by Wes Modes
I remember this: The Omen. A sheet of glass from a runaway glazier's truck run amok hits an unfortunate priest carrying the knives that would put an end to Damian. The priest's head bounces away as I scream in horror. Mom tries to console me and explain that it is only a movie. Only a movie? A movie is as good as real life, and often better. I have seen hundreds of movies, most of them at the drive-in.
Its 1973. I'm seven years-old and the war in Vietnam is winding down. Yet I won't hear the word "Vietnam" for another ten years. I know nothing about current events. But I do know Herbie The Love Bug and Return to Witch Mountain. Mom and I go to the drive-in every weekend.
Mom owns a 1968 Chevy Camero Super Sport, Chevy Green with a black vinyl top. It's a hot car and we spend most of our time cruising around. I'm mom's steady date on a Saturday night. We go to the Wich Hut, eat a burger, fries, and a shake, and then catch a double feature at the movies. Some of my earliest memories are of the drive-in.
I remember this: Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens. Brown paper packages tied up in strings. These are a few of my favorite things.
I'm a regular at Bloomington's own Starlight Drive-in. The kids are as addicted as I am. Spring, summer, and fall on any Saturday night, you'll find us in the back of my old pickup truck, snuggled up in blankets and pillows, munching popcorn and drinking coke (with crushed ice!), watching a drive-in movie.
Sometimes the movie's good, sometimes it's not so great. But who cares? You're out under the stars on a warm night and the lightning bugs are flashing their secret codes and a movie is open to the sky on a four-story screen. What could be better?
The Starlight Drive-in is just south of town on Old Highway 37. It looks like a grassy park with a battalion of speakers lined in neat rows on top of grassy berms. The movies are inexpensive, the food is good and cheap, and the people are friendly.
In contrast, to the mammoth drive-ins of my youth and the impersonal, corporate-owned indoor theaters, the Starlight is a homier, friendlier theater. "We opened as a good family drive-in," says Ruth Stewart. "We had two young children, and we wanted a place that was a little better to take them to."
Ruth and Carl Stewart have run the Starlight now for over 40 years. "We were both teachers when we built it." Ruth says, "It was a summertime occupation. Back then, teachers didn't have any summer income." And what started as a summer job has kept them busy long into their retirement. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night you can find Carl in the box office and Ruth behind the register in the snack bar.
It must be a dream come true for two movie buffs to have a whole drive-in of their own. "People ask if we see a lot of movies," Carl says. "But we never see the show. We don't see it and we don't enjoy it. We don't have time."
"We've always got our minds on something else," Ruth says. "We're worrying whether the picture is going to be bright enough, or whether the sound is going to be loud enough, or whether somebody's coming in that shouldn't be. You get about two or three hundred people in the dark, and you got to sort of pay attention to what's going on."
"We are very busy," Carl says. "We run the whole show. It's a lot of pressure and responsibility. It's just the two of us."
Lights, Camera, Action
"We like to play what we consider drive-in movies," Ruth laughs. "And we like to stick to the better ones. We like to go with action, adventure, and comedy. We don't play dark movies. We don't play any bad Rs. We don't play too much nudity, too much violence, or too much bad language." But I think the Stewarts are more flexible than they let on: In a recent double feature, I saw a cartoonishly violent Jean-Claude Van Damme movie and a semi-steamy romantic comedy.
"Usually, drive-in patrons like action." Something like The Piano or The English Patient wouldn't fly at the drive-in. The artsy films are too long and slow, Ruth tells me. "Like our five-year old son said when we first opened the drive-in: 'Too much talk and not enough ammunition.' We don't want too much talk for a drive-in movie. People like action. That's what the big screen's for."
"Carl does his own booking," Ruth says. "Each film company has a booker for our area. In order for him to choose the movies, he keeps up on what is current and what is coming out. We are only open on the weekends, so we can go through the week to see some of the new ones. He's often invited to trade screenings by the companies." During the winter months, the Stewarts vacation in Florida. "We try to watch all the new movies we can, especially during the winter when we are down there."
At the Starlight, you get a new movie every week. Ruth says, "We don't play movies when they first come out because the film companies expect you to play them for three to six weeks, at least. We don't like to do that in the drive-in because we have practically the same clientele every week. If we played the movies one more week, our customers wouldn't have anywhere to go."
The drive-in seems to be one of Bloomington's best-kept secrets. It's surprising that it isn't a familiar staple of everyone's weekend entertainment menu. Yet, there are still some to whom the existence of the Starlight is news. "There are many people who don't even know about the drive-in," says Ruth. "The ones coming now are bringing their kids and saying, 'Oh boy. I used to do this when I was a kid. I'm so glad you are still open.'"
The crowd that comes to the drive-in depends on the movie. "Last weekend we got a lot of students. If we play a Disney, like 101 Dalmatians, we get all the families with real young kids. If we play a good R, we get all the University people. If we play a redneck action film, we get all the people around here, all us rednecks," Ruth laughs.
There are three big weekends a year, Ruth tells me. "Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. On the three big holiday weekends, we usually have to turn them away. Memorial day is the biggest."
Of course weather is a factor. Thanks to Southern Indiana's sometimes fickle skies, I've watched the end of a movie with the windshield wipers swishing back and forth. I always try to catch the first show of the season, though it is always a gamble since the Starlight opens in what amounts to the tail-end of winter. "We had fairly good crowds, though the weather was terrible. Cold and rain." Ruth says about the beginning of the season. "Most drive-ins don't open until sometime in May." By then we've settled into a long summer of perfect drive-in weather.
Come early to see the pre-show show. In warm weather, families picnic on the grass, kids run about playing tag and baseball, teenagers flit back and forth from car to car, and people sit outside in lawn chairs enjoying the evening.
The Way we Were
"We opened 42 years ago," Ruth says. I try to imagine the theater back in 1955. "Back then, the big thing was big color westerns. You don't do cowboys and Indians anymore -- the Indians wouldn't like that. It's not ethnically correct now," Ruth laughs. "But we had big blockbuster color Western epics. Also shows like The Ten Commandments, big MGM musicals. Today the pictures are more action oriented, big car chases, acts of nature, stuff like that."
When I think of drive-ins, I think of the heyday of the American Dream, the fifties and the sixties, American Graffiti and Happy Days. "Teenagers," Ruth says, "that's about all that went to see movies back then, on dates. They were making real sleazy pictures. It sort of got the reputation of being a passion pit."
"I think those days are long gone. It's no longer a passion pit. We don't have any trouble at all. There is no drinking and no wild parties. No drugs. People are very respectful. And they are turning out a lot of good movies now."
Ruth reported only one recurrent problem at the drive-in: "We've lost one or two speakers in the last ten years. But that's because people forget to take them out of their cars and pull off with them. They usually return them down at the box office on their way out."
Back to the Future
Will drive-ins exist in the next century? I've read a few naysayers who lament the demise of the drive-in. "When VCRs first came out," Ruth says, "they said it'd ruin the movie business. But it hasn't hurt it, and in fact, has probably helped it."
"The future of drive-ins depends on how they are run and operated. Ours is going strong." Theaters are going strong, Ruth says, "in a lot of places where they manage them correctly, play the right kind of movies, and give people good food. It's still a going thing."
The Starlight Drive-in is going full-steam, and so are Carl and Ruth. And they don't look to be slowing down anytime soon. "Who knows who'll take over after we retire? Wanna job?" Ruth laughs again. "We should be retired now. We're both in our seventies. We've had chances to sell it, and we've had several chances to lease it. But we have to have somebody we know who'll carry on the tradition of a good family drive-in. That's probably the reason we're still running it. So far, we haven't found anybody we want to turn it over to."
The tradition of a good family drive-in is a formula that seems to work. "It's mostly just the movies and the management. That's why we have so very little time. We're on top of it. We're not absentee owners. that's for sure," Ruth says. "If it's run right, they will come."