DRIVE-IN DOWN MEMORY LANE
Blogging last week about seeing The Poseidon Adventure for the first time at the drive-in years ago made me start reminiscing about my childhood and the drive-in. As a child during the late Sixties, I grew up in one of our country’s most contentious periods full of protests, assassinations, free love, and drug taking. Sure I caught glimpses of journalists reporting from battle-torn Vietnam and was aware of the students killed by the National Guard at Kent State, but none of this affected my idyllic suburban lily-white neighborhood of East Meadow on Long Island in New York State. It was just like what was pictured on the TV show The Wonder Years. Manicured lawns; one or two cars in every garage; stay-at-home moms; and not a care in the world for us kids.
There was a contingent of boys all around the same age (my brother Joe and I; George and James in the house to the left of us; George aka Moons on the other side of us; Andrew and Vinnie across the street; and George aka Slyck and his brother Eugene down the block). The kids a few years older than us who lived on the block were mostly girls, which was lucky for my parents who were always in need of a babysitter because they loved to go out with their friends. Next door to Vinnie lived his cousins Donna whose pot-smoking friends crashed our house one night during Here Come the Brides and her younger sister Karen who turned me on to Bobby Sherman. I don’t know if it was the way he sang or the way he filled his tight chinos that made me a fan. Joyce, whose mother Josie was the block’s resident baby teeth puller, only watched us during the day, but our favorite was Moons’ older sister Marie. She taught us all the Arty Farty rhymes and would make us popcorn one time forgetting to put the lid on as it ricocheted throughout the kitchen while Billie Jo, Bobbi Jo, and Betty Jo were vying to be named the prettiest girl in the valley on Petticoat Junction.
Summers found us boys playing basketball in Vinnie’s backyard or riding our bikes around the neighborhood. Sometimes we would splash around in Moons’ above-ground pool with only his elderly, Italian-speaking grandmother at home or play kick ball in the street. In the days long before personal computers and video games, we’d play Red Light/Green Light 123 or Red Rover. Other times we’d pretend to be the characters or aliens from our favorite TV shows Lost in Space about the space family Robinson or Land of the Giants about seven “little people” who crashed on a planet where they are minuscule in size to the alien inhabitants. I was usually Will Robinson or Col. Fitzhugh, though today I would have loved to be third season mini-skirted Judy Robinson or Giants’ glamorous raven-haired intergalactic jet setter Valerie Scott. LOL
Other times the G.I Joes or Barbie Dolls would come out. My doll of choice was the six-inch astronaut Major Matt Mason and his crewmen Sgt. Storm and Lt. Long since I loved science-fiction TV shows. They were astronauts who had bendable arms and legs, but once the wire broke the limb just stayed straight. There was no fixing it. Matt and his crew would battle the Jovian aliens who had transparent green heads. We had a lot of the accessories too such as the space station; sled and jet pack; and the space crawler, which actually worked. Then they probably cost a few bucks, but today as collector’s items they go for hundreds of dollars on Ebay! To add to my fantasy world, I would borrow my sister’s six-inch Dawn dolls. One was a short-haired blonde which I would pretend was Heather Young’s stewardess Betty from Land of the Giants and the other a long-haired redhead, which became the previously mentioned Valerie Scott played by Deanna Lund. I rationalized that our space heroes needed women to rescue, so my playing with girl dolls was no big deal. However, I did enjoy a little too much dressing up the Valerie doll and took a extremely long time to settle on what she should wear from her extensive wardrobe for the day’s adventure.
Though I had fun with all these pastimes my favorite by far was going to the drive-in movie usually on a Saturday night. My dad was a big movie buff. He would load his pajama-clad, pillow-holding kids into the family station wagon and off to the Westbury or Copiague Drive-in we’d go. My mother usually came too unless her back was bothering her and she would stay home. My love for movies began here sitting in a car on beautiful warm star-filled nights watching whatever magical plot unfold on these huge drive-in movie screens. Sometimes I would just gaze out the passenger window at other cars or up at the nighttime sky and reap in the stillness with only the sounds of the movie wafting through the air from the attached speakers hanging in the car windows.
My dad was a gifted athlete and very into sports particularly baseball and basketball. I was small for my age, wore glasses, and was not athletic though I was a fast runner. I abhorred team sports (except for a good kickball game in the street) and thought we had nothing in common. It wasn’t until after he passed away in 1987 and looking back did I realize that we did share this love of cinema. And he was responsible for the start of my crazed obsession of Sixties pop movies.
I experienced a lot of firsts at the drive-in. I saw musicals for the first time albeit bad musicals such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with its annoying title-song rattling in my head for days after and the particularly God-awful Paint Your Wagon with its cringe-worthy warbling cowpokes Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood who sent me scrambling over the seats to get a good place to sleep in the back of our car. It is a wonder I don’t despise the entire genre to this day.
I almost got to see my first pair of on-screen boobs when Britt Ekland’s character inadvertently did the first striptease in The Night They Raided Minsky’s. When she dropped her top, two pairs of hands quickly covered my eyes as my parents made sure to shield me from the Swedish bombshell’s assets. It wasn’t until years later that I learned Ekland claimed a double was used and I did not miss my first pair of celebrity tits after all.
Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More stands out for me. I never had seen a western with so much indiscriminate violence accompanied by such a haunting musical score. I wanted to look away, but couldn’t. Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name comes between two feuding families in the old West. When one family gets an advantage and burns down the other’s home, a huge gun battle ensues. I can still see the father and son being gunned down on the porch followed by the mother who comes barging through the doorway rifle in hand only to be riddled with bullets as well. That scene has been ingrained in me for years.
We lived over a mile from the public school, but not far enough for free bus service and my mother did not drive at the time. We were forced to go to Catholic elementary school because it was around the corner from where we lived. I hated everything about that place except for my friend John whom I am good friends with to this day. Living up to my namesake, Doubting Thomas, I questioned and doubted too every bit of religious dogma they threw at me. I would make up sins to confess and then kneel at the altar thinking of what I wanted to do after school instead of reciting whatever act of contrition the priest ordered me to say. Needless to say, I did not choose the nun comedy Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows we saw at the drive-in one weekend. This was a sequel to a popular Hayley Mills movie called The Trouble with Angels, which we did not see, about two rebellious students at an all-girls Catholic school. Rosalind Russell played the tough frustrated principal. She returned for the sequel which now focused on pretty Stella Stevens as a hip novitiate nun adjusting to her new revocation. Nuns and students make a road trip by bus to attend a music festival. In between, they have a series of adventures including spending time at an all-boys school where the kids go-go dance to Boyce and Hart’s bouncy title tune and getting stuck on a set of railroad tracks with a train barreling towards their bus with poor Mary Wickes trying desperately to drive it to safety.
To my surprise I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. None of the actresses playing the school girls were annoying (I would go on to interview Hilarie Thompson years later who did dish that there were two who hated each other and pulled Hilarie into their feud) and the actresses as nuns were quite entertaining. I remember sitting there thinking, ‘How come the ones at St. Raphael’s aren’t this amusing?” I disliked every nun I had at that joint except for one. Even when a nun at St. Raphael’s tried to be nice she screwed it up in my mind. In the Seventh grade we had to write an original short story. Sister Somebody thought my tale (about three students who steal the answers to a test and then change their minds and try to put the answers back) was so hilarious that she read it aloud to the entire school at an assembly. First I was surprised because I thought we were handing in a first draft to be reviewed. Secondly, being shy, I was mortified regarding the attention though it was satisfying to hear my classmates laugh. Needless to say I was shocked when she gave me a C+! She said my grammar and punctuation was bad—really!?! You just singled my story out as the best and shared with the entire school. I wanted to say, “How’s this for proper grammar? Go fuck yourself.” Being the good (ahem) Catholic boy I was, I just took the paper from her cold hand and slinked back to my desk.
Now when I catch Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows on television I realize Stella Stevens was so miscast and gives a cringe-worthy performance. Stella is an awesome actress, and I like her a lot, but she is better suited to tough broad roles like the whore she played in Sam Peckinpah’s colorful western The Ballad of Cable Hogue and as ex-hooker Linda Rogo in The Poseidon Adventure. When Stella is good in a part she is good. However, when she is bad, she is really bad! And in 1968 Stella was doubly bad. Here trying to playing cute as hip novice nun and in the spy movie Sol Madrid giving a shrill cringe-worthy performance where she seemed to be yelling her lines as a former mistress of a Mafia boss.
I blame my bad language in part on the movies though it was not the first place I heard swear words. That was at home. My mother is of Sicilian descent—enough said. Within weeks of each other, we saw both Love Story and Patton both of which had the most swearing I ever heard and that is saying a lot considering mia madre. Actually we almost didn’t get to see Love Story because the line to get into the drive-in was so long. I remember my father wanted to turn around and my mom commanding, “I’ve sat through spaghetti westerns and ape movies, so we are going to get on this line to watch a movie I really want to see!” We did. Ali MacGraw’s ill-fated college student in Love Story cussed like a truck driver prickling the ears even of her staid college boy lover Ryan O’Neal. My mother was totally enjoying it, oblivious to the fact that her nine, seven, six and two year old was being subjected to such language. Actually, MacGraw’s potty mouth is the only thing that kept me awake. I think the opening of Patton was even worse with George C. Scott cursing up a storm as the famed general giving his infamous motivational speech to his troops. No sleeping for me in that one.
Another film I remember clearly watching on the drive-in screen was Beneath the Planet of the Apes. I was ten years old and didn’t know why I was so drawn to blond James Franciscus’ loin-clothed clad hero. Now I do! I had seen Planet of the Apes previously on TV at my cousins’ Tommy and Steven’s house, I think, and was looking forward to the sequel. Even though the shock value of the ape-dominated Earth was gone, I really loved the chase elements of this movie and the pairing of Franciscus with Linda Harrison as the mute Nova. They were drawn together determined to find Charlton Heston’s missing Taylor while pursued by the gorillas who in this movie seemed more blood-thirsty and war-mongering. The mutant humans were really creepy and the violent ending with the duo each getting gunned down separately before Taylor detonated the atom bomb destroying Earth surprised and shocked me. Back in the late Sixties/early Seventies movies did not always have the expectant happy endings as I was beginning to learn.
I tried to catch James Franciscus in other movies and TV shows as the Seventies progressed. Still not totally sure why I was fascinated with him. Recently, I learned from two of his co-stars that he was not a super friendly guy off camera. Linda Harrison told me he was cerebral and not very outgoing. Marlyn Mason, his co-star on the TV series Longstreet where he played a blind detective, found him to be aloof and sometimes unapproachable. He never had lunch with her and she didn’t know anything more about him after working together on twenty-six shows than she did before. Still Beneath the Planet of the Apes ranks as one of my favorite movies of all-time thanks to the bare-chested James Franciscus no matter what his behavior off-camera.
Another favorite movie was Skyjacked, which we saw in the summer of 1972. This was the prequel to the granddaddy of all movies for me, The Poseidon Adventure. Never having seen Airport up to that point, Skyjacked was my first all-star airplane adventure movie. A crazed bomber hijacks a flight to Moscow threatening to blow it up if his demands on not met by writing a threat on the restroom mirror. At first the crew, stalwart pilot Charlton Heston; co-pilot Mike Henry; his girlfriend Head Stewardess Yvette Mimieux who also had an affair with the married Heston giving new meaning to Fly the Friendly Skies; and tough-talking stewardess Leslie Uggams, try to figure out which First Class passenger is the hijacker. Suspicion is immediately cast on hippie Susan Dey. Or is it black jazz musician Rosey Grier or Vietnam Vet James Brolin or uptight businessman Ross Elliot traveling with his wife Jeanne Crain or Senator Walter Pidgeon’s teenage son Nicholas Hammond? We know it cannot be pregnant Mariette Hartley or could it?
Seasoned moviegoers in the early Seventies knew right from the get-go that the bomber was the returning G.I. who went cuckoo in Vietnam. Movies and TV shows had a bad habit of making the country’s service men the villains in their storylines. I was not so savvy back then and when it was revealed it was Brolin I was surprised and then began to feel sorry for him due to the actor’s strong emotional performance. He surprisingly stuck out for me and not so Yvette Mimieux, as did two particular scenes. The first is when the cockpit crew distracts the hijacker while the plane is being refueled and the stewardesses are able to get all the passengers off the plane except for those in First Class. Right there I learned sometimes it is better to fly Economy. Leslie Uggams then pleads with Brolin to allow Hartley to leave, however he refuses. He then kicks Uggams off the plane, but not before she curses him out.
After some really cool aerial shots of the Boeing 707 in flight, the movie reaches its climax when the plane is allowed to land in Moscow. This was still during the time of the Cold War, so the Russians are most suspicious. Brolin really excels here as he fantasies that he will be hailed a hero when he debarks, like he thinks he should have been when he retuned to the U.S. after his tour of duty, but he was dismissed as a Section 8 case. Instead, he is gunned down in a hail of bullets from the unsympathetic Soviets.
After Skyjacked came The Poseidon Adventure and then our trips to the drive-in began to fade as we got older and began going more often to regular movie theatres. Movie going would never be the same for me as even today I still get nostalgic for the watching a movie at the drive-in.