stories and photos BY MICK JEFFRIES
“The speaker doesn’t work, but your voice sounds much better.”
–“Drive-In,” sung by Love Jones
The neon marquee at the Bourbon Drive-in says Jurassic Park, but don’t tell proprietor Lanny Earlywine there’s anything ironic about that; because even if drive-in movie theaters may seem like one of the biggest dinosaurs of 20th century pop culture, it’s folks like Earlywine that keep them from extinction. Thanks to his kind of determination in a variety of people, there’s a resurgence in one of America’s greatest combos: cars and movies.
Where else can you get in for five dollars or less, bring along your whole living room suite, plus drink, eat, smoke, and be merry, all the while watching big lizards, little kids, and lots and lots of pick-up trucks?
The simple fact is, you really ought to go to the drive-in this weekend. Why? Number 1: Because the season’s just about over. Number 2: Because it’s not Wal-Mart and it’s not the mall and it’s not MacDonald’s. And there aren’t too many places that don’t fall into one of those categories, these days. The drive-in is one of the greatest remaining mom and pop business types in American culture. And despite occasional death knells, and the quiet crumbling of old theaters here and there, drive-ins are hanging in alright. And if that’s not reason enough for you, well, riddle me this – how come, in a time of drive-up food, coffee, prescriptions and banks, the original drive-up, the drive-up theater, has evaporated so much?
Sure, maybe you’ve seen American Graffiti. Hopefully you’ve even got some drive-in memories of your own. But chances are, the place you remember is history. That’s because 86% of Kentucky’s drive-ins are either dark or demolished, according to recent statistics at drive-inmovie.com. That’s even more likely if you live inside the city limits in metro areas like Louisville or Lexington.
“Right where McDonald’s is on New Circle, there used to be two drive-ins, the Circle 25 and the Holiday. But the land became worth more than the business, so they sold out,” notes Earlywine. Add to that darkness the defunct Southland 68 and the total number of open Lexington drive-ins comes to zero. But you can thank your lucky stars for Paris, Winchester, and Mt. Sterling if you’re an “ozoner.”
Cinephile or Socialite?
If you’re an “ozoner,” as both drive-ins and fans were dubbed by Variety magazine, you have an oil and grease salesman to thank. It seems that in the early 30s, a businessman named Richard Hollingshead was looking for new niche opportunities. In analyzing what was most precious to Americans, he pinpointed the two things we’re gaga over: movies and cars.
Hollingshead then embarked upon a driveway mad-professorship, placing a 16mm film projector on the hood of his car and splashing movies onto a screen hung between two trees. Next, he added a radio placed behind the screen and even tried simulating rain using a lawn sprinkler. Finally, Hollingshead borrowed cars from the neighbors for some parking exercises – the key was his ramp system, angling cars upward, towards the screen. In 1932, he filed for a patent and ten months later opened the first drive-in, the Camden, to a full house in his hometown of Riverton, New Jersey. The movie was Wife Beware, a second-run from the previous season (since indoor operators were already stingy with their product, a trend to continue in later decades).
In fact, Hollingshead made some pretty reasonable assumptions that still ring true today. “In the drive-in theater, one may smoke without offending others. People may chat or even partake of refreshments brought in their cars without disturbing those who prefer silence. The drive-in virtually transforms the ordinary motor car into a private theater box. Here the whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are apt to be and the children’s safety is assured because they remain in the car.”
Well, except for the last part, as a trip to one of our regional drive-ins will testify – down in front of the screen at either the Bourbon or the Skyvue, what you get is a shrieking tumble of kids who don’t even know each other, charging around after a whiffle ball or something. It’s like a war zone out there and kids are coming in from the front – unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed, but amazingly free of blood, broken bones and teeth-marks. A lot of parents are pretty happy about this arrangement, even if others are apprehensive.
Bill and Jean Riggs are at the Bourbon this particular night to chaperone and explain, “We’re grandparents watching one two three where’s the little one? There she is.” A palpable sigh of relief goes up. “It’s good for the kids out here, they get out and play before the movie. Sure, they’ve got Playstations and Nintendos and all kinds of crap, but really kids still just like to get outside and play, right? The drive-in is perfect.” The Riggs should know; they’ve been coming to the Bourbon for decades. “In the 70s, we came to watch a lot of Clint Eastwood and all that,” Bill confides.
And at the Bourbon, out by the railroad tracks north of Paris, for as long as the Riggs have been coming, Lanny and Trish Earlywine have benignly ruled from the snack bar and the gate.
“It’s a community event really, every single night at the drive-in. There’s something about drive-ins that makes people extra-sociable,” mused Jean Riggs, over a spread of popcorn, adding “it’s kind of like camping out.” So there’s blankets, air mattresses, folding chairs, coolers, and the all important bug spray.
“Is this okay?” An industrious neighbor calls out. “I’m just spraying about 15 feet around us. This is expensive, coming here tonight!” She says, gesturing to the industrial can of bug spray she’s wielding with force. “My friend thought maybe people around us might get mad, but they seem to like it! I’m doing a public service.”
Planet of the Apes is up first this night. But, a glance at the snack bar reveals a posse of high school girls, less interested in the monkeys on screen than the apes down front. “He’s here with her?!” hisses one of them, which pretty much tells the story. The crush continues scanning for hotties.
Under the night sky, the Earlywines take more than a little pride in this crowd. “Sunday night, we’ll have Harrison county here in a group, we’ll have Bourbon County here in a group, we’ll have Paris here in a group, we’ll have Nicholas County kids here in a group,” explains Lanny. “It’s a social place to gather, absolutely neutral territory, no problems. We don’t put up with that. They get along great. It’s a good place for them to come. We’ve got some parents that’ll drop their kids off, and come back to pick them up at 12 o’clock. That’s sayin’ something about trusting the atmosphere.” Lanny hops over to open the screen door for some teens wielding trays of fried food and drinks.
Drive-In Nostalgia Version 2.0
So maybe putting a projector on the hood of your car sounds a little weird, but drive-ins have always had a funny relationship with technology. Originally a giddy shotgun wedding between our two favorite modernities, the drive-in has ultimately been threatened by later innovations, like TV and VCRs. So it’s only fair that the newest of technologies, the web, should be a big friend to the really big screen.
In abundance are websites that crow about drive-ins, that detail treks, and that tell you what’s on nearby, assuming there is a nearby. Often these sites are community efforts. At driveintheater.com and drive-ins.com, contributors are welcome and capsule reviews and pictures fill out directory pages on hundreds of drive-ins, both operational and defunct.
Jennifer Scherer and her brother, Kip, saw their site, www.drive-ins.com, as a way to share their love of the drive-in and also as one arm of a dream business plan – to open a drive-in of their own.
Jennifer explains, “Our parents took us to the drive-in when we were little, but it wasn’t until the mid-nineties that we really got into it. That’s when we realized that we took the drive-in for granted and they were getting harder to find. The one we had gone to as kids was now a strip mall and when we traveled, we had to work pretty hard to find open drive-ins. We started our research in 1995 because we decided our contribution would be the high-tech drive-in that we would open, Drive-Ins.com is a byproduct of that research.”
Results from web search engines show hundreds of drive-in movie sites, from thriving theaters like Atlanta’s Starlight Six (www.starlightdrivein.com/) to national directories to homespun fan sites.
Bill Jelen is one of many who got bit by the drive-in bug and used the web as an outlet of personal expression. Using the web space from his AOL account, he put up a fan site for drive-in fans in the Ohio/Kentucky area. The site (members.aol.com/bjelen8875/drivein.html) features links to drive-in memorabilia as well as details of pilgrimages around the region to drive-ins that are still in operation.
“I remember when I was a kid, the drive-ins showed a cartoon before each movie. They always showed food in this trailer and it was a push to get people into the snack bar. These old trailers had disintegrated and the drive-ins that I started going to no longer showed them. I went on the internet in search of someone with these films, and in the process, I found a large community of drive-in enthusiasts. This got me hooked.”
Drive-ins are sporting new business friends, too. Randy and Debrean Loy speak on behalf of a new organization just for drive-in owners, the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.
UDITOA was formed in 1999 as a not-for-profit business league for drive-in theatre owners and managers.
The Loys see bright times ahead. “Drive-ins will continue to change with the times, using the technology that is available to them, while at the same time maintaining the nostalgic appeal. Digital cinema is the latest technology being discussed by Hollywood and theatre owners.”
Brains on Film
And then there are those for whom the term “fan” or “enthusiast” is putting it a
little lightly. Take a couple of movie makers who decided to secure a grant from KET for a documentary on drive-ins, Lexington’s George Maranville and Larry Treadway. The two, who’s website brainsonfilm.com is a celebration of B-movie cinema, channeled their passion back from whence it came – the drive-in.
“All the stuff we discuss on the website is stuff we heard about or saw at the drive-in, in the car. It all goes back to that,” explains Maranville, who quips, “You know, George Lucas’s Super-Duper Dolby or whatever, is all well and good, but I really and truly like a drive-in speaker better. I don’t know why.”
Without any particular disdain for the family-oriented crowds at the drive-in these days, both Maranville and Treadway have an affinity for the drive-in days of yore. For them, the 70s and 80s were a decadent, delightful time for the drive-in that will never return.
“Remember the Circle 25 and the Family?” Treadway implores, almost foaming up, thinking about Lexington’s bulldozed old outdoor theaters. “The Southland 68, that was the most tawdry of all of them and Nicholasville Road had the Jessamine, too. That one was more the social thing. You’d play Frisbee, try to look cool and stuff. Back then they were showing the Hammer horror films like Dracula and Frankenstein.”
Maranville adds, “And they used to have great gimmicks too. I remember a coffin, with a zombie or a skeleton, and you’d give a quarter to go in and look, if you had the balls. It was like a carnival or a freak show.”
“The marketing was so much different,” Treadway notes. “Movies were created for that freedom that the drive-in allowed. That was unique to the drive-in because of the dire state of movie distribution. There was the element of a carnival ad campaign: a get-em-in hype campaign to get everybody there and then people would discover that the movie was total crap. But it was too late! By the next weekend, it would be gone and there’d be another bomb to replace it, with the same kind of hype” Treadway pauses for dramatic effect. “‘Just keep telling yourself it’s only a movie’ that kind of thing.”
Indeed, that kind of movie distribution and the misleading marketing that accompanied it is probably the most controversial thing in the history of the drive-in. Scott Zimmerman doesn’t miss it. Zimmerman did what not too many 20-somethings have probably ever done. “I opened a drive-in instead of going to college. It was the best use of college money that I can think of and I bet I learned stuff I never would have learned in school,” he says of the experience. Zimmerman purchased and ran the Holiday Drive-in in Marion County for nearly five years. Looking back on the 70s and 80s, he’s hardly nostalgic.
“I’m glad to see the era of B-movies gone. It made drive-ins look seedy. You run into people who remember those days and want no part of it. It’s really made it difficult if you want to open a drive-in these days. I’m glad that’s over.”
Alive and Kicking
Whether it’s because of the seedy 70s and 80s or the advent of the VCR, one thing is for sure – the central Kentucky region has taken a serious beating where the drive-in scene is concerned. There are no drive-ins in Lexington, and Louisville has only one remaining. The price of real estate has pretty much ruled out their viability, since you’ve got Sam willing to put a Wal-Mart there full of cheap plastic goods. It’s a shame, since the drive-in is so good at sporting deep-fried goods, which are much tastier than plastic, if only slightly worse for your health. You should just try to resist an order of onion rings from the Bourbon Drive-in. Maybe those subliminal between-movie trailers really do work
At the Bourbon, kids are stacked up for snacks at the horse-shoe shaped counter. Back behind, Trish Earlywine orchestrates like a maestro, maybe Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, slinging change and fries with equal fervor.
“Where’d that one girl go?” Trish queries above the din. “Here’s her Coke! Well, she’ll be back. They always come back,” she says with a smirk. “Corn dog? That’s $2.11.” The register beeps and chirps, which is music to the ears of drive-in owners, who have to worry about what’s in the sky, as well as what’s in the fryer. “It rained last week, but we didn’t do too bad; we didn’t have to close ‘er down!” Trish banters but then turns earnest. “You know, the rain hurts us even when it doesn’t fall. We’ll lose two or three hundred if it even looks like rain.” Lanny takes a somewhat more hard-nosed approach when it comes to what happens at the Bourbon if it starts raining. “Keep on playin’!” he exclaims with a wry grin.
Lanny’s been the proprietor of the Bourbon for over ten years, taking after his father Everett, who owned and ran it for over twenty. “We live and breathe it,” he says, with a reserve of pride. And that must have something to do with what draws these characters to the drive-in life – the wide array of challenges to be faced on a daily basis. And the camaraderie which helps to address these challenges.
“Used to be back in the old days, the fog would raise up, and Dad would get on the PA and say ‘okay, if everybody wants to watch the show, start your cars up,’ and everybody’d start their cars up and the fog would raise and we’d watch the show.”
These days, drive-in owners take a casual view and a certain pride in their trade. “We’re real good friends with the lady at the Judy, in Mt. Sterling. We communicate all the time and visit sometimes. We kinda compare notes business-wise, to see what works. We borrow parts off of them and they borrow parts off of us sometimes. It’s not a cutthroat business. We don’t hurt her that bad and she don’t hurt us.”
On the other side of Lexington, close to Winchester, Chakeres Sky-vue manager Owen Young displays a similar devotion while surveying the scene an hour before the gates open – cars are already lined up by the dozens.
Like the Earlywines at the Bourbon, Young seems to be in it for the long haul. “I eat, sleep and live the drive-in. See that trailer on the back of the lot?” Owens says, pointing back beyond the outlying 2nd screen. “That’s where I live! My wife and I have both been here for 11 years. She runs the concessions and I take care of the rest of it. We love it.”
Young has previously spent his time managing indoor theaters, but the drive-in is different. “You can go outside and be with your customers. At the indoor, once the movie starts, they’re in the auditorium and you’re in the lobby. Here, I can go up to people’s vehicles and talk to them.” And in case you thought social politesse was out the window at the drive-in, take it from Young – it’s not. “I’ve got several friends that come out and if I don’t speak to them, they get kind of upset.” Bet you can’t say the same for the ticket-pusher at your neighborhood multi-plex.
It seems like drive-ins offer a peculiar kind of community that thankfully keeps people coming back. Zimmerman seems to understand the mentality, “I still think the biggest part of it isn’t nostalgia, but the original concept of the drive-in theater, which is value and convenience. You ask people why they come, and about 1% say nostalgia. Most say ‘value.’ They get two movies, and they don’t have to worry about finding a baby-sitter – it’s a lot of the things that made it popular when it first arrived on the scene.”
If you’re a fan or you’re curious, time’s almost up, at least for the 2001 season; the Sky-vue typically closes up after Labor Day weekend, while the Bourbon tends to wing it a little while longer. According to Mr. Earlywine, “We stay open after Labor Day, but only on Fridays and Saturdays. Then we just see how the crowd drops off, and when it drops off to nothing, we close it up.”
So go. Do it for the value or for the onion rings or for the starry night or for the apes or lizards. You just might get bitten by the big screen under the big sky. You’ll probably get bitten by some bugs. But you probably won’t get bitten by any monsters, so relax.
Mick Jeffries spent the last two years in New York City, helping burst the internet bubble while working as a production coordinator for a documentary film shot by New York Times television’s program Science Times, done in conjunction with the National Geographic Channel. He is currently performing feats of graphic design and wordsmithing in Lexington. When business tapers off, he’s been known to levitate in plain view of a crowd. He can be reached at www. mickjeffries.com.
Open for business
These drive-ins are within thirty miles of Lexington.
Paris, KY 40361
URL: http://members. nbci.com/bourbdrivein/
Open Fri-Sun, until Labor day, Fri/Saturday indefinitely thereafter
Sound: FM, speakers
Winchester, KY 40391
Season: Memorial Day – Labor Day
Sound: AM, speakers
4078 Maysville Rd.
Mt. Sterling, KY 40353
Season: April – October
Sound: AM, speakers