Movies Under the Stars

Here was the deal.  I told Daniel if he was good, we’d go see a movie.  Well, he was good, so – after work – I told him to pack his blanket and pillow.  Daniel looked a little confused, but went along with me.  He didn’t understand exactly why we were stopping at the gas station to buy candy to hide in the glove compartment, but he didn’t say anything.  The last straw was when we got onto the entrance ramp to the tollway and – instead of going west towards Rockford – we turned east heading to the suburbs.

“We’re going to see a movie at the drive-in,” I explained.

“Wow!” exclaimed Daniel.  “Great!”  There was a bit of a pause and then I got the question I had been expecting.  “What’s a drive-in?”

Half the movies I saw growing up were from the back seat of a car in a gravel parking lot.  Generally, going to see a show at the drive-in meant a complete night out.  We’d eat at McDonald’s if we were headed to the 53 or the Sky-Hi.  Going west to the Dundale meant dinner at Lottaburger.  There was a 7-11 on the way out to the Cascade.  We’d buy candy and hide it under the seat.  I would giggle the whole time we waited in line, but apparently I looked pretty innocent to the drive-in staff.  Our illicit snacks were never discovered.

Drive-ins showed two movies, even at the single-screen theatres.  One was the main draw and the other was the “insurance”.  I remember being disappointed with Moonraker, but at least I got to see Star Wars for the 26th time.  We drove all the way to the Twin to see Poltergeist II when it came out.  It turned out the better movie was something I’d never heard of called Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  I really liked going to the double screen drive-ins.  If both windshield movies were bad, I could turn around and watch the other screen out the back window.  That’s the way I saw The Exorcist and Jaws.  Of course, there were some drawbacks to a drive-in movie.  The portable speakers tended to be a crapshoot.  My dad would drive from spot to spot, testing them out before we parked for the night.  Even in the seventies you could pick up the movie sound on your AM radio, but that was just substituting one tinny speaker for another.  The picture was big at a drive-in, but dim.  Dark movies were the worst.  When we saw Aliens at a drive-in up in Milwaukee, it was essentially a radio show.


Daniel and I drove down to the Cascade, one of a dozen remaining drive-in theatres in Illinois.  The last movie I saw there was Jurassic Park about fifteen years ago.  The Cascade looked pretty much the same from the outside; a tall screen like a corrugated billboard rising high above a line of trees.  They don’t charge by the car anymore, it’s individual admission now.  On the plus side, you can bring in your own food.  You can even bring stuff to cook on the grills where the playground used to be at the base of the screen (bring your own charcoal though).  We parked and Daniel was fascinated with the chunky metal speaker on a string hanging from a pole next to the car.  We had to hang one on my window though the Cascade broadcasts in stereo these days.

2009_0605_190949Daniel didn’t cotton to the idea the movie would start “whenever it got dark enough”.  We took a little walk around the lot to kill some time.  A few cement plugs marked where the swings used to be.  The “grass” was about the same as I remembered; dirt and some scraggly weeds.  The mosquitoes were the same too.  Daniel and I didn’t stick around long.  We walked back to the concession pillbox and waited in line around the horseshoe shaped counter.  It all came back to me: the boxes of popcorn, the self-serve hamburgers in their foil envelopes.  Daniel watched the purple, red and yellow “drink” rain down the sides of their respective aquariums and just had to have a cup.

It was almost dark by the time we got back to the car.  The Corolla is probably half the size of the Impalas my dad used to drive to the show, but Daniel and I were pretty comfortable.  We reclined the front seats.  I jammed the bucket of popcorn between us.  A cool breeze blew gently through the car windows.  We bundled up under our respective comforters, snuggled tight with our candy and cokes, and sat back to watch Land of the Lost and A Night at the Museum II.




  1. I was always hurt a little bit that you and your brother always remembered things you did with your Dad, but you rarely ever remembered things you did with me — I guess because you were boys and liked being with your Dad more. Doing things with Mom was kinda “mundane”, I suppose, and lacked the comraderie of being “one of the guys”. However, I remember taking you guys to the drive-in movies all the time when you were young, especially during the week when your Dad was out of town and the weather was too nice to sit at home. You and your brother seemed to really think the playground under the screen was neat–as opposed to one, say, at your school! Your little brother would wear himself out playing so hard. And you’re right about the wait — we had to wait so long for it to get dark enough for the movie that your brother would many times fall asleep before it ever started. You’d usually make it through the first movie, but I often found myself watching the second movie alone. I did think, however, you would remember the time we got into a “music war” with another car playing its music way too loud so that nobody near it could hear themselves talk. I finally turned on a favorite classical tape I played for you and your brother when you guys were little: The 1812 Overture. I turned it on and we kept cranking it up until finally the other car’s music was drowned out — and finally turned its loud music off. So then we turned off our “secret weapon” and enjoyed the rest of our evening!

  2. I do remember the battle of the car stereos quite well. In fact, I have a rough draft blog post of it that will probably be posted later this year.

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