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Movies under the stars

by Jerry Hitchcock
| April 16, 2010 9:00 PM

The year was 1969. Not quite seven years old, my twin brother Jason and I bounded into the back of our station wagon and, once loaded up with pajamas, blankets and pillows, our family took off for Lewistown, Mont., some 40 miles away from our home.

Along with our 2-year-old brother, Dan, us siblings were set to partake in our first drive-in movie at the Westernaire Drive-in, just west of Lewistown.

Even though a double feature was playing, we young-uns were fast asleep before the closing credits rolled on '100 Rifles,' a real shoot-em-up western. Though I really didn't know much of them at the time, the film starred ex-NFL great Jim Brown, Burt Reynolds and (hubba-hubba) Rachel Welch (Not that I said 'hubba-hubba" at that age, but I am sure that is what most of the men in attendance that night were thinking).

To this day I have no idea what the second movie was, but in a way that is fitting: A night at the drive-in was never really that much about the films on the screen.

The first drive-in theater in the U.S. opened in Camden, N.J., in June 1933, and for those of you who never had the privilege of a viewing a movie under the stars, you really missed out. Unlike traditional movie theaters with their modern, cushy seats and cup holders, your seat at the drive-in was what you brought with you. You stopped at the pay booth, paid for however many were in the car (unless you had a few friends stashed in the trunk), pulled up to a speaker station, rolled down the window a ways, hooked a speaker on and rolled it back up. At that point you were free to enjoy the movie, converse with those in you vehicle, make out, walk to the snack bar, or maybe even cruise the grounds if it wasn't quite dark enough yet for the trailers to roll.

Impatient motorists would inevitably started honking their horns when they deemed it dark enough for the movie to start, and once the magical ray of light illuminated the screen the honks seemed to grow louder in unison and then taper off as all settled in for the night.

I saw some great movies at the Westernaire over the years - or at least parts of them. "Jaws," "Rocky," "Chariots of Fire" and "Life of Brian" are the most memorable. I had a steady girlfriend in my later high school years, and we didn't miss too many weekend nights at the Westernaire. I'd get into the "steamy" details, but this is a family newspaper...

At most drive-ins, the snack bar was centrally located, and the Westeraire had great pizza, thanks to a custom broiler contraption that could cook one to order in a few minutes. It was not assembly-line service like is popular today in many food establishments. The soft drinks, hot dogs and popcorn was just as good as they looked dancing on the screen before the movie started (The jingle: "Let's all go to the lobby, let's all go to the lobby.")

Sadly, I received news awhile back that the Westernaire was shuttered in 2008, suffering the same fate as many outdoor silver screens before it.

At the peak of popularity, there were between 4,000 and 5,000 drive-ins in the U.S. and Canada, according to www.drive-ins.com. Currently there are less than 400, and the numbers have been dropping as owners struggle to remain viable in the Internet- and Netflix-enabled world.

Of course, Coeur d'Alene had the Showboat Drive-in, with a ship outline and portholes making up its facade, on Government Way north of Neider Avenue. The Showboat's screen blew down in a windstorm back in 1989, and since then North Idaho has been without an outdoor movie venue.

But there is good news nationwide. The drive-in is going through a resurgence of sorts, with some drive-ins reopening as people look for good, clean wholesome fun, with maybe a little bit of nostalgia thrown in for good measure.

The coolest thing I found while researching this column was a Google site which lists on a map of the U.S. all the current drive-ins. Check it out at www.drive-ins.com/exgearth.htm. You'll need to have Google Earth downloaded on your computer to view the map.

Oh, and also, if you want the drive-in experience and money is no object, you can now purchase a new inflatable screen/projector kit that will allow almost anyone to create their own drive-in fun. Just blow it up and invite you friends BYOSW - Bring Your Own Seats on Wheels.

Jerry Hitchcock is a copy editor for The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176 Ext. 2017, or via e-mail at Jhitchcock@cdapress.com.

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