Friday, May 28, 2004

Summertime, Summertime, Sum-Sum-Summertime - Time for a Blockbuster!

Today on the drive into work the radio newscast mentioned that today was the anniversary of the Boulevard Drive-In here in KC.

Ah, the drive-in, the quintessential Baby-Boomer experience. Drive-in popularity began, peaked and waned during the ‘youth’ of the Boomer generation. By the time I was in High School in the early ‘70s, they were already becoming blase’. The first of the week-end Swap-N-Shops were already starting, the operators desperate for any income-stream. The 63rd Street Drive-In, the Raytown iteration of this cultural icon, is now exclusivly used for Nate’s Swap on weekends. I think this is the longest running Swap Meet in the KC Area. Many is the Saturday morning I spent wnadering the by-ways, looking for stereo and camera equipment. (I still own and can put my hands on a miniature tri-pod I purchased at Nate’s little micro-chosm of the free-market.)

KC has much history connected with movies in general and drive-ins in particular. There is an electronics firm here named: DIT-MCO Drive In Teater Manufacturing Company

DIT-MCO started it’s life producing screens, projection equipment and especially the speakers used in drive-in installations. According to friends who have worked there, they continued making replacement units for the errant movie-goer who drives off with the virtually indestructible metal-encased transducers still attached to the window.

Two theater chains are headquartered here:

Kansas City was the location of the first multi-plex, a two-screen theater at the Ward Parkway Shopping Center built in 1963. A true reflection of the company name AMC (American Multi-Cinema)Theaters This was later replaced by AMC Parkway 14.

Dickinson Theaters also founded here has recently built the EastGlen 16 theater in my home town of Lee’s Summit.

Before the EastGlen was announced there was a two-screen operation in town. It had the unique distinction , as far as I know, of being the only theater that started out as first-run, became a $1 house and then, as the population boom of the '80s occurred, changed BACK to first-run. Towards the end, the place was really going to seed. They stopped fixing things once they heard about EastGlen. Rather than attempting the re-transition, they sold the prime spot along M-291, which was re-developed to the present site of OfficeMax and Hollywood at Home. (I guess it still is a movie location when you think about it… ;->)

As far as the ‘movie location’ idea, the best example I am aware of is Sedalia, MO. (Most famous now for the State Fair, but also the one-time home of Scott Joplin and still the site of a yearly Ragtime Festival.) For years, the drive-in in Sedalia was located on US 50 on the West side of town. At some point during the ‘80s, if memory serves, the site was plowed under and a new multi-plex was erected in it's place. The Pavlovian drive to the ‘movies’ was maintained…

Movies changed when I was in my college years. My oldest friend has posted an excellent piece on how a single movie changed the entertainment industry forever in regards to artistic risks, but there were some heady days. The first example of this I can cite personally is Jaws. It is the first movie I ever actively paid full first-run price to view multiple times. Keep in mind children, this is pre-VCR AND pre-cable. Oh, sure, I would pay to go see old favorites when they were infrequently screened. (Eric P. Kantor and I once talked Pam Robinson into staying for a SECOND showing of Singing in the Rain at Watt’s Mill. Later, I attended a showing of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers there with Q&A following with one of the actors who played a Pontipee brother. Guess what? They didn't sing! Only the recognizable pipes of Jane Powell and the in-estimable Howard Keel were deemed important enough for seperate voice time. Shades of Milli Vanilli!)

Jaws was different. Spielberg had me hooked. I saw it first in the venerable Empire Theater at 14th and Main in downtown KC. By then the old girl had been sub-divided into a multi-plex of sorts. The balcony had been walled off with a separate screen. The lower level was where the ‘fish movie’ was showing. Remember it like it was yesterday. Saw it with Perry R. Cook. I remember it was the first functioning version of ‘smell-o-vision’. (Anybody remember those? One was Polyester starring Devine. As I remember it, there was a scratch card you were supposed to use at certain times during the flick. The only thing I remember is there were frequent scenes involving a dog doing his business. Kept everyone dreading the next smell on the card.) With Jaws there was no card, and the smells had nothing to do with the plot. You could, however, smell the result of the first big scare…

Speaking of scares, there were two small kids sitting in front of us. When the face comes out of the whole in the first abandoned boat, scaring the be-jesus out of one and all, the sister turns to her brother and says, totally deadpan: “He got his eye out…” Later, when Scheider is chumming the water during the fishing expedition, the boy turns to her and says: “They like that red stuff.”

We quoted those kids for years afterward…

Anyway, movies became big. Really big. Many were from the creative mind of Spielberg, but there were many others. And the rest is history.

By the time the Boomers were having kids of there own, there was a booklet in drive-in attendance. I remember one summer both my girls had the chicken-pox simultaneously. My wife was totally stir-crazy, so to battle the cabin-fever we loaded up the car and trundled over to the drive-in. One of the Alien franchise, the third one I think.

The owner of the Boulevard cited the digital sound that was installed in 1988 as being a milestone. We are a far cry from the old DIT-MCO metal boxes…

So, as you consider your Summertime entertainment, the movie block-buster will, of course, be on the bill-of-fare.

While you are at it, consider visiting the local drive-in for a blast from the past.

Besides, maybe this time you’ll actually SEE the movie… ;-)


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