FilmFilm News

Working at the Drive-in


Originally posted on Weird Movie Village in 2009.

In my senior year of high school, I only needed to attend half-days because I was already on my way to earning sufficient credits, so I decided to fill the rest of my time with two jobs: afternoons as a designer, typesetter and production artist at a shopping newspaper in South Bend; and evenings working at the Niles 31 Drive-In, just over the border in Niles, Michigan. By the time my day was done, I’d spent five hours in school, seven hours at the Penny Saver and six hours at the drive-in. Kids have such energy.

The day I started work at the 31, they showed me the ropes. Make the popcorn, clean the restrooms (which were frequently really disgusting as a result of a patron’s overindulgence). I also had to keep the concession stand floor mopped so that people wouldn’t slip on the grease and popcorn butter-like substance that accumulated there.

The concession workers were also in charge of chasing out “sneak-ins” — cars trying to get in without paying.

How this would work is that when the box office cashier saw a car driving in through the exit, she’d ring a buzzer wired to the concession stand. We grabbed baseball bats, which we handily kept behind the counter, ran outside and flailed them in the air, trying to frighten off the intruders. Most of the time it worked, because the “sneak-ins” were usually stoned and the sight of a bunch of teenagers charging at them with bats was too much to handle.

Others just laughed at us, so we had to summon a higher power — Nancy, the theater manager, a forbidding combination of too much makeup and too many wigs, humorless to the point of grimness. She would go to the violators’ car, tap on their window with one of her super-long fingernails, and use some sort of drive-in manager’s incantation to frighten them off. Occasionally, the police had to be called.

We showed some great stuff. Major studio films like The Shining and Carrie ran for weeks on screen one and came back for weeks longer on screen two (the smaller, harder-to-see screen, because the lights from the miniature golf course next door would obliterate the picture) as the third feature. It was a blast for us all to run outside just as Carrie’s hand is about to pop up from the grave and listen to a drive-in full of kids screaming.

We also played Friday the 13th for ages. The sound was pumped into the concession stand, and I almost lost my mind hearing Harry Manfredini’s “ki ki ki ka ka ka” music and Betsy Palmer hissing “Kill her, Mommy,” night after night after night.

Best of all was Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, in all of its uncut glory, released to unsuspecting Michiana residents. We were still staggered by the release of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead a few months before, and now here comes an even sicker zombie movie. I had to take all my friends to see it.

Dang, I remember that boxoffice entrance.

On weekends, Nancy would choose one of us to go “car counting,” which meant driving across town to the Chippewa Drive-In, our main competitor, and make an estimate of how many cars were in its lot. I don’t understand what that was about; we didn‘t use the research in any marketable way. Maybe she was just jealous, because the Chippewa was the more “fashionable” venue.

The only other drive-in in town was the Western, which would frequently show the “Don’t” trilogy (Don’t Look in the Basement, Don’t Open the Window and Last House on the Left) but mostly softcore sex films from the Harry Novak collection.

Eventually, the Western just went ahead and started screening actual hardcore porn, which must have been quite surprising to drivers passing by who could clearly see the screen from the freeway.

We would occasionally get assigned lot clean-up duty, which I think paid $5.00 extra (whoohoo). That meant staying until after the third feature was over (sometimes two or three in the morning), turning on the giant, harsh lights, and picking up all the trash. You can imagine what sort of trash we picked up. Let’s just say we used heavy rubber gloves.

I also was in charge of changing the movie titles on the marquee on Thursday night. Not as glamorous as it sounds. Those things are deceptively high, requiring good balance on a long, rickety ladder. And it was dark, because I had to wait until the third movie was in progress before switching titles. Worst of all, the letters were kept inside the marquee, which was home to all sorts of vermin.

Bats, rats and God know what else. Walking around inside with a flashlight, looking for the letters with which to spell One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was the real horror show.

In 1980 I moved to Los Angeles and didn’t return to South Bend for four years. Of course, I had to go check out the Niles 31 and was saddened to see that it had been razed to become a Home Depot. By that time there was only one ozoner left in the area, the Midway Drive-In, about 30 miles south of town.

One of the last LA drive-ins.

When I first moved to L.A., there were drive-ins everywhere, but they too have vanished. From time to time I read about new drive-ins being constructed in the midwest, and I think, “Good for them. Our young people need a place to get high and have their first sexual experiences while enjoying a show.”

UPDATE: The Mission Tiki Drive-In in L.A. is going great guns since COVID-19. Ironic, isn’t it?

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