Wednesday, January 27, 2010

THE HAUNTING CALL OF DRIVE-INS PAST



(Photograph by Carl Weese)

Southern California has just endured a relative deluge of thunderstorms and rain which began early last week and subsided, for the immediate future at least, only yesterday. There’s always overreaction on the part of the media when things get wet down here, and all hysteria aside it is natural to be concerned for those who might be in harm’s way when the hillsides get too wet and start yielding to gravity, as well as for those without homes who bank on the typically comfortable weather to cooperate with their need to stay warm and dry at night. But taken simply as weather, that is, one manifestation of the myriad possibilities for climate change possible in our atmosphere in general, I love the rain and it seems, now that I’m in a place where it rarely happens, that I can never get enough of it. It stimulates my mood, my sense of well-being, my creative urges, and my desire to wrap up in a blanket with loved ones. And I’m just a little bit down on a day like today when it looks like the current storm system has finally been swept away, giving the Los Angeles Basin back over to the relentlessly cheerful sunshine.

Ironically, it was during the storm that I got word of a beautiful collection of photographs that have sparked in me a sense of muted nostalgia and a desire to resume a favorite fair weather activity. On January 15, on their Lens blog devoted to photography, The New York Times posted an article entitled “Dark Screens, Bright Memories” which reveals the work of one Carl Weese. Weese’s simple (but not at all simplistic) and lovely photos of dilapidated drive-ins in far-away corners of Virginia, Indiana, Wyoming and other states have a simultaneous sadness and sense of celebration about them—for the drive-ins that still exist and for the unique architectural marvels of the individual drive-ins themselves, many of which still cut a geometrically expressive figure within their quiet, rural landscapes. “Drive-ins are this stealthily strong feature of American history,” Weese says in the Lens piece. “Each of these theaters, if not totally unique, sure is idiosyncratic… You have these marvelous repeating forms… Setting these shapes and forms that are now becoming familiar for me in different landscapes is something I find quite fascinating.”

The Lens piece examines Weese’s philosophy of photography and, beyond the beautiful slide show on the blog itself, also leads to Weese’s own extensive gallery of drive-in photographs, which will access the sense of longing inside anyone who ever spent time in a drive-in movie theater as a child or teen-ager, and inside anyone else who continues to patronize and hold dear those drive-in movie theaters that are still with us.

This newfound awareness of Weese’s photography also coincided with some pictures of my own that I took on a recent Thanksgiving trip back to my hometown in Oregon. I decided to take a brief pilgrimage to the site of the drive-in theater I frequented from about the age of three up until its final season during the summer of 1981, when I was 21. The theater was a kind of playground of wonders for me in my early years and an oasis during the long summer months when I finally got old enough to attend drive-in movies without parental chaperones, either with my older friends who had their licenses already or when I finally could legally drive myself. I also worked at the drive-in—manning the popcorn machine and changing out the C02 and syrup containers beneath the soda tap at the Circle JM Drive-in snack bar was my very first real job. (The Circle JM was named after a cattle brand owned by a rancher in the theater owner’s extended family, and the far wall of the snack bar was adorned by various local brands burned in wood and hung on display in the manner of a cowboy art gallery.) Unfortunately, the drive-in and its older brother, the indoor Alger Theater located in downtown Lakeview, were both owned by a man with shoulders made to droop by his sense of obligation at continuing the family business and very little corresponding showmanship or passion for either the business or the films themselves. He routinely looked down on his customers and sighed with disdain and indifference upon the changes of seasons during which one theater would be closed and the other reopened. Despite all this, I loved both places, not only because I eventually gained all kinds of access to them through my car and my job, but because both places helped to nurture the passion I’ve had for the movies ever since I was a very small child.

The Circle JM Drive-in closed for the winter in September 1981 amid rumors (which had become frequent over the previous 5-10 years) that both theaters were up for sale or that they had already been sold. In either case the message was clear—the owner was officially tired of his charge to bring movie entertainment to the citizens of this economically weakened and shrinking lumber town. And during the winter of 1982, as if in answer to a secret prayer, a powerful snowstorm landed on the Southeastern Oregon desert, dumping several feet of snow on the ground and making the air like cold knives with winds that blew through my hometown valley at speeds approaching that of the highway speed limit. The heavy snowfall had already added weight to the drive-in’s screen tower, which had been in dire need of bolstering and repair to the screen itself for over 10 years. When the winds began buffeting that creaky wooden construct sitting just off of Highway 395 on the north end of town, the screen simply gave up. It didn’t take long for the news to circulate, and so I made my way out to the drive-in armed with a camera. The sight before me when I got there was genuinely heart-wrenching. The screen was literally shorn in half, one side (I don’t remember which) still standing, and a horrific rip down the middle of the screen, as if it had been grasped on both ends by one of those giant Ray Harryhausen creatures, some of which had become so beloved to me on this very screen, and torn in two as if it were the world’s biggest phone book. There was no doubt in my mind when I saw the destruction that the Circle JM Drive-in had shown its last movie and that Lily Tomlin’s The Incredible Shrinking Woman, which I saw there earlier that past summer, was now my own official Circle JM swan song.


It’s been nearly 29 years since that screen reflected the last image cast by those ancient old carbon arc projectors housed in the tiny projection booth at the front of the snack bar. In the years since, the property was converted to an RV park which accommodates year-round travelers, including the many visitors attracted to the town by the annual county fair and Lakeview’s newfound status as a locale par excellence for hang gliding. (The mountain which looms over the town and the extending valley has an accessible shelf that is perfect for winged leaping.) And to my surprise, the people who took the property over, rather than raze the existing buildings, merely adapted them for use in the RV camp. So what was once the drive-in snack bar and projection booth has been converted to a convenience store and office from which the RV camp is operated. Gas pumps have been installed in back of the building, where the owners and snack bar employees parked their cars before every show. And best of all, rather incredibly and inexplicably, the old box office, situated mere feet away from the asphalt on Hwy. 395, has been left standing, if not exactly intact—the red letter marquee that used to be attached on top of it was dismantled when the drive-in closed. At some point, the RV park owner thought it would be a good idea to put a wooden Indian, complete with headdress, inside the box office, a phantom ticket-taker waiting for cars that would never come again, but when I visited this past November it was with some relief that I noted the absence of the chief. Also gone, unfortunately, is the beautiful neon deco sign that once announced the entrance off the highway to the driveway leading up to the box office window. I have photos of that sign, all lit up and beckoning at twilight, and shots of the shredded screen too, all buried somewhere amongst the junk in my house (under my bed, hopefully). I could not locate them for posting here, but if I find them at some later date I promise I will share. (And certainly, if there are any unofficial Lake County, Oregon historians reading this who may have pictures of the old drive-in during its active life and would like to share them here, I would love to hear from you.)

For now, here are the photos I took during my Thanksgiving 2009 Oregon trip of the grounds on which the Circle JM Drive-in used to stand. Not being well versed in digital image manipulation, I’ll just try to describe for you how each picture illustrates how the drive-in was laid out. These pictures are in no way intended to compare with Carl Weese’s achievements—they were taken by a very cheap digital camera with almost no consideration for composition or emotional effect. But they are, in their own way, tributes to the kind of emotions that his photographs stirred up in me when I saw them, even though mine were taken a couple of months before I was exposed to Weese’s talented eye. (Click on the individual images for a much clearer, closer view.)


In this shot, taken from across Highway 395, the old snack bar is visible in the background, behind a row of trees. At the leftmost point in the photograph is where the old Circle JM neon sign stood, at the driveway entrance which proceeded across right, parallel to the highway, and led to the box office window.


Looking from the area that marked the furthest point from the screen on the field, the back side of the old snack bar, now a convenience store, is clearly visible. Directly in front of it stood the old screen, with probably only five or six rows of speaker poles between them. Customers entered the snack bar on the door furthest on the left of the building (this door serves as the one entrance to the store now) and would exit via another door on the same side of the building, but at the front. That picture window directly to the right of the entrance door was, at the time the Circle JM was in operation, a brick wall-- there was no window. Inside, on the reverse side of that wall, was where the wood-burned brands that made up the cowboy art gallery were hung.


The original box office for the Circle JM drive-in still stands, completely nonfunctional, to this day. A red letter-board marquee was mounted on the roof of the box office and provided an irresistible lure for wise-acre teen-aged boys (not unlike Your Humble Narrator) who occasionally could not pass up the opportunity, late on a dark and moonless night, to hop on top of the low-lying platform roof and rearrange the letters into some form of hilarity or another that the projectionist/site handyman would have to dutifully restore to normalcy the next day. You can see how the driveway split off to pass both sides of the box office. On nights when the cars backed up to and a half-mile or so down the highway, there would be a second cashier working the window closest to the snack bar in addition to the other side, which was the only side available to approach on most summer evenings.


A little closer to the box office. From this angle, you can see how the person running the ticket window (usually the owner or his wife, or sometimes their son) had a pretty good overview of the entire field. Looking out toward the west along the Z-axis, if it still stood the screen would have been directly visible over the roof of the snack bar in this shot.


Closer in and off to the south side of the snack bar building, you can more easily see the customer entrance door (right) and the customer exit door (left, now boarded up) which kept popcorn munchers and slurpers of carefully concocted swamp water (a mixture of Coke, root beer, orange and Sprite) moving efficiently back to their cars... unless, of course, they wanted to hang out around the periphery of the snack bar and talk to friends before the show started, which, by the way, never ever happened...


From the southwest corner facing the main building you get the best view of the closed snack bar exit door (now right). You can also see, just to the left, two large picture windows, also now boarded up, which provided those in the snack bar line a clear view of the screen in order that they might keep up with the action while they waited for me to reload the popcorn machine or mix their swamp water. There was also an audio speaker placed directly over the windows with the movie sound conveniently piped in as well. To the left, the window on the other side of the swamp cooler, also shuttered, once looked out onto the field and screen from the manager's office, a comfortable area where we employees often munched hot dogs and watched the rest of the movie once our shift was over. That area led directly into the projection booth, which occupied the area directly to picture left of the swamp cooler. As you can see, the booth was at ground level, but even so the throw of the projector lamps weren't pitched at much of an upward angle because the field in front of the booth was a naturally occurring hill, allowing the foundation of the screen tower to originate on ground that was considerably lower than where the projectors were housed. Speaking of temptations, however, I don't believe there was ever a night at the Circle JM Drive-in that wasn't punctuated by at least one person, on his or her way to the snack bar from the north side of the field, who could not resist the urge to throw hand puppet shadows or otherwise momentarily block the path of the light from the projectors to the screen. Just as funny the 3,000th time as the first, I can testify!

(You can whet your whistle for the coming drive-in season by reading my Drive-in Movie Primer at Green Cine Daily. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, it’s already time to check out what’s happening at the Vineland Drive-in in the City of Industry, the Mission Tiki Drive-in in Montclair, the Van Buren and Rubidoux Drive-ins in Riverside, the South Bay Drive-in in San Diego, the Sunset Drive-in in San Luis Obispo, the Skyline Drive-in in Barstow and the Smiths Ranch Drive-in in 29 Palms. And if you’re anywhere else in the country, find the drive-in nearest you at Drive-ins.com.

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9 comments:

W.B. Kelso said...

*sigh* We lost our Drive-In last year due to (yes, seriously) some tornadic activity. *double sigh*

Greg said...

Those are wonderful pictures Dennis and a great piece. Thanks.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks, Greg!

Hey, Wild Bill, sorry to hear about that. Where was the drive-in located?

Moviezzz said...

Excellent piece and photos Dennis.

Drive ins were always some of the most memorable movie experiences growing up. I still remember YOU LIGHT UP MY LIFE / CLOSE ENCOUNTERS.

The last drive in closed back in the mid 80's. The last movie I saw there was an ALL THE RIGHT MOVES / BACHELOR PARTY double feature. It is now a Staples.

I've read there are a couple 90 minutes or more away, but I've never been.

blaaagh said...

Awesome! Thanks for the trip down Memory Lane. The ex-snack bar at the Circle JM actually looks pretty good; who knows? Maybe somebody will get smart one day and make it back into a drive-in. We can hope!

The Driveindude said...

As always Dennis, simply brilliant!!

W.B. Kelso said...

Check that: it was two years ago, and the Drive-In was located in Kearney, NE -- and the storm that took it out was actually featured on the season finale of The Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers.

Rumor was the owner wanted to shut it down for a long time but couldn't afford to "properly" dispose of an asbestos filled screen -- until mother nature stepped in and knocked half of it down.

Evil Dead Junkie said...

Great Piece Dennis. I live in SLO and confirm The Sunset is a great theater.

It's right next door to a cemetery which has a huge masonic temple looming over it. It's a great creepy place, just a shame they don't play Horror films often.

I don't go often enough, I might have to make a trip out tonight.

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