Monday, November 05, 2007

Drive-In Memories

In the 30 years since its closing, the Fort Worth Twin Drive-In has managed to evade the wrecking ball. But now it is no longer.

Last Friday, as my friend Brian Roper was driving down East Lancaster Street, he saw something missing: the Twin’s east screen. It had been demolished. The west screen was still standing, but in front of it was a wrecking ball, ready to bring it down come Monday morning. On Sunday, Brian returned to take some last pictures of the screen before it, too, bit the dust. While he was there, he learned that the property will soon be the site of eight natural gas wells.

It’s a sad day for nostalgic Fort Worthers who remember the glory days of that spot of land. Even though the theatre was in ruins and there was no realistic hope it would ever reopen, it was somehow comforting to drive past and see those old screens still standing and the big red letters TWIN and FORT WORTH faded but still intact, not a letter missing—it was good to still have this familiar sight, evocative of so many good memories, in the midst of so much change.

My last visit to the Twin was in the summer of ’64 to see Cleopatra. After 1964, we moved 30 miles south of Fort Worth to Cleburne and didn’t go back to the Twin. There was a drive-in in Cleburne, the Chief. That was where I saw a great many films of the late ‘60s, spaghetti westerns, biker films, Goldfinger, Bonnie and Clyde, so many. Hillbillys in a Haunted House was playing the night I took a girl there for the first time. It was January 1968, the night was cold. The girl was Rita, the rodeo queen. We steamed up the windshield so thoroughly we couldn’t have seen the movie if we wanted to.

By 1969, my parents were letting me drive to Fort Worth. Fort Worth was a better place than Cleburne to see movies because the new ones got there sooner. I didn't go to the original Twin, but went instead to the Southside Twin because it was closer. One time my friend Sandy and I drove up there to see a double feature of Patton and MASH. As we were about to exit the highway, Sandy told me he only had one dollar, enough for his admission, but nothing left over for the snack bar. Would I loan him a dollar? No, I only had enough money for my ticket and the snack bar, plus an extra dollar to buy gas to get back home. So what to do? Sandy told me to pull over so he could hide in the trunk. I was doubtful. My trunk was really small and he was a big guy. Not only would he not be able to move, there wouldn’t be much air to breathe. But Sandy looked at the trunk and said it wouldn't be a problem.

“I’ll be okay," he said. "As soon as the sun goes down, let me out. No one'll notice in the dark.”

So I locked him in the trunk, drove to the theatre, paid for my ticket, parked, and started waiting for the sun to go down.

The wait was longer than I expected. We had gotten there too early. I realized it would be at least an hour before it was dark enough to start the show. Would Sandy be okay in the trunk that long? What if he suffocated? For all I knew, he had already suffocated. Also, the temperature was in the mid-80s. Pretty warm. It would be even warmer in the trunk. In fact, it was probably as hot as an oven, once you added Sandy’s body heat in that cramped space.

I grew more and more uneasy. Finally, I decided to check on him. I didn’t want to open the trunk, because there was a car full of people parked nearby and they might see Sandy. So, instead, I knelt down by the trunk, acting like I was checking something under the car. Turning my head so the people wouldn’t see my lips moving and speaking as loud as I dared, I said, “Sandy?” No answer. I said it again louder. This time I heard his muffled reply: “Yeah?”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah … I think so.”

“You think so?”

“Is it dark yet?”

“No, it’s not. Can you wait a little longer?


As I stood up, I glanced at the nearby car. The people were looking at me. I got back in the car. Five, maybe ten minutes passed. It seemed a lot longer. The sun was not going down fast enough. Would it ever go down? It was as if it had gotten stuck. I kept worrying about Sandy. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I went back, knelt down again like I was checking under the car, and said, “Sandy?”


“Are you okay?”

“I think so. Is it dark yet?

“No, and it’s not going to be any time soon. I better let you out.”


I glanced around. The people in the car were watching me and smiling. Also, on top of the building that housed the projection booth and snack bar stood two men. I guessed they were employees, maybe the projectionists waiting to start the show. Maybe the reason they were standing there was to watch for people like me and Sandy. That worried me. But it worried me more to leave Sandy in the trunk. Maybe, I thought, if we moved quickly, and if the men happened to look in another direction at that moment, they wouldn’t see Sandy get out of the trunk. As for the people in the car—well, they were going to see this, no doubt about it. But maybe they wouldn’t tell on us.



“We’re going to have to do this quick.”


“As soon as I open this trunk you jump out as quick as you can.”


I opened the trunk and Sandy began trying to uncoil himself from the awkward cramped curled-up position he was in. I heard someone laugh in the nearby car and felt my face turn red. After what seemed like ten minutes, Sandy finally managed to sit up, crawl out of the trunk, swing his feet onto the ground, and raise himself up to his full height of six feet, in broad daylight for everyone to see.

We got back in the car. Sandy said, “Do you think anybody saw me?”

“Well,” I said, “the people back there definitely did, but maybe they won’t tell. The only thing I’m worried about are these two guys I saw standing back there on that—”

At that moment, the two men appeared next to my window, smiling. One leaned into the window and said to Sandy, “You ready to pay for your ticket now?”

Sandy handed over his dollar. “Thank you,” said the man and they left.

I heard more laughter from the nearby car. My face turned red again. I slumped down low in the seat and stayed that way till it was dark and the show started.

Drive-in memories …

The Riverside Drive-In on Fort Worth’s north side. By the 70s, they were showing porno movies and there was a high wooden fence around the place. Genitals on the screen as big as Buicks … In Denton, the Town-and-Country Drive-In. Passing around the Oat Willie’s Power Hitter, watching Death Race 2000 … And the last time I went to a drive-in. It was in Austin in the late ‘70s. A re-release of Jason and the Argonauts was playing …

The best drive-in I remember was the Pike in Fort Worth in the 1950s. On the screen tower was a huge painted mural of cowboys on the range at sundown. It had been trimmed with animated neon. One cowboy moved a skillet back and forth over flickering flames, another on horseback twirled a lasso. I would look up at it from the backseat of our blue white-topped Ford as we drove up to the ticket box.

Inside, at the foot of the screen, was a playground, with a slide, swings, see-saw, jungle gym, and—what was that thing called, the round metal platform that spun around so fast? I haven’t seen one in years. Maybe they stopped making them. Too many kids jumping or falling off and getting hurt. Too dangerous, I guess. But it sure was fun.

We would play on the playground till the screen lit up with the first cartoon. At the first sight of Woody Woodpecker and the sound of his cackle echoing from all the window speakers, all the kids would scream with delight. Then the moms and dads would herd us back to the cars, and we would watch cartoons, not on a small screen in black-and-white the way we saw them at home, but huge and blazing with color. Then the movies would start. Technicolor John Wayne epics, Jerry Lewis, Hercules, Forbidden Planet. And the smells from the snack bar, popcorn and hot dogs, wafting through the summer night, and the distant sigh of highway traffic while the movies played. It was wonderful ...

Later, the neon was taken down from the mural, leaving only the painted portion. This was happening at drive-ins everywhere. Birds would build nests in the neon tubes and it was too expensive to maintain. So all the neon was coming down. Then, in the 60s, the Pike closed. I don’t know why. Drive-ins were still thriving at that time. But, for some reason, the Pike was unable to make a go of it. The grounds became overrun with weeds and the paint on the mural faded and the plaster cracked and started breaking off, till finally you could barely make out the cowboys on the range.

The Pike Drive-In stood on a hill overlooking the cemetery where Lee Harvey Oswald was buried. In the early 70s, I would drive past the cemetery every day to go to work in Arlington, and I always thought of Oswald lying over there in his grave, and wondered what secrets were buried with him. And sometimes I would also glance at the Pike Drive-In, or what was left of it, and remember those summer nights in the ‘50s.

One day, as I was driving past, I noticed the screen tower was gone. Something else was built there, I forget what. Whatever it is, I’m sure most people these days have no idea there was once a drive-in theatre there. And, now that the Fort Worth Twin has fallen, there will come a time when no one will remember there was anything there but gas wells.

Surprisingly, there are a few old drive-ins still in business, scattered around the country. Also, over the past few years, new drive-ins have been built, such as the Galaxy south of Dallas. The screens are not gigantic like the ones of old, and there are no elaborate murals, but you can still have the experience of watching a movie from your car, or in a lawn chair under the stars.

It is good to know the drive-in is not dead. One of these days, soon, I believe I will go to the nearest one. We may have to drive a couple of hours, but it would be worthwhile to relive the experience once again. I don't even care what’s showing. I want to roll down the windows, smell the popcorn and hot dogs in the breeze, crank up the speaker, and watch the screen light up against the starry sky, while the traffic sighs on the highway …