MAXWELL:  Sad goodbye to 28th Street Drive-In

6/21/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

If you are a Pinellas County resident nostalgic for drive-in theaters, you had better unfold that rumble seat, rinse out that favorite thermos and truck out to 4990 28th St. N. On June 30, the county’s one remaining ozoner _ the 28th Street Drive-In _ will not see another moonlit, starry night. Gone, too, will be those steamy car windows. Remember them?

The 50-year-old theater is shutting down forever.

The land it is on has been sold to the School Board. Citing stricter zoning laws, high land prices and a shortage of large tracts of land, Harold Spears, president of the company that owns the theater, told the St. Petersburg Times that “it is practically impossible to build a new drive-in theater today.”

I, like thousands of other Floridians, fondly remember the drive-in theater. In fact, my family, many of my childhood acquaintances and I had a love affair with the drive-in. I grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s as a migrant farm worker. Each year, I followed my family and others from South Florida to Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, upstate New York, Michigan and back to Florida. We harvested melons, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, apples and cherries. We rarely stayed in one place longer than two months.

We worked hard, often six days a week, from first light to last. But at the week’s end, everyone _ old men and women, teenagers on hormones and young children _ knew that a great reward awaited us down the road or in a neighboring town: the drive-in theater.

Indeed, no matter where we traveled, a drive-in was within driving distance. As black migrant farm workers, we were always strangers. Few local blacks wanted us in their part of town and, of course, no whites wanted anything to do with us. We always lived in migrant camps or in designated sites out of town.

Rarely were we welcomed in indoor theaters. But drive-ins were different. Each Saturday or Sunday night, no matter where we were _ Hastings, Fla., Raleigh, N.C., Exmore, Va., Dover, Del., Long Island, N.Y. _ we found a Sunset or a Starlite or a Sky-Vue or some other named drive-in.

And we were a sight to behold: dozens of migrants in a caravan of old pickups and beat-up Buicks, Chevys, Fords and Pontiacs pulling up to the entrance of a theater. The owners loved our hard-earned bucks, and we loved the amenities of the outdoor theater.

The movies, always awful, were a wondrous respite from the daily toil in the fields, orchards and groves. The cherry Cokes, the hot dogs and burgers, the candy bars, the popcorn and other treats made us feel as if we were part of the human race after all.

“Drive-in night,” as we called it, was the one time that we dressed up and put on perfume or cologne. The concession stand gave us our one real opportunity to mingle with the local residents. At the stand, the locals seemed to forgive us for being “dirty outsiders” as we forgave them, at least temporarily, for having snubbed us during the rest of the week.

In a strange way, the drive-in experience gave us dignity. All week, as we sweated in the hot sun, ate our meals in the fields, rested under trees or beneath truck beds or wagons, we laughed and talked about the latest stupid zombie or biker movie we had seen.

The drive-in, always reasonably priced, fortified us like nothing else could.

Each weekday was one day closer to drive-in night. Even now, I believe that knowing we were going to the drive-in at week’s end made farm work bearable, at least for the children. The movies also gave our parents some greatly needed time away from their energetic offspring. More than a few future fieldhands were conceived on drive-in night.

So, if you remember drive-ins fondly and want to re-create that old under-the-sky feeling, time is running out in Pinellas County and the rest of the country. Short of physically going to a drive-in, the best ticket these days may be the vicarious experience found on drive-in Web sites and in books.

Me _ I prefer books. The best on the market on this subject are written by husband-and-wife team Don and Susan Sanders. Published in 1997, their first such book, The American Drive-In Movie Theatre, is a colorful work that covers nearly every aspect of the industry. Some of the photographs, such as those of lovers making-out on the front seat of their car or those juicy hotdogs dripping with mustard, make you go back in time. Their second book, Drive-In Movie Memories, is a wonderful collection of the personal experiences of writers nationwide. A version of my experiences above is published in Memories.

I say goodbye to the 28th Street Drive-In with a lump in my throat. This old under-the-star-emporium, like others nationwide, was a valuable piece of Americana that will not be forgotten.