Wednesday, June 10, 2020

On the Radio: Yesterday and today at the Drive-In

Had fun this morning talking with Craig Cohen of KUHF Radio’s Houston Matters about the colorful past — and current renaissance — of drive-ins. You can hear that segment of the program here. 

No joke: The first movie I ever saw at a drive-in really was The 30 Foot Bride Candy Rock, in Mobile, Alabama. And yes, my wife and I really did see Gone with the Wind at a New Orleans drive-in during one of its many theatrical reissues back in the day.

On a related note: Here is the story I wrote for The Houston Post back on Feb. 29, 1992 — Leap Year Day — to mark the closing of Houston’s last drive-in.

FOR ALL OUTWARD appearances, it will be business as usual tonight at the I-45 Drive-In. You can stock up on popcorn, pizza and Pic insect repellent in the concession shack. And you can take your pick of the boffo box-office hit Wayne's World, or the multiple-Oscar-nominated Bugsy, or four other major studio releases.

But once the final frames flicker across the outdoor screens sometime past midnight, the projector will shut down for the last time. Because tonight, the main attraction is The Last Outdoor Picture Show.

The I-45 Drive-in — the largest outdoor cinema in Texas, if not the entire United States, and the last of its kind in Houston — will close down for good after tonight's screenings. The admission, as always, is $6 per adult, children 11 and under free.

The 46-acre theater site, at I-45 North and West Road, has been obtained by Weber & Co., a Dallas-based development group that wants a K-Mart and a Builder's Square, not six battleship-size movie screens, on the property.

“We had originally hoped to stay open until Sunday,” says manager Jan Bettis, “and had a March 1 closing date in our ads. But then they sent us a letter saying that we needed to vacate by March 1. So we’ll be closing Saturday the 29th — Leap Year Day.”

The I-45 Drive-in will close just seven years after opening its gates — and nearly six decades after entrepreneur Richard Hollingshead opened the first U.S. drive-in in Camden, N.J. Camden's theater closed four years after its 1933 debut, a victim of public indifference. The I-45 closes tonight after fighting the good fight against home video, steadily increasing operating and film rental costs, and Daylight Savings Time — but finally losing to the rules of the real estate game.

Ironically, says Bettis, the I-45 was enjoying a slow but steady upsurge in business at the time she received the bad news of its impending close.

Bettis’ father, Cotton Griffith, has operated the I-45 through his Griffith Theaters Co. since 1987, when he leased the drive-in from its original owner, the Dallas-based McLendon Co.

“When we took over,” says Bettis, ''we heard that there had been trouble in the past, as far as rough crowds go. And they had kept kind of B-class movies showing. So when we came in, we added security, and we started doing our best to keep a first-run feature all the time, and just really built up a family atmosphere to where it is now.

 “It’s kind of sad to see it go, because a lot of the baby boomers are coming out with their kids. Like, your parents used to bring you to the drive-in in your pajamas, and they watched the movies, and you went to sleep. Well, that’s what’s happening all over again.”

Bettis smiles when reminded that drive-ins have traditionally been viewed as “passion pits” rather than family affairs.

“I’m sure that was true for some people,” she says. “You always have people that come and tell you, ‘My first child was conceived at the drive-in.’ But I think that’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”

Drive-ins enjoyed their heyday during the 1950s, and continued to attract large audiences well into the early '70s. At one point, Houston moviegoers could choose among such outdoor picture shows as the Market Street Drive-In, the Tidwell, the McLendon 3 and the Thunderbird, where double (and sometimes triple) bills were always available at cut-rate prices. And because drive-ins always needed movies for the bottom half (or two-thirds) of their bills, some movies (especially cult favorites like Thunder Road, Vanishing Point and Walking Tall ) remained in continual circulation long after their initial release.

By the '80s, however, drive-ins were in a state of free-fall decline. Movies began to appear on home video and pay-cable, sometimes even before they made the bottom half of drive-in bills.

“Daylight Savings Time did a lot to hurt drive-ins,” says Bettis. “Because a lot of times, people just don't want to stay up that late. In the summer, we don’t start showing until almost 9 p.m. And by the time that’s over, most people want to be home in their beds.”

“At one time,” says Cotton Griffith, “there were over 20 drive-ins in Houston alone. At the I-45, we’re the Last of the Mohicans, in a sense.”

The target audience for the I-45?

“Anybody and everybody,” Bettis says. “We have grandmas and grandpas that come out here and bring their grandkids, and sit in lawn chairs. And then we have the younger couples that come out with their kids.

“And then we have teen-agers — a lot of teen-agers. Since most of the drive-ins in Houston closed in the early '80s, they’ve never been to a drive-in before. We’ve had several that just drive through the box-office, and just park on the lot. And you go out, and say, ‘Well, did you plan on paying, or what?’ And they’ll go, ‘Oh, doesn’t somebody come out to your car to get your money? How do you do this?’”

Joe Bob Briggs, the nationally syndicated drive-in movie critic, has waxed wroth and waxed nostalgic about the closing of Houston’s final outdoor cinema.

“I’ll never forget my happiest moment at the I-45 Drive-In,” says Briggs, “at the world premiere of Yor: The Hunter from the Future, in 1984. The whole thing was staged by Columbia Pictures so that I would see the movie, but none of the indoor movie critics would. And their efforts paid off. Because of my review, Yor: The Hunter from the Future made $15, instead of the mere $5 it would have made.

“Also, I can't think of the I-45 without remembering that it was the last drive-in built by the late Gordon McLendon, the godfather of the drive-in, the man who built more drive-ins than any man in America. If Gordon could see what’s happening to the I-45…

“Actually, now that I think about it, Gordon would be happy to see what’s happening to the I-45, because Gordon always regarded his drive-ins as investments in raw land. And when it’s time to sell, it’s time to sell.”

On a more serious note, John Bloom, Joe Bob Briggs' more sober-sided alter ego, suggests that economics, not home video or Daylight Savings Time, is the chief culprit in the decline of drive-ins nationwide.

“When most drive-in were built in the 1950s,” Bloom says, “they were on the edge of town so they could be away from the lights. As the towns grew, especially during the 1970s, the town would grow out and surround the drive-in. Depending on what was built around it, the land would become more valuable and the offers for the property would become so big that eventually the owners would sell out.”

And even if the drive-in site itself isn’t sold, Bettis says, the development of surrounding land can hurt business.

“Like, with the I-45,” Bettis says, “you have all the surrounding light that we have out here now. When they put in these freeway lights, that really killed us. And then they built the Wal-Mart, and took down our fence.”

Griffith would like to see some bold entrepreneur take a stab at filling the void that will be left with the I-45’s demise. But he doesn’t hold out much hope for that happening.

“It’s very doubtful,” Griffith says, “because of the land costs and the installation costs. And the film rentals are extremely high. These days, the only way a (drive-in) makes money is with the concession stand. That’s why popcorn prices are so ridiculous.”

So, in all probability, tonight will mark “The End” for outdoor moviegoing in Houston. There are no sequels in store. That’s all, folks.

“That's the drive-in way,” says Joe Bob Briggs. “It's also the Texas way. They can rip down those six drive-in screens, but they can’t take away our memories. We’ll always have Yor.”

No comments: