Armagideon Time

Drive in, nod off

May 26th, 2017

During the social media hub-bub surrounding the fortieth anniversary of Star Wars’ cinematic debut, some folks in my circle recalled the various venues where they first beheld the film. It was much more interesting than the discussions about the franchise itself, which has been all but talked to death at this point.

I can remember exactly where I fist watched Star Wars, because it was where I also saw Superman, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the cinematic release of Battlestar Galactica and every other non-televised movie I watched prior to 1980 — the Pinehurst Drive-In.

It was located off on Route 3A in Billerica, back when the town was still a honky-tonk fringe community and not the condo-clustered suburb it has since become. It was my parents’ choice of cinematic venue because it was cheap, because kept any required parental discipline as a private matter, and because no legitimate theater would allow my old man to keep a cooler full of brewskis at his feet during the show.

During my earlier visits, the audio system was strictly old-school — wired, door-mountable speakers attached to posts. In time they switched to a low wattage local radio broadcast, which was easier on the bodywork and dovetailed more sensibly with New England’s capricious weather.

The place had entered the terminal stage of its lifepsan by then, a haunting carnival of anachronisms which had somehow managed to slouch its way onto the doorstep of the Reagan Era. The act of going there was a Big Family Event in itself, but shabby decrepitude added an extra dose of spookiness to the excitement.

The snack bar was where I encountered my first arcade videogame machine, a solid black and banged-to-shit Night Driver cabinet with scores of cigarette burns on the steering wheel. The drive-in’s pre-feature playlist was also where I was first exposed to the commercial vanguard of “new wave” music which never would’ve penetrated my household’s soft rock bubble otherwise.

From the back seat of my father’s 1973 Thunderbird (with power everything and gas mileage that would make a Hummer limo blush), perched on a foam rubber booster chair, I watched the cinematic fantasies that enthralled a generation.

Sort of.

In truth, my younger self would invariably nod off during the second reel and not awaken until my mother lugged my out of the car after we arrived back home. It’s a side effect of my being a morning person since birth. If I recline past a certain angle after the far side of noon, I will crash out in a matter of seconds. It will happen whether I’m in the middle of a Destiny raid or enthralled by a book, and it’s why Maura ignores my request to turn the TV down a little when I turn in for the night. “Why bother? You’ll be dead to the world in a minute anyway.”

As a result of this circadian quirk, my actual experience of the endings to these films was almost entirely gleaned from trading cards, funnybook adaptations, and word of mouth — and that held true for years, right up until they managed to get an airing on TV or were released on VHS. I “saw” Star Wars in 1977, but I didn’t actually watch the ending until CBS broadcast the film in 1984.

The drive-in padlocked its gates in 1982, by which point the Redstone cinema in Stoneham had already seized the crown on the cheapness and “mid-century modern” dilapidation fronts. The big screen was torn down and an office park was built in its place.

To this day, hearing “Heart of Glass,” “Cars,” or “My Sharona” will trigger lucid flashbacks to the smell of butter flavoring and the patterns of the snack bar’s cracked tile floor.

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2 Responses to “Drive in, nod off”

  1. Mathew

    For many of the same reasons, the drive-in was the venue of choice for my family. Ours was decked out with with a self-serve cafeteria (I can still taste those foil bagged, re-warmed cheese burgers) and a playground.

    My family seemed to have no sense of what might or might not be appropriate viewing for young me. I first saw Jaws in that drive-in, and decided to turn in early under my dad’s coat in the backseat after the diving scene.

    My favorite memory was when my grandparents had my cousins and me over for a sleepover and piled us all in a van to go to the drive-in. They knew we were all Star Wars crazy, and picked the latest Star Warsey kind of movie out then: Alien.

    I was the oldest of the kids at eight. After the chestburster scene, we all retreated to the safe distraction of the playground, occasionally peeking back to what was happening onscreen. I don’t think I saw the complete movie until several years later, after having the details filled in by a Cracked magazine parody.

  2. SJB

    Love that sign

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