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Thursday, May 1, 2003 02:20 pm

Ode to the drive-in

Everything old is new again

11 Acre Studio

The persistence of vision is a wonderful thing.

I can still see my father handing over a few dollars to a man bathed in a single white light, his head swarming with moths and June bugs swirling up to the light and the neon sign above. We move into the darkness, slowly rolling into the little hills of crunchy gravel and tufts of grass. The pictures dance, mutely and dim, as our Mercury sedan pulls up to tilt at the screen. My father turns on a tiny speaker near his window. The movie sings.

When the drive-in near where we used to live mysteriously burned to the ground--the projection tower and concession stand charred--they turned it into an auto salvage yard. I guess some of the cars that used to carry us all to those movies finally came home to rest. I should have it so good. I thought we'd never go to another drive-in; the nearest one was over a hundred miles away. We did make the long drive twice. We just had to.

Then we moved to Springfield, and there is a drive-in a few miles away. It has only one screen, but that suffices. The neon sign is pretty good. The gravel is thick and weed-free. The projector blares bright and hardly ever chews up the film. The FM broadcast is clear and strong. The concession stand is clean. They show movies outdoors, and that's enough for me.

It doesn't cost much to go to the Route 66 Drive-in if you bring your own food. It's like a picnic in the dark. But I still get something from the concession stand. It's a donation, because that's where most of the owner's profit is, and I want him to be here next year.

Some people sit on lawn chairs in front of their cars. Kids climb on top of the roof or sit on the hoods. Some open the back of their SUVs or vans and roll around on blankets. Some stay seated inside the car. Some like me can't stand being inside the car and must move around in the dark. First to the concession stand, then to the restrooms, back to the car, and finally strolling the littlest ones around to keep them quiet (that involves bringing a Walkman radio).

It doesn't cost much because most nights it's five bucks to get a grown person in and about half that for kids, with the littlest ones getting in for free. Some nights are "carload" nights. I hope a few kids still sneak in, hiding in a trunk or beneath a seat. That's to be expected, and would disappoint the nose-thumbing, puckish side of me if it didn't happen. I would also expect the stowaways to load up at the concession stand as compensation to the owner or risk a very bad cinematic karmic payment.

Last weekend we saw a third-rate Disney cartoon called The Jungle Book 2. Totally awful. The second feature was Shanghai Knights, a Jackie Chan movie that was short on plot. Jackie is looking old and tired, but he still beats anything on TV.

But that's not the point of the drive-in anyway. You go to be out in the dark night and watch gigantic pictures dance across a huge screen. The kids scream. Teenagers run up and down. Adults relax in their lawn chairs and snuggle.

The Route 66 Drive-in is cut off from the rest of town by Interstate 72, and there isn't an exit for it. And much as you'll be tempted, you can't cut across the ditch to the access road because there is a steel fence blocking the way. You have to really want to go, winding around to a service road. You'll probably be late, but it doesn't matter. It's kind of hard to follow the plot when you've got a small child throwing popcorn at your head and calling you names because you've rescued him from being run down by a car traveling down the aisles.

If you're late and it's just you and someone you might want to get to know better, well, that's not a problem either. So far as you're concerned, it's dark and noisy and we're all rooting for you in your youthful enthusiasm.

If you're early, you can watch the kids play up in front of the cars near the screen. There are sometimes playgrounds where the kids can exhaust themselves. Then the old folks can find some peace and snoring children by the middle of the second feature. And if you're early, you can get a good spot, somewhere near the middle about two-thirds of the way to the back, not too far from the concession stand, close enough to see the guy standing beside the projector, peering out his window, smiling.

The persistence of vision is a wonderful thing. It allows us to see thousands of pictures on a transparent celluloid strip--projected at a rate of 24 frames per second--as a continuous moving image on that huge white screen. A beautiful illusion, enhanced by the open air, the reactions of the crowd, and the knowledge that we are all reaching out to share it.

I glance back to see my boy watch me as I hand over a few dollars to a man bathed in a single white light.

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