Parked on the Back Row

The relic appeared on my desk like a genie’s apparition. A friend told me at the gym that he would drop them off, still, when I flipped on the light to my office on a September morning a few years back and saw the short pole, cap and two speakers I was surprised.

Sixty years ago, my parents, R.B. and Mary Palmer, purchased the Pleasant Drive-In Theatre from Kenneth Sleigh. The theater was located where Parker Trailers is today, south of Mount Pleasant. 1957 was the height of “Happy Days” with duck tails and hot rods. It was also, in many ways, the best of times.

My parents were promoters. They made going to movies fun, family entertainment. We had pony rides on the playground, a hula hoop contest on the roof of the concession stand and fireworks on the Fourth of July.

As a rule, there were four shows each week. One would play Sunday through Tuesday, another Wednesday and Thursday, and a double feature on Friday and Saturday.

We could count on a large crowd any time we played John Wayne, but there were other stars who could pack them in as well. One was Robert Mitchum. I only learned recently how we were able to get the first run on Mitchum’s moonshine and fast car classic, Thunder Road. Most movies played at the Martin Theater in town before we could rent them, but Thunder was different.

According to Robert Osburn on Turner Classic Movies, the studio decided Thunder Road was not good enough for regular theater release and sent it to the drive-ins where kids loved it. Every time we played that show, cars would back up on U.S. 271 waiting to get in.

The movie business has changed a lot. Dad could rent movies for less than $100. Only major productions like The Ten Commandments commanded a percentage of ticket sales.
Today, studios demand almost all of the gate.

Of course, tickets in those days only cost 35 cents and on Tuesday night, you could bring in a car-load for 50 cents.

In the concession stand, popcorn sold for a dime. A hot dog cost a quarter. I shed many tears chopping onions before the show.

The projection booth was a fascinating world of its own full of powerful rectifiers (converting electrical current from AC to DC), carbon arcs and mysterious ways to thread up film. It was where the big guys hung out, but eventually, I would learn how to splice film and run a projector.

It was an age of personal service where someone pumped gas for you and carried groceries to your car. We would wash your windshield for you as you came in and bring drinks and popcorn to your car during the show.

A fourth grader can learn a lot tapping on the glass of a steamed up Ford, asking if they would like some refreshments. Some folks thought it fun to try to sneak in the drive-in. They would hide in trunks or run through the exit. We thought it was fun to catch them.

Dad hired high school boys to watch the lot, nabbing many of the freeloaders. The yard police had another duty as well. On a chart showing each speaker pole, they recorded the license plate of every car.

With kids wanting better sound systems for their jalopies, the theft of speakers had become a problem. Often, people just pulled out, forgetting to lower their window and return the speaker to the pole. Sometimes we would find the speaker thrown on the side of the highway or we would find broken glass beside the pole.

Once Dad prosecuted a couple of folks for stealing speakers, the problem abated. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie business, but I don’t think a drive-in is a viable venture today. Daylight savings time forces shows to start late. People are less tolerant of sitting in 92-degree heat, swatting mosquitoes while paying to watch a movie.

Anyway, as Bob Hope would say, “Thanks for the memories.”


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