Nov 3, 2009
Drive In Memories
The White Horse Drive In Theater
I first remember going to the White Horse Theater, one of several we attended growing up, when I was probably 8 or 9 years old. Mom would pop a big, brown grocery bag full of popcorn, make a gallon of Kool-Aid in a glass pitcher and pile all the kids into the old station wagon for an evening at the picture show. Dad would pay the lady at the box office the standard admission (kids under 12 were free...we remained under 12 until we were probably 14 or so), then he'd pick out a good spot near the restrooms and park us. After rolling down the window to pull the speaker box inside the car, mom and dad would encourage us to go to the playground, always located under the big screen. And we would play there until the cartoon lit up the jumbo screen over our heads.
The drive in was about five or six acres of asphalt paved berms and a concession stand/projection booth in the middle of the lot. It was a flat-roofed affair built of brick and built low so all behind it could see the screen. The box office was located at the rear of the lot so that late-comers to the show would disturb customers as little as possible. A painted wall at the entrance reminded you to “use parking lights when entering”). The berms were designed to raise the front of your car just enough to see the huge screen while leaning back in your spacious front seat (back then, most front seats were spacious bench seats). As you pulled into the space, you minded the speaker post so as not to pull too close and block your exit from the car. After parking, you rolled down the window and pulled in the huge aluminum speaker with the single volume knob. (A short film trailer at the end of the evening would remind customers to replace the speakers on the posts so as not to break your window or rip the speaker from the post.
The car horns would signal to the projectionist inside that it was damn well dark enough to start the picture. It always started with one car horn and before you could count to three the entire field was ablaze with a cacophony of Oldsmobile and Buick horns, Chevy horns, Ford and Dodge horns, the occasional and always hilarious VW horns, an 'ahooogah' or two and the loudest and most obnoxious – the old Cadillac hood-mounted horn, with a dual and sometimes triple horn arrangement.
At the playground, we tried to meet girls. Our dad and uncles would always be teasing us about pretty little things having “the sweets for us”, which encouraged us further. We weren't sure why we needed to meet girls, but meet them we did. More than once I remember holding hands with a strange but fine young lady under the towering figure of Jean Seberg or Raquel Welch playing on the giant screen overhead. In my mind, I was holding Raquel's hand. We would show off on the swing set, walk the plank on the seesaw, surf the slide and monkey on the bars, all to call attention to ourselves and gain favor with the girls. And then the cartoon would ignite the screen and we would sit down by the playground speaker, hold hands and wonder 'what comes next?'. The standing rule in my family, the unwritten Drive In law was pretty much standard fare: be back at the car before the feature started. This would give me daylight/dusk time to meet her, horn time to be allowed to hold her hand, coming attractions and the cartoon to continue to hold hands and find out something about them, and then skee-daddle to the car just as the opening scenes of the feature unfolded...throwing yourself in the back seat just in time for Mom to fuss about your lateness and how 'you were lucky that the movie hadn't officially started 'cause if it had she would be dusting britches, now sit back and be quiet'.
The movies were usually second runs, so called because they had first run in the walk-in theaters, then would make their way to the drive in circuit. We saw titles like Beach Red (War), Blood Feast (Horror),
The Pink Panther (Comedy), Zap-In (Adult), John Wayne movies out the ass and Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. We stretched out in the station wagon, popcorn bowl and Kool-Aid on the seat next to us, only the occasional sound of a kid whining “I can't hear it – turn it up” drowning out the film's soundtrack.
My sister Linda was the first in the family to start working at the White Horse Drive-In Theater. She took a job collecting money at the box office, which lent an air of power to my sister for the first time in my life. Not that I needed the services of a free pass into the theater, my age would take care of that for another couple of years. I was impressed, however, that she had the power to get you in free to the movies. So imagine how I felt just a year later when I replaced my older brother Steve in the popcorn room next to the box office, popping corn by the crate-loads, hauling it to the concession stand and keeping the heated box filled with buttery-tasting, fresh-popped corn. I've had many a WWII veteran tell me that the only reason they chose to come to the White Horse over another drive-in was because of that popcorn.
One of the perks of working in a movie theater in the early 1970's in Greenville, SC was a small card called the “employee pass”, which allowed me to present it at any theater in town and see a movie free of charge. I really liked this perk! I used this card at least twice a week for about three years, catching up on all the classics I'd missed, as well as first run features like “2001-A Space Oddesey”, “The Graduate”, and “Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster”.
One of my other duties at the Drive-In, after coming into work early to pop the corn, was to make my way down to the concession stand just before intermission and man the soda fountain, pumping drinks for any and all. Another perk was all the soda I could swill. When the rush was finished I could be found in the projectionist's booth, learning the ins and outs of screening film. While I never officially ran the booth, I did pickup enough knowledge to be able to switch out projectors during reel change.
On occasion, the Drive-Ins would have the all-nighter – a five-movie extravaganza!
Shows would begin at dark and play until dawn. I had to get special permission from my parents to work these events. Instead of my usual five dollars per night, these film-fests would net me ten bucks.
I probably took home around 30 bucks a week working at the WHDI.
Certainly the best part of working here was the sheer number of fine young ladies who would frequent the drive-in with their folks. Since I was working there, I felt a sense of importance that delivering the newspaper never brought me. Here, I could slip the young lady a box of popcorn, give them a free refill of soda, or even afford to buy them a Snickers bar.
It was at the drive-in that I met Donna, my first true love. Her mom worked in the box office and Donna would keep me company in the popcorn house until I got off work. Then we would go to her mom's car and do what young teens would do...kiss and hold hands until her mom came and kicked me out of the car. Good times.
The White Horse Drive-In is gone now, along with almost all drive-ins across the country. Although there are still a few left, their heyday has long since vanished.
You can still find one here in SC – The Monetta Drive-In, or “The Big Mo”, located between Batesburg and Aiken. Last summer, Laura and I went down to see a flick and enjoy a gut-bomb hot dog.
As soon as I pulled in to our space I saw all the kids running around the playground, the line to the concession stand backed out the door, “These are my people”, I whispered, and felt truly at home.