The passion pits of the past and present

Published 10:03 am Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Column: Tales from Exit 22, by Al Batt

We passed the past.

As my wife and I drove carefully to Arnolds Park, Iowa, we went by a drive-in movie theater.

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I wondered aloud if any of the Arnolds had ever parked there.

The Superior 71 Drive-In Theater is at the intersection of Highways 9 and 71, about six miles east of Spirit Lake.

There aren’t many drive-in theaters left. This theater was built in 2008 using the screen of an old drive-in from Estherville. Such enterprises were popular in the 1950s and 1960s. There were once as many as 4,000 drive-in theaters in the United States.

Double features are presented at the Superior 71 and goodies are available at the concession stand. There is room for hundreds of cars to fan out in front of the 90-foot screen, a screen big enough to show a movie and its sequel simultaneously. Gone are the archaic speakers that produced a scratchy, tinny sound.

A moviegoer grabbed one of the post-mounted speakers, rolled down the car window, placed the wired speaker inside and then rolled the window up. Mosquitoes found the cracked windows to be open invitations to lunch. People sometimes forgot about the speaker and drove off, ripping it from the post and possibly breaking a window. The sound now comes from a low-power transmitter whose signal is picked up by FM car radios.

Drive-in movies occur occasionally at celebrations and festivals, but there are only a few drive-in theaters still operating in Minnesota — Litchfield, Long Prairie, Luverne and Warren. Many of the former drive-ins became sites for flea markets.

Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. opened the first drive-in movie theater in 1933 in Pennsauken Township, N.J.

Drive-in theaters declined for a variety of reasons. They were businesses that operated only a few hours a day, for a few months a year, and depended upon kind weather. Cable television, video rentals and multiplex theaters provided tough competition.

It was difficult to see through fogged car windows, but I remember seeing the hottest love scenes at a drive-in.

Then my father told me to stop staring at the couple in the next car and watch the movie.

That’s why, back before zombies could vote, I called drive-ins “passion pits.”

I know someone who dated regularly at drive-ins, who asked, “They showed movies there?”

Some folks claimed that nothing on the screen ever matched the activities in the parked cars. I don’t know if that was true, but I do know that the movie stopped working one night and it was 40 minutes before anyone complained.

The local passion pit was the Starlite Drive-In Theater. The Starlite was the most common name given to Minnesota’s drive-ins. A person could watch a movie from the comfort (or discomfort) of a car at the Starlite. If it rained, we watched the movie between passes of the windshield wipers.

There was nothing like watching the stars under the stars or a movie under the moon, hail or thunderstorms. Stories are told of miscreants sneaking people into a drive-in movie by hiding them in the trunk of cars.

The passion pit I frequented was known for running “dusk to dawn” horror films that we called “creature features.” Such cinematic delights as “Mothra,” a film about a giant caterpillar that destroyed things and became a giant moth that destroyed things, and “The Day of the Triffids,” a tender picture about mutant killer plants that went around stinging people for no reason while behaving worse than any dandelion. In reality, those movies weren’t all that scary. They depended upon our imaginations to make them frightening. There were no movies shown that would ruin the book. A schedule leaning heavily toward B movies (usually science fiction or rock ’n’ roll) typically resulted in deep sleep for serious movie fans.

During intermission, as crickets chirped contentedly, the drive-in showed animated advertisements for the concession stand, commercials for local businesses, and persistent reminders of when the movie would start.

The passion pit had the necessary concession stand that smelled of popcorn. It was where an appetite could escape a parked car and meet its match in hot dogs, popcorn, pop or candies such as Jujubes, Jujyfruits, Good & Plenty, Mike & Ike, Junior Mints or Milk Duds.

It seemed as if I’d just arrived at the drive-in, when I’d hear the inconceivable announcement, “The concession stand will be closing in five minutes.”

Drive-in movie theaters are both new and nostalgic. They are the reel things.

And if you don’t like the movie, you can ask for your gas back.


Hartland resident Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Sunday.