Over a glass of wine on the porch, my next-door neighbor, Karen, waxed nostalgic right away. She thinks 1982 sounds about right.
“If you say ‘summer movie’ I think ‘beach movies,’ but I wouldn’t mind watching those in winter when my feet are cold. Anyhow, me and my two friends, Theresa and Dawn, made it to the drive-in in my parents’ ‘72 Gran Torino Ford wagon, green with the brown panelling. The hood had plenty of space for all three of us to lean back on the windshield, like a recliner...Honestly? I don’t remember what we saw. First Blood? E.T.? I just remember the glory of basking, it was about independence...”
Never to be out-done, Dean poured a little more pinot blanc and picked up on the drive-in theme:
“If you had a dime in Ohio, in the summer of 1961, you could go to the movies. This in spite of the fact that you were fifteen and too old to pay for a 35-cent child’s ticket at the Deer Park Cinema. The Montgomery Drive-In was the answer, All Shows, All Times, All Cars: $1.20 a Carload. Our evening began at the Quentin K. Stanley Funeral Home, where, if we were lucky and there was no funeral, Quentin’s eldest could commandeer the older seldom-used hearse. For a buck twenty at least a dozen of us could pack in, sardine-style, cokes, snacks, lawn chairs, the whole enchilada (we didn’t know what an enchilada was in those days, but if we had, we’d have brought ‘em). Typically, the Montgomery showed three films: something family-oriented like King of Kings, followed by the one we came to see, The Absent Minded Professor or West Side Story. Then, if the hearse wasn’t due back before midnight, we’d stay for the creepy third title, like House on Haunted Hill or Pit and the Pendulum, or even The Blob. Such fare made the 25-minute ride back to Deer Park in the tufted interior of the hearse, weirder than the trip out.
For me, summer means getting on the bus and meeting my best friend downtown for a quick grilled-cheese sandwich in the Arcade under the Carew Tower, then catching something racy at one of the big palaces, the Albee or the RKO International 70. Her mother didn’t care what she saw, and my mother’s only prohibitions had to do with violence. I’d been forbidden to see Psycho in 1960 when it came out, but she had no problem with Albert Finney and Susannah York tumbling into the bushes after consuming the most erotic chicken dinner ever recorded in Tom Jones. The year was 1963, and I was fifteen, just old enough for Cleopatra, starring Burton and Taylor, whose love affair off-screen was only hinted at under all that make-up.
Four years earlier, we’d gone to the Oakley Drive-In — acting as inadvertent chaperones for my friend’s divorcee mother on dates with her rodeo cowboy fiancé. I was in fourth grade then, and my mother —more interested in what I was seeing in the front seat of that long-ago Chevy than what was on screen — called these Saturday nights off. It’s interesting that Dean recalls the third movie at his (Montgomery) Drive-In as typically a horror flick. My memory of the Oakley's 1 A.M. (third) movie, which I made sure to stay awake for, was that you learned grown-up things. Suddenly, Last Summer, On the Beach, Black Orpheus: serious fare, when everyone else was asleep.
My sister Judy lives these days in a retirement community in Philadelphia. Of her Cincinnati childhood at the movies, she says “There were matinees at the Ambassador and the Twentieth Century on Wednesdays in summer!” To which I replied, “Wednesday matinees went on all year, but you just didn’t know about them because you were in school.” We former movie-theater operators know a thing or two.
An informal survey at Cathedral Village Beauty Salon, staffed by the two Ritas, who agree to be quoted, reveals that a good summer movie should feature excitement and/or the beach; failing these things, it should be scary. So we end as we began, with that summer movie of all summer movies, Jaws. One of the two Ritas saw it free at a local Philly theater, thanks to the fact that her friend worked there. The theater (don’t know the name) is now, apparently a Dollar Store.
Judy and I both remember, in recent history, our forays to the estimable (and still open for business) Niantic Cinema in Niantic, Ct., a beach town close to a summer house we shared for several decades. You went into Niantic to see a movie when it rained, and you couldn’t go to the beach. I saw John Huston’s The Dead there, a movie-going experience so profound that that movie lives for me in that modest theater, coming out on a gray day to gaze across the railroad tracks at the even grayer sea.
All for now — enjoy what’s left of August. It’s time to buy tickets to Florence Foster Jenkins, before the summer is over. Off I go.