Nostalgic frame of mind

Wednesday, June 22, 2005
Saturday night the drive-in was packed with moviegoers watching from lawn chairs on the grass or their vehicles.

NEAR VAN BUREN, Mo. -- When the Stephens family of nearby Winona wants to go out for dinner and a movie on a Friday night, they don't pick sit-down restaurants and multiscreen megaplexes.

They go to the drive-in, where they can pay $5 each for two movies, eat for just a few dollars and relax in their lawn chairs or on blankets in the grass.

Over the past few weeks, Richard, Georgette and 13-year-old Natalie have become regulars at the 21 Drive-In on Highway 21 near Van Buren.

Two of the 13 drive-in movie theaters left in Missouri are within 30 miles of each other in the hilly, woody Ozark boundaries on the western fringe of Southeast Missouri.

Every weekend in the summer, hundreds of people pack into the 21 Drive-In and into the Pine Hill Drive-In near Piedmont to ride a time machine back to an era when multiscreen cinemas weren't the main place to watch a film.

The 21 Drive-In draws a crowd for the ride: 150 cars on weekend nights. And there's room for more since it can hold 300 vehicles.

Like Pine Hill, the 21 is nestled against a backdrop of evergreen trees that surround the large, white viewing screen, giving visitors a taste of both the serene natural beauty of the area and the drive-in novelty.

Even though the glory days of drive-in theaters are long gone -- 4,063 existed at the height of the phenomenon in 1958, and only 405 were in operation in November 2004, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association -- the region's drive-ins have spawned newer generations of fans and have sustained the nostalgia.

Jackie Price, a 30-something who lives in Winona, has been raised on drive-ins. The 21, in operation much of the time since 1949, has a long history in the area. Price's father brought her here often when she was a child. Since then Price has lived in 11 states and has gone to drive-in theaters in each one.

She has been to both drive-ins and favors the 21, partially because of its double feature. The Pine Hill only shows one film a night.

"I've been here every Friday night for the last four or five years," says Price, a pizza in hand. Patrons of the 21 rave over the pizza. "It's like a small camp-out," she said.

About 50 yards from Price's "reserved" spot on the second row, another Price of no relation works in the drive-in's concession stand, overseeing the making of the beloved pizzas.

Diane Price has co-owned the drive-in with her husband, Cecil, since 2001. Cecil works security and takes money at the front gate while she oversees the cooking staff at the theater's remodeled and air-conditioned concession stand and game room.

The stand sells a variety of foods: hot dogs, Polish sausage, barbecue, pizza and sourdough pretzels. Those who aren't hungry can play the electronic games set up in the lobby.

On hot summer nights the building is a popular spot, with customers lined up all the way outside.

But some people prefer to bring their own food.

"We even have people bring in barbecue pits," Diane said.

The 21 allows customers to bring in those items along with alcoholic beverages as long as they're old enough to drink.

Cecil and a few friends man the gate and try to make sure underage patrons don't bring in alcohol. They run a cooler check on any minors, but Diane said some will sneak alcohol through anyway.

And there will always be those who choose the drive-in as a place to make out. Back in the 1940s, some police agencies warned drive-ins they'd be shut down if any "immoral" behavior like drinking or making out was discovered.

In today's climate, the police usually stay out of it and the hormonal teenagers and adults are left to their own devices.

Some people always sneak in by riding in the trunk, but Diane Price thinks that's funny.

"That's what we used to do when I was a kid," she said. "It's part of the drive-in."

John Shipp of Ellington, Mo., remembers the days when he and his friends came to the drive-in as teens.

"We always just came to party," Shipp said. Now he's a dad bringing his 4-year-old daughter, Dionna, to the drive-in for family fun.

A family atmosphere is the appeal of the drive-in for many. At Van Buren, a playground near the screen allows children to have fun while waiting for the show to start, but many like Dionna use the big lawn in front of the screen for play, tossing balls and Frisbees back and forth while the shadows grow longer.

Movies with an R-rating are rarely played unless the Prices deem them to be not too over-the-top in violence, sex or language. But it's not just the small kids who go to the drive-ins. For teens in the hill country, hanging out at the mall is rather impractical, so the drive-in becomes their gathering place.

Natalie Stephens and Katie McBride, both 13, sit on the back of Natalie's dad's SUV and talk on the cell phone to their friends, checking to see what part of the lot they're in and arranging to meet up later. The Winona girls say coming to the 21 has made them drive-in fans for life, assuming that the tradition holds out that long.

"I think it's cool that you get to be out in the open air and watch a movie," Katie said.

The owners of the 21 are hoping it will last a long time. They recently upgraded their projection and sound equipment, changing from the old-style reel projectors to new platter projectors that don't require changing in the middle of the picture.

And the Prices recently purchased a graphic equalizer and sound equipment that allows them to broadcast in stereo over the theater's 103.7 FM radio frequency.

"Drive-ins are really making a good comeback," Cecil said.

A new Missouri drive-in just opened in St. Joseph last June. That's a different picture from the decade from 1978 to 1988 when the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association reported over 1,000 screen closings.

New technologies like the VCR almost killed the drive-in back then, but it appears the distinctly American pastime -- as American as big cars and Hollywood -- will probably survive a little longer.

"It's classic because there aren't many left," said Diane. "They are part of our American heritage."

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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