The Movies Take to the Pastures

Source: John Durrant, extract from ‘The Movies Take to the Pastures’, Saturday Evening Post, 14 October 1950. pp. 25, 85, 89

Text: For the fifth year in a row now movie attendance has been going down, down, down like Alice’s plunge to the bottom of the rabbit hole in her Wonderland adventure. The cinema dive, though, is no dream. It is real, and the industry is chewing its nails, wondering whether to blame its favorite whipping boy, television; the 20 per cent Federal tax on tickets; strikes and war fears; Hollywood’s pinkish tint, or too-good weather, which is supposed to keep the customers away from the movies. Whatever the causes, attendance has been slipping away steadily, although recent figures indicate that the decline may now be slowing up. Tbere is, however, one phase of the industry which has been running contrary to the general trend and bringing smiles to an increasing number of exhibitors.

It is the drive-in business, which has expanded phenomenally since the end of World War I. At the time of Pearl Harbor, for instance, there were less than 100 “ozoners” in the country. None was built during the war, but by 1947 there were 400, double that number the following year and now there are a probable 2200 in the United States and forty in Canada.

As one movie mogul famous for his malapropisms said, “They are sweeping the country like wildflowers.” And Bob Hope recently commented, “There will soon be so many drive-ins in California that you’ll be able to get married, have a honeymoon and get a divorce without ever getting out of your car.”

Hope is not exaggerating too wildly. Here, for instance, are some of the things you can do at various ozoners without taking your eyes off the screen or missing a word of dialogue: You can eat a complete meal, get your car washed and serviced, including a change of tires, have the week’s laundry done, your shopping list filled and the baby’s bottle warmed. All this while the show is on.

It’s a cinch to attend a drive-in. You buy a ticket without getting out of your car, drive to one of the rows and take a position on a ramp which causes the car to tilt slightly upward at the front end. Alongside there’s a speaker, attached to a post, which you unhook and fasten to the inside of your car window. Volume can be controlled by turning a switch, and although at first it may seem odd to be hearing sounds from a speaker next to your ear, with the action on the screen a couple of hundred yards away, the illusion is acceptable. If you want to leave in the middle of the show you replace the speaker in the post and drive forward over the ramp and make for the exit. Thus, there is no climbing over the laps of annoyed spectators as there is in the conventional theaters.

If Hope thinks that California is becoming overcrowded with drive-ins, be should visit Ohio and North Carolina, where every cow pasture is crowned by a screen. North Carolina, about one third the size of California in both population and area, boasts 125 ozoners to California’s ninety-five. Ohio has 135. While Califomia’s theaters are larger and hold more cars, the concentration of so many ozoners in the two other states is way out of proportion to their size. Why, no one knows. But the business is full of oddities. Texas, as you might expect, leads the country with some 200 theaters. Then come Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania in that order, followed by California, where the drive-ins operate the year round and everybody owns a car.

Due to the rapidity of construction – and closings, in some regions – the business is in a constant state of flux, and figures are changing daily. One thing is apparent, however, and that is that the trend is up and the saturation point has not yet been reached. When it comes – movie people put it at 3500 drive-ins – it is anybody’s guess whether there will be like the miniature-golf-course fiasco in the 30s, or a gradual leveling off, with the best-run theaters surviving.

Most conventional theater owners, who despise the ozoners and battle them at every turn, say the thing is a fad, that it’s going too fast and, anyway, the places are no more than parking lots for petters. Variety, the bible of show business calls them “passion pits with pix.” Needless to there are no figures on petting frequency in drive-ins, but I can offer the result of a one-man nonsnooping survey made by myself. I talked with dozens of exhibitors, and all firmly stated that no more went on in the cars than in the rear seats of the conventional theaters. All were quite touchy on the subject, by the way. Only one said he had ever had a complaint in that direction from a patron.

Leon Rosen, who has managed both types of theaters for the Fabian Theaters, a chain of eighty conventionals and seven drive-ins in the Middle Atlantic states, told me that more than 3,000,000 people have attended the ozoners he’s managed and he has never received a single complaint. He could not say the same for his indoor theaters. “Sure, a fellow slips his arm around his girl in the drive-ins,” he said. “The same as in the regular theaters or on a park bench. No more than that. And there’s one thing you don’t get in the drive-ins that you get inside. That’s the guy on the prowl, the seat changer who molests lone women. There’s none of that in the drive-ins.”

Still, the bad name persists and is kept alive by gents’-room gags which probably stem from the prewar days, when drive-ins were completely blacked out and circulating food venders and ushers were a rarity. But what disproves the cheap gags more than anything else is the type of audience that fills the drive-ins today. It is by far a family audience, with a probable 75 per cent of the cars containing children who, incidentally, are let in free by most drive-ins if they are under twelve. This is the main reason the ozoners have been so successful – their appeal to the
family group. They are the answer to parents who want to take in the movies, but can’t leave their children alone at home. No baby sitters are needed. And the kids are no bother to anyone in the audience. There’s no vaulting of theater seats, running up and down the aisles or drowning out the dialogue by yapping.

A workingman told me that the drive-ins had saved his family from a near split-up. He didn’t like the movies, he said, and his wife did. The result was a battle every Saturday night, when she wanted to see a movie and he refused to go. Saturday night was his beer night, and no movies were going to interfere with it. His wife went anyway, and he stayed home sipping beer and keeping an eye on Junior. But this didn’t work out. The weekly argument went on, and the breach between them got wider. Then, one Saturday night, he agreed to take in a drive-in with her, provided he could take a long a couple of bottles of beer. After that everything was solved. They now go every Saturday night. She sits in the front seat with Junior and watches the flickers. He sits in back alone, with his beer in a bucket of ice, and pays little attention to the movie as he sips the brew and smokes cigars with his legs crossed. Now everybody is happy and there’s no more talk of a split-up.

After the war, the drive-ins began to go all out for the family trade. The so-called “moonlight” flooding of the parking area and aisle lighting came in, and exhibitors built children’s play areas, with swings, slides, merry-go-rounds and pony rides. Some installed miniature railroads which hauled kids over several hundred yards of track. Picnic grounds, swimming pools and monkey villages appeared in the larger theaters. While the youngsters disport themselves at these elaborate plants, their parents can have a go at miniature golf courses and driving ranges or they can play shuffleboard, pitch horse-shoes and dance before live bands.

That is the trend now in the de luxe drive-ins, ones with a capacity of, say, 800 cars or more. They are becoming community recreation centers, and the idea is to attract people two or three hours before show time. It gives the receipts a boost and the family a whole evening’s outing, not just three hour sat the movies, according to the new school of exhibitors. Many old-time managers disagree.

“This carnival stuff cheapens the business,” one told me. “And the biggest mistake the drive-ins made was to let kids in free. They can’t go to the indoor houses for nothing, so a lot of people think we show only rotten pictures and they stay away.”

The manager touched a sore point here. The films shown in the ozoners are in the main pretty frightful. Most are third-run pictures, rusty with age. Drive-in exhibitors are not entirely to blame for this. Film distributors point out that their first loyalty is to their regular customers, the all-year conventional houses, and the ozoners must wait in line or pay through the nose.

It doesn’t seem to make much difference what kind of pictures are shown, because drive-in fans are far less choosy than the indoor variety. A large part of them never have been regular indoor movie-goers, and almost any picture is new to them. The ozoners have struck a rich vein of new fans. Leading the list are the moderate-income families who bring the kids to save money on baby-sitters. Furthermore, they don’t have to dress up, find a parking place, walk a few blocks to a ticket booth and then stand in line. The drive-ins make it easy for them and for workers and farmers, who can come in their working clothes straight from the evening’s chores, and for the aged and physically handicapped. They are a boon to the hard of hearing and to invalids, many of whom never saw a movie before the drive-ins. They draw fat men who have trouble wedging themselves between the arms of theater seats, and tall men sensitive about blocking off the screen from those behind. Add the teen-agers to these people, and you have a weekly attendance of about 7,000,000, an impressive share of the country’s 60,000,000 weekly ticket buyers …

Comments: Drive-ins were introduced in the United States in 1933.

Links: Complete article on Saturday Evening Post site

Rod: The Autobiography

Source: Rod Stewart, Rod: The Autobiography (London: Arrow Books, 2012), p. 10

Text: Mary and Peggy, my sisters, would take me to watch speedway at Harringay, which was hugely popular then. And Mum and Dad sometimes treated me to a trip to the cinema – the Rex, in East Finchley, where the stalls took a big dip in the centre: the front rows were higher than the rows in the middle, and the back rows were higher still. Maybe it was war damage. One day, where I was eight, my mum said, ‘We’re going to see Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. This will be the funniest thing you’ve ever seen’ – a big build-up to give a film. But she was absolutely right. It was slapstick, but so subtle in the way it went about it. We sat there in the Rex’s battered stalls, and I had never laughed as hard as I laughed at Jacques Tati, haplessly creating havoc. Even today Ronnie Wood and I remain huge Tati fans.

Comments: Rod Stewart (born 1945) is a British rock singer. Ronnie Wood was guitarist with Stewart in the band The Faces before joining The Rolling Stones. Les Vacances de M. Hulot (France 1953) starred and was directed by Jacques Tati. It was a considerable international hit. The Rex was established in 1910 as the Picturedrome and continues today as the Phoenix. The slope in the floor was an original feature, caused by the lie of the land. Acknowledgments to Lisa Kerrigan for spotting this reference and tweeting about it.

Links: Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley

Will you take me in, mister?

Source: David Rayner, contributed by the author.

Text: My earliest memory of picturegoing was on my fourth birthday in April, 1951, when I was taken by my mother and my godmother to the Essoldo, Wellington Road South, Stockport, to see Victor Mature and Hedy Lamaar in Cecil B. DeMille’s Technicolor epic “Samson and Delilah”. I can still remember being very impressed by the sight of Samson pushing apart the pillars of the temple of Dagon and quite literally bring the house down (or in this case, the temple)! I also remember I kept turning around in my seat and looking up at the dancing beam of blue light that came from way up there and that seemed to have something to do with the happenings on the large screen, never dreaming at the time that, eleven years later, I, too, would become a cinema projectionist (although not at the Essoldo, Stockport).

“Will you take me in, mister?”

I began going to the pictures on my own in 1957, when I was ten years old. Going to the pictures in those days was a very different experience to what such things are like today. For my ninepence admission money, I could get to see a feature; a supporting feature; a cartoon; a newsreel; a short and the adverts and trailers. Performances were continuous from 1 p.m. until 10:15 p.m. and you could go into the cinema at any time and, if, when you got inside, the feature was halfway through, you simply sat through the rest of the programme until the feature came on again and then you watched it around to the part where you had come in. I had moved from Stockport to Stoke-on-Trent by that time and, with around 25 cinemas in the Stoke-on-Trent area in the 1950s, there were plenty of films to choose from, especially with most cinemas changing their programme three times a week, on a Sunday, Monday and Thursday.

Of course, I was too young to be allowed in to see an X certificate film, but when an A certificate film was showing (children not allowed in unless accompanied by an adult), I, like many other youngsters at the time, used to wait outside the cinema and ask a man going in if he would take me in with him. None ever refused and, if the man took a liking to me, he would pay for my ticket, thus saving me having to spend my pocket money. After you got inside, sometimes the man would go and sit somewhere else and leave you to it, or sit alongside you and share a bag of sweets with you. These days, modern parents would be totally horrified by such a then commonplace practice. However, incidents of being groped by a man who had taken a boy in to see an A film were rarer than you might think, and, although it did happen to me a couple of times, when I was 12 and 13, I never heard of it happening to any other boy.

Comment: David Rayner was born in 1947 and in adult life became a cinema projectionist (now retired). X certificates were introduced in the UK in 1951, limiting exhibition to those aged over 16 (raised to over 18 in 1970).

La Grande Illusion

Source: Extract from Mike Newell, ‘La Grande Illusion’, in Geoffrey Macnab, Screen Epiphanies: Film-makers on the Films that Inspired Them (London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 207-208

Text: My father took me when I was fifteen or sixteen to the Academy on Oxford Street – the old Academy, the one with the flock wallpaper in the main house. We went to a performance of La Grande Illusion. With it, I saw a cartoon called The Little Island. I can’t remember who made it but it was some famous and modish cartoon-maker of the time. I also saw a newsreel in which the very first Aldermaston march was featured. There was this extraordinary shot of a man with a sandwich board round his neck walking along some terribly rainy, Scottish highland road on his way to Aldermaston. All three of these things made an enormous impression on me but the main movie [La Grande Illusion] hit a very particular kind of nerve. I’ve always remembered it in great detail and it set all sorts of things going in me. I would not have gone down the road I did without that, I think. It was very clear to me and very precise. It wasn’t the anti-war message. I was generally aware of that because I was born during the Second World War and so all my uncles had gone through the war. Nobody wanted to talk about it and nobody ever really did talk about it. I don’t think they suffered in any great way. They were in Burma mostly. The war that I had focused on and was beginning to be much more aware of was the First War. It was the great literary war. I was beginning to be aware of the collision between Victorian sensibility and a modern factory method of [destruction]. I was aware of the First World War having been some colossal upheaval which wasn’t just a matter of a great many people being killed in all sorts of dreadful ways. It was bigger than that.

There are some scenes in La Grande Illusion that I particularly remember. One was the scene between the two aristocrats – the french aristocrat Captain de Boeldieu [played by Pierre Fresnay] and the German aristocrat Captain von Rauffenstein [Erich von Stroheim] who is wearing the neck brace. They were from the same class. Their shared assumptions and lives and friends brought them together. They all knew the same people. They talks about the same horse race, the Liverpool Cup. They talk in three languages. They talk in French, they talk in German and they talk in English and they swap, absolutely smoothly, from one to the other. You see that class for them is way beyond national conflicts. You also see that they are dying – that their type is not going to survive. Whereas Lieutenant Marechal, the character played by Jean Gabin, is going to survive because he is full of a vigour that they don’t quite have.

I couldn’t possibly have rationalised the film like that at the time I saw it [as a teenager] but it was very exciting to see that was clearly what was going on. I had never come across a film in which apparently inconsequential dialogue like that had such a ringing energy and juice in it. I didn’t know why it was. The neck brace that Von Stroheim is in, the way you have two apparent enemies who are not enemies at all. All those extraordinary opposites was something that I remembered very clearly and do to this day.

No, I wasn’t aware that Renoir directed it – but I sure as hell became so. I don’t think I said I will try to be a film director from that moment on. But what I did think was that this was better than most things I had seen.

Comment: Mike Newell (born 1942) is a British film director. La Grande Illusion (France 1937) was directed by Jean Renoir. The Little Island (UK 1958) was made by Richard Williams. The first Aldermaston march against nuclear weapons was in April 1958. The Academy cinema was located in London’s Oxford Street and was renowned for its art house fare. Screen Epiphanies is a collection of reminiscences by film directors of seeing films which had a transformative effect on them. Words in square brackets are given so in the original text.

Little Fugitive

Source: Alan Parker, ‘Little Fugitive’, in Geoffrey Macnab, Screen Epiphanies: Film-makers on the Films that Inspired Them (London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 127-128

Text: In Islington, there was an old fleapit cinema, the Blue Hall on Upper Street, just a bit further on from Angel, just past what is now called Screen on the Green, but which was called the Rex when I grew up. The Blue Hall was a classic fleapit. It ran anything they could get their hands on that was cheap to run – second run, third run, fourth run. I remember I was aged ten and I went to see this film, Little Fugitive, which was a black-and-white film shot in Brooklyn, about a little kid who ends up in Coney Island. It was so different to anything I had ever seen before. What I had seen before was either the very mediocre British movies or Hollywood movies. It was the very first film that was neither of those. It was a complete mistake, really, that I wandered in to see it. This fleapit running it wasn’t an arthouse theatre or anything like that. They didn’t exist in those days. I remember going to see this little film. It was the first film shot in a very naturalistic documentary style. It was the first film I had ever see that wasn’t manufactured to be a movie. I’ve looked it up since and I have seen quotes from Jean Luc Godard and Truffaut saying it influenced that whole era of film-making, which at the time I had no knowledge of whatsoever.

The film was made in 1953. I would have seen it a good year or so later. I remember being completely and utterly mesmerised by it. It was a classic moment of going back to school and telling everybody about it. I always remember I had to stand up in class and talk about it. In my ignorance, I couldn’t even pronounce the word fugitive because it is never said in the film. I remember standing up and I got a lot of laughs because I said I went to see this film, ‘Little Fuggitive’. ‘Fugg-itive’ sounded very rude. I was then put right by the teacher that it was actually pronounced ‘fugitive’. It’s an odd word, not a word that at ten I would have used in Islington.

The film was hugely influential. From then on, I went to see everything I could possibly see. Up to that point, cinema was just somewhere you went when you were bored.

Comment: Alan Parker (born 1944) is a film director and former chairman of the UK Film Council. Little Fugitive (USA 1953) was made by Ray Ashley, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin. Screen Epiphanies is a collection of reminiscences by film directors of seeing films which had a transformative effect on them.