Summer’s almost done, but it’s still not too late to check out your friendly, neighborhood drive in movie theater…
You’re out under the stars, holding court in the front of your car, the bed of your pickup and/or in the lawn chair of your choice. The massive outdoor movie screen glaring back at you.
Kind of like a poor man’s Starlight Theatre…
Or as the Web site driveinmovie.com describes it – celebrating "the presence of the past." Which worked for me since my trip to KCK’s Boulevard Drive In Saturday entailed watching a sendup to the 60s sci-fi hit, "Planet of the Apes."
While affording me the opportunity to grill the longtime owner of the "world’s greatest drive in theatre," octogenarian Wes Neal.
Starting with the quadruple bypass heart surgery he had on his 82nd birthday.
"I told the surgeon I was going to draw a cartoon of me on the operating table," Neal says. "And him swinging an ax and saying, ‘Happy Birthday!’ "
Speaking of memorable moments…
"In two more years it’ll be our 60th birthday at the drive in," Neal says. "If I’m still living then. I’m sort of easing into retirement."
Neal says the first ever drive in movie theater in this country went downin 1933 with a sheet for a screen and a projector on a car hood. Which doesn’t exactly explain why Americans fell in love with the concept in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
"Drive ins didn’t become prominent until after World War II and all these soldiers came home and bought cars," Neal explains. "And people didn’t want to give up their cars – they wanted to be in their cars."
Might that have had something to do with the stricter morals of the day and the need for young men and women to find a getaway for some romantic quality time? After all, they didn’t call drive in theaters called "passion pits" for nothing, right?
"Well, you just told me," Neal quips.
So did Neal have to patrol the parking lot with flashlights back then to limit the in-car hanky-panky to an R-rating?
"No, we didn’t," Neal says. "We didn’t want to run away half of our customers – or a third, anyway."
These days, "There’s not as much smooching going on," Neal says. "People don’t care what their kids do (at home)."
Translation: nobdody needs to go to a drive in to find love.
The wildest thing that ever went down at the Boulevard over the years?
"A lot of people for one reason or another – mostly because they could – put their hands up in front of the projector so it showed on the screen," Neal says. "People used to like to do that."
Man, that’s what I call wild!
How about the sneak in factor? Looks like it might not be that hard to pull off.
"They used to come over the fence in droves," Neal says. "Now you can’t pay ’em to sneak in. People ask me, do people still sneak in and I say, ‘No, I wish they would.’ Because they pay $8 to get in and it costs me $9 to put on the show. So I’d make a dollar."
Neal’s had his share of celebrity visits as well. No Academy Award winners, but people like actress Elizabeth James, the motorcycle-riding hottie/damsel in distress in the 1967 Billy Jack movie "The Born Losers."
"I asked her if she liked riding motocycles," Neal says. "And she said, ‘Never been on one.’ "
Now a little empirical wisdom gleaned from Neal’s 50 years of operating a drive in theater.
"Drive ins are noted for three things," he muses "Corndogs, mosquitoes and trains – I don’t know why so many drive ins are built near train tracks ."
Estimates peg the number of drive ins in the US at between 4,000 and 5,000 in the late 1950s. However, less than 500 still exist, according to drive-ins.com.
Are they here to stay?
"I don’t think so," Neal says. "Because eventually the property’s going to get too (valuable). And a lot of ’em are owned by mom and pops like me. And when they die off…"
The first wave of drive ins dying off followed their wildly popular run in the 50s, 60s and early 70s, Neal says.
"Then in the 80s, the bottom just dropped out," Neal says.
The drive in customers of today are "middle class people, mostly 20 to 40,"he says. "And several older people come. They like it because they remember how drive ins used to be."
Speaking of which, did the Boulevard ever show X-Rated movies?
"We did way back when all the drive ins were closing," Neal says. "Everybody tried X-rated movies, but it didn’t work."
These days the Boulevard’s weekend swap meets help keep the wolf away from the door.
"That’s been the salvation of this drive in," Neal says.