We called it the Terrace Theatre; I lived on St. John’s Terrace, a dead-end street. The site of the theater was my buddy Lester Lloyd’s backyard. On a clothesline in the middle of the yard we hung a bed sheet. Nearer to the house on a card table sat the Bell & Howell 8 mm projector. The card table also doubled as ticket booth and snack stand. Though some kids walked in, the Terrace was conceived as a drive-in. Indeed, many of our patrons “drove” on their tricycles and bikes; one kid lugged a “carload” of siblings in his battered red wagon. Admission was a nickel. Candy had been marked up slightly from a trip to Kroger’s, while bottled Kool-Aid served as “pop” (for you non-Midwesterners, that’s “soda”), 2 cents plus deposit. We started the show with two cartoons, checked out of the Deer Park Public Library, and then came the main feature, Bomber Attack, the latest one-reeler I’d directed, a war movie that somehow involved a monster (a by-product of my inability to grasp the concept of editing). Our company logo, Big T Productions, painted on a Wheeling Steel garbage can lid, was our answer to the MGM lion. We always sold out. As I recall, I don’t think it ever rained on movie night.
In the midst of a world-wide health crisis, we could use the Terrace Theatre right now. But we have it! Dean’s effort was a kind of pop-up, something that’s having a moment of glory in the drive-in theater business. It started, perhaps, in Queens, where a diner, the Bel Aire, decided to make some use of its copious parking lot.
Meanwhile, in Warwick, NY, operators of the more traditional Warwick Drive-In had to turn carloads of patrons away, after admitting the first 300. In steep decline since the 1950’s, who knew the drive-in movie business would celebrate a rebirth, rising meteorically above its “retro” status? It’s a business model made for a pandemic, at least in summer and fall, if not, in warmer states, year-round.
Older drive-ins are coming back to life, while the pop-ups, like Back to the Movies, a New Jersey company, are, well, popping. At each of its six sites, Back to the Movies plans a food truck that will feature on-line ordering; movie sound is via closed circuit FM radio, and, as for bathrooms, they’ll be completely sanitized, but if you drink sparingly from those 2-liter bottles till you get home, there’ll be no need to leave the safe social distance of your car.
I’m pleased to say that the Mahoning over in Pennsylvania, which I’ve been following since I watched a documentary about its revival is scheduled to open Friday, June 5, with its time-honored double feature: The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory “in glorious 35 mm film.” All sold out! I intend to take a road trip to the Mahoning as soon as its campground re-opens.
Let’s return for a moment to the subject of movie palaces. Our theater, the St. George, was, during our tenure, only full once briefly, though we tried hard to sell it out. every single week Now I’m wondering: would a pandemic have had much of an effect on our business model? We seldom managed to sell more than five hundred seats, leaving 2,172 seats entirely vacant. How easy, in a time of quarantine, would it have been to space people six feet apart! We’d actually have had an excuse to open the balcony!
And now? Perhaps, surviving movie palaces, this is your moment! Anyone with a hall of mammoth proportions might just, in these difficult times, open the gilded doors. With all those seats and nothing much to do, feel free to spread your audience as thinly as the moment requires. Your only problems are restrooms and concession. At least one of these can be solved via pay-in-advance strategies for ordering via cellphone. Take a cue from drive-ins, your outdoor theater cousins. Movie tickets are routinely sold in advance via app anyhow, and snack stands could close to all but advance orders.
So here’s to space and glamor and the big screen, like the one at the United Palace in upper Manhattan, saved in another dark time, the 1970‘s, by Reverend Ike, then retro-fitted post-millennium, to its current purposes: to, “Uplift. Educate. Unite.” Or Graumann’s Egyptian in Hollywood, these days American Cinematheque reduced temporarily (and of course ironically) to virtual screenings. This too will pass...