Drive-in entertainment’s renewed life

FILLERS

BY JOHN CULLEN

With the emphasis on social distance and the craving for entertainment, there has been a renewed interest lately in drive-in movies.

It’s a popular diversion in many areas in the country, where movies are projected on bed sheets hung from garage doors, to makeshift screens set up in large parking lots. Drive-in concerts are following the trend too. Entertainers ranging from country singer Alan Jackson to comedian Jim Gaffigan have been performing on stage while people watch and listen from in, on top of or around their cars, supposedly remaining a safe distance from each other. If they can’t hear the music they can listen on their car radios.

We Cullen Boys can wax poetic about drive-in movies. Four of us — I, Bill, Jim and Art — worked as projectionists at the Corral Drive-In Theatre during our high school years. In those days running projectors required some skills. You had to thread two projectors, switch from one to the other every 15 minutes or so, splice film and assemble reels of coming attractions, make sure the carbon arc lamps were properly adjusted in the lamphouses and pray the film wouldn’t break, which was a common occurrence in the drive-in because the prints of the second-run movies we received were not in the best shape. It kept you hopping all night. Now films are digital; it’s all controlled by computer when someone in the lobby presses a button.

I started the trend in 1964 changing the marquee and working as a projectionist at the Corral during the summer and at the Vista downtown during the winter. It was a great job which I continued through high school and summers in college.

The Corral was located just east of Lakeside on 120th Street, the blacktop that extends south from Radio Road. It occupied several acres and the movie could be seen on the giant screen by passing motorists on H­­­ighway 71 a half mile east. The drive-in was also known as the “passion pit,” an escape for amorous teenagers. Theatre employees referred to it as the “farm.”

When I began working there drive-ins couldn’t get first-run movies. The good movies played at the so-called “hard tops” — indoor theatres. Drive-ins were relegated to play the so-called B movies: second-run features and so-called “sexploitation” and biker movies that were considered risqué then but wouldn’t raise an eyebrow on TV today. But for a lot of the kids wrestling in their fogged-up cars, it didn’t matter what was on the big screen.

The omnipresent LuVerne Fett cleaned the Vista and stood sentry at the Corral.  He watched for kids who tried to sneak in without paying by hiding their friends in the trunk, then letting them out after it was dark. He had a sixth sense for sneakers. He could tell if kids were hiding in the trunk because the back end of the car would ride low. They couldn’t evade LuVerne and his giant flashlight.

The Corral, like the Vista Theatre downtown, was owned and managed by Del Farrell and his wife Florence, exceptional people who treated the staff like their own family, which included son David and daughters Barbara and Nancy. Florence made the best sloppy joes at home and brought them out to the drive-in every evening to sell in the concession stand. Theatres don’t really make money on ticket sales; their profit comes from concessions. Del — we called him “Chief” — told me the paper bag cost more than the popcorn it held. Del was a middle-aged guy who loved muscle cars, especially Chrysler products, because they had powerful Hemi engines. He drove a souped-up Plymouth with a heavy duty suspension and a throaty exhaust. He also loved photography and took thousands of color slides and showed them at the staff Christmas parties at the Farrell home on the corner of Lake Avenue and Second Street. The Farrells didn’t take many vacations. The movie business was their life and livelihood.

The shows started at dark and always included a double feature, so we didn’t get out of there until after midnight. A few times each summer we’d run a special “Buck Night,” when all the people you could fit in a car would get in for $1 total. We made up for it with all the food we sold.

Cars pulled into the drive-in next to poles from which small metal speakers hung. You’d place the speaker inside your car to listen to the movie, which was projected on a screen that was probably 120 feet wide and 70 feet tall. Inevitably forgetful people would drive out with the speaker still in the car, which not only would damage the speaker but also their car window, if it was rolled up. Later technology allowed the sound to be broadcast over low-power FM through the car’s radio.

Lakeside Presbyterian Church held Sunday morning services there for many years. We chuckled thinking about people driving in to worship on Sunday morning at a place that had shown “Hells Angels on Wheels” the night before.

Drive-in movies began in the late 1940s and grew to a peak of over 4,000 nationwide in the 1950s and 1960s. They started fading in the 1970s and now there are only about 350 in the U.S. The Corral probably closed in the early 1980s. Several homes now occupy the space where the Corral once stood. There are only about three drive-ins left in Iowa, including one in Spirit Lake; the next closest is in LuVerne, Minn.

Another meandering down Memory Lane by Old Man Cullen.

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