Stuck on the drive-in

Posted: Sunday, April 04, 2010

My wife and I were looking for something really novel to do with an evening in Seattle awhile back when I thought: "Jeez, I haven't been to a drive-in theater in decades."

I searched around the Internet and found one in Auburn, about 30 minutes south of the city. Melissa was game, so we headed down the freeway. "This'll be great," I assured her.

Few people believe me when I tell them we used to have drive-in theaters in Alaska.

It's true. In fact at one point we had three -- all in Anchorage. The first was the Billikin Drive-In on Muldoon Road. A few years later the Sundowner Drive-In opened at the corner of Fireweed Lane and the Seward Highway. And the Cinema 360 lasted for about a year in the mid-1970s. It's debatable whether it closed because drive-ins were on the way out or because of its weird design - a series of back-projection screens in a big circle.

Granted, it was pretty hard to see a cartoon or two and a full-length feature in the summer. Gates opened at dusk and the main feature usually started about 11 p.m. If it was a double feature, at least teenagers had an excuse for staying out past curfew.

Winters were better. You could see a double feature with movie previews and cartoons and even a short feature. Sometimes the show started at 6 p.m. and didn't end until 1 a.m.

The only problem was keeping warm.

The drive-ins in Anchorage had these little space heaters hanging right below the speaker. You pulled the space heater in the car and usually started the evening with it on the floorboards. By the time your feet were toasty, the windshield was fogging up. So you brought the heater up on the dashboard. Once the windshield was clear you'd put the heater back on the floor until your feet began to sweat. Then you'd turn on the car and run the engine heater until your exhaust plume started to block the picture screen for the cars parked behind you. Once those folks started honking their horns, you shut off your car and turned on the little space heater again.

Our Friday night in Auburn would be better, I thought. It's the Lower 48, normal daylight and nighttime. Moderate temperatures. And ohh, to taste drive-in snack bar food again!

We pulled into the parking lot and it was just as I remembered - almost. The posts were still there, but there were no grey, cast pot-metal speakers. An insulated wire ran from the post with an exposed, rusty alligator clip on the end. I looked around and spotted a guy walking around the lot with a roll of black electrical tape on his finger.

"New here?" he asked. "Yeah," I answered. "Where's the speakers."

He took the wire from my hand. My rental car had no whip radio antenna for the alligator clip. The antenna was molded into the rear window. He ripped off about 6 inches of black tape and affixed the bare wire to the window. He told me to tune the car's radio.

OK, new drive-in technology. I guess it has been awhile, but I can live with that.

Melissa and I headed to the snack bar. I was ready for a big whiff of buttered popcorn. But it wasn't happening. Instead, we found a display counter stocked with large bags of popped corn, covered in cellophane.

Well, that'll have to do. For drinks, Melissa got a can of cola. I spotted a sign advertising chocolate malts and had to have one. The sign pointed to a freezer. I reached in and pulled out a small, cold plastic cup. Altogether, about $15.

Back at the car I had to reaffix the black tape to the rear window. While we waited for the movie to start I glanced over to see if I could figure out why a toddler was screaming in the car two parking spaces over. I saw a woman bent over into the car's rear seat, and it looked like she was wrestling with something. The woman was on the large side; her hip huggers were not. Then I saw what looked like a used disposable diaper fly over her shoulder.

"Well," I said to Melissa, "The marquee did say 'Fridays are Family Night!!'"

We removed the cellophane from the popcorn and grabbed handfuls. I thought I had bitten down on foam packing peanuts. The corn was ridiculous, and that made Melissa start to laugh.

I'll drink some of my malted, I thought. Except the straw wouldn't go in. The malted was frozen solid. I stuck it between my thighs to thaw. Melissa started laughing again.

The movie was "Rush Hour 3." One of the worst movies ever, in my opinion. Worse, the black tape kept releasing from the window and I had to keep mashing it back on. I tried to console myself by taking little sips of malted and when I started sucking air Melissa would start to laugh again.

When the radio went dead again, I got out and used my fist on the tape. It was dusty from hitting the ground so many times. This is stupid technology, I thought.

The movie finally ended. I started the engine and made a move for the exit. Our night of wild abandon was finally over and I hit the freeway back to the hotel.

But then I noticed something flickering in the rear view mirror. Melissa turned around to get a better look. She started laughing hysterically.

"It's -- it's black tape -- stuck to the window!"

Larry Campbell is the executive editor at the Peninsula Clarion.

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