a very bright light shining on each car at the toll booth this one could be risky.

My favorite was a car that had a trick back seat.  It was a panel van.  Not one of the huge things you see now, but a really nice Ford delivery van built along the lines of a woody but with no back windows.  An enterprising teen had created a moveable back seat that dropped downward and let one move freely between the back bed and the rear set.  When this one got to the toll booth, the taker would first look into the back, count heads, and then move to the rear window.  As this was being done, the seat was dropped and kids poured from the back to rear seat – quietly, of course.  I don’t think this method was ever found out.

Usually, before the movie started and while it was still light, a local radio station was be broadcast over the speaker system.  In our case it was ever faithful KEWB from San Francisco.  Good old “Channel 91” would entertain us with songs that started impromptu dance parties down in front of the screen.  KEWB was the sister station of KFWB from Los Angeles and, if you were ever to drive between the two one would slowly fade out and the other would take over as you traveled.

Parenthetically, I might add that a description of a trip down to Tijuana to get one of my friends car tucked and rolled might be a good story also.

Finally, it was dark enough to start the movie and we would all head for our cars.  Great knots of girls would break up and stream back to their date’s cars too and the lot would get calm as we all watched. Once in a while, you would hear a car door slam and maybe a parting shot by an outraged girl, but mostly we behaved ourselves.  There was also a car patrol wandering around with flashlights to illuminate cars that showed any sign of nefarious behavior.

Periodically the film would break or the operator would blow a change-over and car lights would come on, horns would honk, and jeers erupt from everyone.  This was mostly endured stoically (if you noticed at all) and activities continued as they left off before being interrupted.

Teen etiquette dictated that one never approached a car whose windows were totally fogged up, nor did one get near a car that did not have at least one person in the front seat.  Lights of any kind were frowned upon except in an emergency – like trying to find a wayward bra.

All in all, a trip to the local drive-in movie was a real adventure.  I took full advantage of the times and weather of Northern California to see as many of those movies as I could.  I usually went with male friends to adventure, science fiction, or other non-chick movies but when a good romance was playing I hardly ever failed to take my girl.  It was an uplifting trip on gossamer wings.  A true American experience.

T.O.M.

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