A Great Drive-in Bites the Dust
by Hal Jacobs
We read the death notice in the newspaper several weeks ago. So last weekend we packed the car with lawn chairs, blankets, ice chest, and Sony boombox, then we backed out of the driveway, and drove to the North 85 Twin Drive-in. It's hard not to feel a lump in your throat when a truly great drive-in (one of two in the metro area) will be turned into dust this winter to make room for (another!) multiplex.
To our family the North 85 Drive-in was in a league with the Fox Theatre, the DeKalb Farmer's Market, and Arabia Mountain -- as places both peculiar and vital to Atlanta -- and worth showing off to our out-of-town guests. It was a good old slice of the Americana pie.
Not only that, it was an important part of the local, movie- viewing palette. Not all movies should be watched under the stars, moon, and lights from distant jets, but name one summer action-adventure flick that couldn't be improved by the experience? Cliffhanger, Jurassic Park, Twister, Independence Day, Austin Powers -- all enhanced by a twilight viewing from a lawnchair set up behind the car. Drive-inna-vision.
Admittedly, the drive-in experience isn't for everyone. You drive in and out of the blacktop's deep swells wondering if you'll have a tailpipe for the ride home. You park and set up base camp, then lean back in your director's chair to relax as ... the van-from-hell brakes in front of you, headlights undimmed, as the van driver calculates the angle necessary to back into the tight space beside your cooler. You send your kids off to the drive-in playground, wondering if you'll ever see them again.
Drive-in playgrounds, as a general rule, seem to be inspected, if at all, only at night, without flashlights. Exposed concrete footings, Class IV slides, broken swings, and usually something left over from the 50's -- either a part or whole -- that confounds the imagination of modern children. In the pre-matinee dusk, where every minute of darkness is sifted and measured ("is it time yet?"), children face the most basic law of evolution -- Survival of the fittest and the plain luckiest. Because once you sit on the carousel, you can never be sure who might step out of the darkness to push you into oblivion.
One minute a future seminary student is pushing the carousel, running graceful circles in the deep, well-worn trough, while you enjoy the slow-motion, Scorcese-like pan of the playground. The next minute you're on the carousel of death as a young Harvey Keitel is trying to break new land speed carousel records. While your parents enjoy a quiet moment in the family car, you calculate how much longer you can hang on with white-knuckled fists, gritting your permanent teeth, listening to the shrieks and cries of your fellow riders. Finally, the decision is made for you, and you fly off into the shadows, hitting the hard dirt like a sack of used clothes thrown from the back of a Salvation Army truck. Moments later you realize that not only are you unhurt, but unnoticed. If a child gets tossed in the playground and no one sees him, does he get tossed? While musing on this, a brilliant shaft of light catches your eye in the night sky. It's time. So off you go, crossing the asphalt sea crowded with people who have anchored for the night, to find your place along your family car.
Drive-ins are not for those who care about directors of photography. Something happens to the lighting in a scene when the film is projected a few hundred feet through popcorn exhaust, moths and fireflies onto a large, white billboard. You lose some contrast. You see Julia Robert's teeth, but you can't tell what color her eyes are.
Perhaps the drive-in experience, like a foreign language, should be learned early in childhood. Growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., in the early 60's, I cut my teeth on drive-in features such as The Greatest Story Ever Told at the Normandy Drive-in and Psycho at the Main St. Drive-in -- both deceased. (We were Catholics, so it was only natural that my mother would want her children to see extremes of both good and evil, at least that's my only explanation for taking a child to see Psycho in the early 60's. Truthfully, I drifted asleep until the violins woke me up for the bloody shower sequence, and have been unable to go back to sleep since.)
As soon as I turned 16, I was borrowing the family Buick LeSabre and filling it with friends for expeditions to the Playtime Drive-in. Hot, muggy Friday nights filled with triple features like Caged Heat, Boy and His Dog, and anything with Angie Dickinson. My second greatest fear at the time, after nuclear holocaust, was having a fender bender at the drive-in and my parents seeing the police report. Scene of accident -- PLAYTIME DRIVE-IN.
After high school came college and years of Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen movies -- years without drive-ins. Then, about five years ago, lying on a blanket on the hood of the stationwagon with my five-year-old son, we saw Wayne's World at the North I-85 Twin Drive-In.
And so, years later, we returned to pay our final respects. On one side of the giant unpainted wood fence that divides the twins, Harrison Ford dangled and twisted from Air Force One, while on the other Julia Roberts performed her brave, in-your-face smile. Behind Harrison and Julia was the dense canopy of hardwood trees and overgrown thickets that made you forget I-85 and the millions of people and lights encircling you.
You've still got a few weeks left, weather permitting, for a great drive-in experience. And we still have one remaining drive-in on Moreland Avenue to console ourselves with. In a perfect, thumb-your-nose-at-developers' world, some well-financed renegade would buy the North I-85 Twin and keep it safe for future generations.
Wouldn't "The Ted" make a nice name for a drive-in?
from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Monday, October 6, 1997