MAXWELL:  Parked in our memories

4/12/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

One lonely night

At this drive-in

And now I know

What a fool I’ve been . . .

Just like this coke

My love is gone

I’ve hit the bottom

Now I’m all alone.

_ Buddy Holly, An Empty Cup

Fellas Bond, a 68-year-old resident of Cary, N.C., is one of the people U.S. Postal Service officials had in mind when they included drive-in movies among 15 subjects that citizens were to select as stamps to commemorate the 1950s.

Drive-in movies was the top vote-getter, surprising even postal officials.

Bond, who warmly remembers drive-in movies, still laughs uproariously when telling the story of her father, Roy Wood, who took her, her younger sister and her sister’s girlfriend to the local outdoor theater in rural Georgia a few years after World War II.

Sixteen at the time, Bond badgered her father into taking them to the drive-in movie, his first ever. They arrived early. Her father, unfamiliar with drive-in customs, thought that, since he was in the front seat and had passengers in the rear, he needed two speakers _ one in the front and one in back.

His solution?

“He parallel parked between two speakers,” Bond said during a telephone interview. “We saw what he was doing and were tickled to death. We tried to keep from laughing because we knew he would get mad, but we laughed so hard we couldn’t talk. Finally, he said, “What in the hell are y’all laughing at?’ And I told him that he was not supposed to park that way.

“He said, “Well, how in the hell do I park?’ I showed him. He said, “How in the hell are we going to hear all of these speakers parked like that?’ I told him that we’re not supposed to have but one speaker and to look at how everybody else was parked. He fussed, “What the hell do they know? They don’t know how to park.’ I finally got him to back up and turn the car around and park it right. But he mumbled and cussed all night.”

Bond represents millions of Americans who fondly remember the drive-in and those awful movies of the 1950s with hackneyed themes based on what self-styled flick critic Joe Bob Briggs calls the “3 Bs”: blood, breasts and beasts.

Drive-in lovers become misty-eyed recalling the bikers, zombies, mummies, vampires and other stupid-looking ghouls and beach-blanket cuties who entertained them under the stars. And those titles _ Wife Beware, The Beach Girls and the Monster and High School Hellcats _ bring back poignant memories.

Actually, no one should be surprised that drive-in movies garnered 456,176 votes, beating out “Victory over polio” by 50,000 votes and other more serious subjects _ “The Korean War,” “Desegregation of Public Schools” and “U.S. Launches Satellites” _ by even wider margins.

Why did so many people select drive-in movies, also called, among other names, underskyers, ozoners, under-the-star emporiums and passion pits, as the most evocative image of the 1950s?

Valoree Vargo, manager of Stamp and Product Marketing for the Postal Service, said that baby boomers, nostalgic for the “good old days,” overwhelmingly picked drive-in movies. They see the 1950s as a time of prosperity, hope and wholesome entertainment. This decade gave birth to the modern teenager, a creature who redefined the concept of youth and independence.

“They flocked to date and be alone,” write Don and Susan Sanders, authors of the book The American Drive-In Theatre. “They flocked to eat corn dogs and gulp cherry sodas; they flocked to show off their new clothes and they flocked to see schlocky movies like I Was a Teenage Werewolf and The Blob.”

As teenagers were experiencing new independence _ smooching or otherwise cavorting without heavy adult supervision _ the nation as a whole had cast off the gloom of the war in Europe and discovered a freedom of the open road ushered in by affordable cars and cheap gasoline.

Drive-in movies and cars were a marriage made in heaven.

Paradoxically, for all the privacy it permitted, the drive-in was a communal force, too. It gave entire towns a sense of cohesion, a feeling of sharing the fun with others. Few things, for example, generated more camaraderie than honking your horn along with dozens of other moviegoers as a monster with a dumb outfit and a bad make-up job limped across the screen in hot pursuit of some pretty young blond.

Think of the number of kids who laughed at those scenes in school the following week.

Here was a place, as Jane and Michael Stern write in their Encyclopedia of Pop Culture, where families “could come . . . with the kids in their pajamas, Mom in curlers, Dad in his undershirt, and nobody would mind.”

Leave us not forget that a generation of future rugrats were conceived in the open air of drive-ins appropriately named Sky-Vue, Sunset, Starlite. One expert in the 1950s estimated that less half the people at a drive-in movie actually watched the entire flick.

Indeed.

Most of these gentlefolk were engaged in one form of hanky-panky or another.

Even Hunter Thompson, the nation’s guru of gonzo journalism, waxes nostalgic _ in his own way, of course _ when speaking of ozoners:

“When the drive-ins closed, I stopped going to the movie theaters. The cloistered indoor experience was like being in jail, compared with the sprawled-out luxury of a huge screen looming down on you and the cheap tin sound booming in your ears, along with the sweet heavy smells of tobacco and whisky and popcorn and the windows fogged up from body heat and muffled screams and doors suddenly opening and closing and shapes passing by in the darkness with armloads of beer and yellow mustard. It was the right way to live, and I believed it always would be.”

Ah, the memories. What an appropriate postage stamp drive-in movies will be, commemorating a decade that has a special place in America.