Back to the future, watching movies outdoors again might be cool

The headline caught my attention immediately.

Massive drive-in theater planned in Graham.” I saw it on the Burlington Times-News website a couple of days ago. The subhead provided more information: “Graham theater owners plan five screens, room for 1,000 cars.” The story, by reporter Bill Cresenzo, outlined plans by Graham Cinema owners Chuck and Jennifer Talley to build a massive entertainment and amusement complex in a field off I-40 / 85. For those not familiar with the area, the Talleys own a restored old movie theater in downtown Graham, North Carolina that features second-run movies, a balcony, inexpensive tickets and concessions, a balcony and a cartoon short that accompanies the feature film. “Hidden Figures” is playing there at the moment.

Very old school. And fun, too.

A few things caught my attention right away in the story. Plans for the 34-acre site include a miniature golf course, playground and restaurant. Not bad. And the Talleys are partnering with a former Alamance County resident they know well who owns three drive-in movie theaters in Texas — pretty much the epicenter of the drive-in movie world as it exists today. Let’s face it, even with new wireless sound and digital technology, drive-in theaters are such a creature of the 1950s and ’60s there’s no other way to view them besides old school. Well, nostalgia works, too and that’s a lot of what this venture is banking on.

My first reaction to the news owed loosely to a movie reference itself. Taking a page from Gene Wilder’s mad scientist in “Young Frankenstein” I wrote on Twitter:”THIS! COULD!! WORK!!!!

I still think so.

drive in ad towering inferno

I have a lot of nostalgia for drive-in theaters, which were a part of my growing up in rural Stokes County in the 1960s. King had the only drive-in theater in the mountain county but I can’t recall ever seeing a movie there. We usually drove 25 or so miles from tiny Danbury, N.C. to much more metropolitan Winston-Salem — which seemed like a haul for a 5 or 6 year old kid — to see any kind of movie at all. Going to see a movie, then, was a major event. It’s something you remembered.

My dad was a man with pretty established rules. He hated to be in public places like restaurants or theaters with a lot of noisy children running around. As a result, going to what we called an “indoor theater” was simply out of the question when his two sons were too young to fully grasp the message to “shut the hell up.”

So all of our first movie experiences took place at the old Winston-Salem Drive-In, a place that no longer exists. It was located across the street from a pretty wonderful hot dog and ice cream stand and next to a garish pink building that housed “Tickled Pink Cleaners.” That was always good for a giggle from the boys in the back seat.

The Winston-Salem Drive-In was the coolest of the Winston-Salem drive-ins, which included the Robin Hood Drive-In, the Flamingo and perhaps a couple of others lost to memory. Like the planned I-40 Drive-in, it had a playground and it featured a train ride like the one at City Park in Burlington. The concession stand had great hamburgers, hot dogs and skinny greasy fries.  The fries were the best.

Drive in clarence

Probably the first movie I remember going to there was “My Fair Lady,” which my father desperately wanted to see. It was a musical starring Rex Harrison and introducing Audrey Hepburn in a take on the classic “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw. I think my brother mimicked lines from that movie for at least a year.

If that wasn’t the first movie I saw then “Mary Poppins” was. Both musicals were released at about the same time in 1964. “Mary Poppins” made Julie Andrews an international star. She was also the original Eliza Doolittle in the stage production of “My Fair Lady” but was passed over for the lead role in favor of Hepburn.  I only point this out as an example that sometimes the universe works things out correctly.

I also recall going to the Winston-Salem Drive-In to see “Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion” in 1965 or ’66. It was a strange film for a kid with my vision to go see, but we did.

From that point my dad thought we were probably old enough to watch movies indoors rather than cooped up in a car trying to hear the dialogue from those tinny speakers attached to a window halfway rolled down. Modern drive-ins have solved this problem, by the way.

Oddly enough, my dad had few other rules for kids watching movies. War movies were perfectly OK for kids to watch so he took us to see “Patton” at a theater when I was about 9 or 10. Westerns were OK, too, so he took us to see “Blazing Saddles” even though I think it was rated R at the time. This disturbed my mother no end. We laughed our asses off, though.

I saw a few drive-in movies as a teenager, mostly with friends. Very few mainstream movies played there at that time, though. Mostly off-the-beaten-path flicks like “Billy Jack” or “Walking Tall” or that run of movies produced by Earl Owensby of Shelby played outdoors in those days.

Drive-in ad billy jack

Ultimately, drive-ins began to disappear or become porn theaters. This happened to the old Flamingo in Winston-Salem. I recall one movie advertisement for the Flamingo in the Winston-Salem Journal for an X-rated movie that stated the movie’s title was too risque for the newspaper and provided a phone number for those interested in finding out what it might be. Of course, we had to call. The offending title? “Lickety Split.”

Ahem …

I think the last drive-in theater in the Burlington area, the Circle G, became a porn theater. It was off N.C. 87 not far from Western Alamance High School. It’s sort of a local legend these days. Some remember it, a few say they saw movies there. Most are like me and recall the newspaper ads but not actually attending.

As for this I-40 Drive-In venture in Graham, I hope it’s a go. I think five screens may be a a big ambitious — but it’s how they do things in Texas. I do hope the owners are hip enough to come up with cool double-features of old and new flicks. Creative pairings of oddly connected movies would be a pretty cool. One friend recommended a “Jaws” and “Star Wars” double-feature, for example. I would like to see a pairing of “The Big Sleep” and “The Big Lebowski.” They could show a run of horror classics, Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris kung fu greats or even a “Billy Jack” revival.

And they could show some newer stuff, too. Let’s hope they don’t forget the cartoon, though.

 

 

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