One thing that always seems to bring out nostalgia in people is discussion about drive-in theaters.
In days gone by, pulling onto a large field at twilight while dodging metal posts that held boxy, metal speakers was a challenge. You also had to drive slowly over the parking humps that allowed drivers to park their car at a better angle for watching the movie.
It was all part of the fun.
Debbie used to have an old Ford station wagon that had a third seat that faced backward. The rear door opened upward so that it offered a cover if it started to drizzle.
We loved it. The kids would sit outside the car in lawn chairs. If it did rain, they all piled into the car with us. It got crowded, but it was fun.
My first experience at a drive-in was when I was a child. The Southland 75 Drive-in sat just across S.R. 741 from where the Dayton Mall was later built. In the late 1950s, there was very little in that area except for the drive-in.
Mom belonged to a group of 12 ladies who called themselves The Birthday Club. Every month, to assure that no one was ever left out, they held a birthday party. This meant that once a year the party was at our house. That also meant that Dad and all four of us kids had to disappear for the evening.
That usually meant that Dad treated all four of us to a movie at Southland 75.
We loved those nights. Mom would fill two or three paper grocery bags with fresh popcorn. Dad stocked an icy cooler with our favorite soft drinks and we would roll into the drive-in just before sundown. That allowed Dad to find a nice parking spot near the restrooms and we would have a little time to play on the playground.
This annual trip provided Mom an evening with her girlfriends. It was a cherished time for each of us kids, and I think Dad might even have enjoyed it.
Many years later my high school friends and I would grab a date and head out for the evening. We usually ended up at Southland 75, but it was different. Instead of parking near the concession stand, we looked for a spot near the back row.
I drove an old ’52 Dodge that had a trunk the size of a small room. We could easily squeeze in about six classmates and a case of Robin Hood Cream Ale. I have no idea where the Robin Hood Cream Ale came from, and really didn’t care. Over time, I grew to enjoy a warm bottle of ale.
Once we were parked, friends piled out of other rear-row cars and the party began. We really behaved ourselves most of the time. I don’t ever remember being ejected from the driven-in. I’m sure several of my friends never remembered the movie that was showing, but we always had fun. No one ever got in trouble.
One of my favorite memories of the Wilmington Drive-in Theater (other than those absolutely delicious hamburgers) was taking my two boys to watch the movie “Jaws.” The film was originally released in 1975, but I refused to take Josh and Danny to a movie that graphically depicted a great white shark eating people.
That didn’t strike me as entertainment suitable for young boys.
Several years later, “Jaws” came to the drive-in. Despite them being older, I still balked at taking them. They finally wore me down when they assured me that all of their friends had seen the movie. After several days of begging, I filled a paper grocery bag with popcorn, packed some of their favorite soft drinks on ice, and off we went to a fun-filled evening of watching sharks feed on innocent swimmers.
The movie started. One pretty young lady was already turned into shark chum. Our drinks were safely secured onto drink holders. Plastic bowls were filled with popcorn. We settled into my old brown, Ford Pinto station wagon. I sat behind the wheel. Josh settled into the front passenger seat and Danny sat on “the hump.” With popcorn-filled plastic bowls in hand, we waited and watched.
There is a scene early in the movie where the Richard Dreyfus character is snorkeling down to inspect the hull of an abandoned small boat. As he is slowly, carefully prying a shark tooth from a large hole in the hull, a human head plops down into view. It’s a scene made to startle the viewer.
It sure startled all of us. First we screamed, then the Pinto was filled with flying popcorn.
Somehow, Danny and Josh both disappeared. Danny had back-flipped into the rear seat. Josh had contorted and squeezed himself into the tiny space beneath the glove compartment.
Within seconds, we were all giggling.
Families having fun and creating memories is the essence of the old drive-in theaters. Our family will miss that.
I know there is a growing need for affordable housing, but I truly wish that someone with the acreage would fill a large, empty field with speaker posts and parking humps.
There is something special about a drive-in theater.
Randy Riley is a former mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County commissioner.