September 6, 2010

The News Spread Like Wildfire

My city experienced a tragic loss early Friday afternoon. A coworker received a breaking news text and within minutes it was all over Facebook. I left work to get my hair cut and, as I drove, it was all they were talking about on the radio. When I arrived at the salon, the stylists were stunned by the news. One was absolutely heartbroken  as she stared at the picture on her phone. The shock caused drivers to pull off the highway, and the 10:00 p.m. news reported that people were still stopping by to pay their respects.

What happened?

We lost a local icon.

The screens at the drive-in movie theatre caught on fire.


It seems that virtually everyone in this city of nearly 400,000 - more if you count the suburbs - has a memory of that theatre. If you have ever seen The Outsiders, then you have a memory of it, too. The movie included a few actors who were just starting out in the early 1980's: Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, and Emilio Estevez. Some of the scenes in the movie were shot at the drive-in. Locals got to play extras in the movie, and one lucky friend got the role of the cashier in the concession stand. (He worked for the national chain that owned the drive-in at the time. Most of the owners in the drive-in's history have been local.)

The drive-in opened on the old Route 66 in 1951 as a single-screen, and its popularity soon led to the addition of a second screen, directly behind the first. Those screens were constructed of wood, and were 9 stories high, placing them among the largest screens in the country. Because the massive structure was wooden, it was uninsurable. With an estimated cost of $300,000 for modern screens (built out of metal instead of wood), the owners initially expressed some skepticism about rebuilding, but the community has rallied to the cause with individuals and businesses already helping with clean-up and donations. Within 48 hours of the fire, a Facebook page had earned nearly 20,000 "Likes" from people taking up the cause of this local landmark. T-shirts featuring the theatre are already on the market and at least one benefit concert is in the works.

Much of the emotion tied to the theatre has to do with the earliest memories so many of us have of going to the drive-in. The first time I remember going there as a kid, was with my aunt and uncle. My cousin and I were particularly excited about getting to go to the movies in our pajamas. It was the first time I had ever noticed a harvest moon, a huge golden sphere that rose in the sky just as the movie began, and I remember being torn between watching the movie screen through the front window of the car or the sight of that incredible moon through the back. (The moon won.) I have no idea what the movie was, but the experience was the coolest. thing. ever.

The last time I went to that particular drive-in was about 30 years ago. I don't remember that movie either, but I do remember the experience. And that's really what differentiates drive-ins from indoor theatres, or from watching a movie at home. It's an experience like no other. Unfortunately, it's an experience that fewer and fewer people will get to enjoy, as more and more drive-ins fall by the wayside. But with the clear support of the community, the owners' original skepticism about rebuilding this particular drive-in has quickly been replaced with excitement and enthusiasm for the project. They're hoping that new screens could be in place by May, making many more summer seasons possible, and allowing new generations to create their own memories of going to the drive-in.

As for this year, the fire caused the theatre to close just a little bit earlier than planned. The last show for this year was scheduled for next weekend. What movie would have closed the season?

The Outsiders.

Until next time,

 Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. ~ Galatians 6:2


  1. Never been to a drive-in!!

    I hope they can rebuild soon.

  2. Drive-in movies are wonderful! After my first experience at a drive-in last summer, I don't understand why all theaters aren't drive-ins. The atmosphere is so fun, the concessions were much cheaper, and I got to see 2 movies for only $6. What a fun outing!!!

  3. Aw... that's sad. I used to love drive-in movies. When I was a teenager, our drive-in was right next to a Chinese take-out restaurant, so we would sit and watch the movie and eat chicken chow mein. :-)

  4. such a tragedy and loss for our fine city.

  5. There is a drive-in in a small town not too far outside the city. So much fun to go to! I hope this story has a happy ending. Its amazing what can happen when a community comes together.

  6. I loved drive-in movies as a child - it was truly an "event" - pajamas, popcorn and all. :)