When I moved to Minneapolis in 1986 there were still a half dozen drive-in theaters screening triple features during the summer. The St. Croix Hilltop Drive-In, the site of my teenage fascination with the “dusk to dawn gore-a-rama,” operated until the early 1990’s, as did the Maple Leaf and the Hi-65. Subject to the same erosion of audience as the repertory theaters, by the mid 1990’s only two drive-ins remained in business: The Vali-Hi and the Cottage View. In addition to the competition from VHS and DVD home viewing formats, escalating exurban real estate values had made the prospect of selling the land more profitable than the grinding, day-to-day operation of an outdoor movie theater, which in Minnesota was open six months of the year at best. Five years ago, when DCP (Digital Cinema Package) began to replace 35mm film as the standard for projection in commercial cinemas, the remaining two drive-ins were required to make a considerable financial investment or to close. Only the Vali-Hi on the outskirts of St. Paul chose to absorb these multiple financial pressures and continue.
My reaction to graduating from college had been to drive a car to the Pacific Ocean. As I’ve written earlier, I had been influenced by Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” to imagine that my adult identity lay westward. In the late 1970’s I had participated in that same pop-cultural feedback loop as I sat in the backseat of my friend’s Ford Mustang, watching a double feature of Richard Sarafian’s “Vanishing Point” and David Cronenberg’s “Fast Company” at the Hilltop. Cars had always played a prominent role in the modern American narrative of individual freedom and the drive-in movie theater represented one expression of this mythology.
The collectivist social philosophy of Belgium, in which public transportation is an essential value, did not produce a theater for cars and so my partner Hilde’s first exposure to the drive-in was with me in St. Paul, Minnesota. By the early 2000’s the drive-ins screened the same first-run releases that one could see in any commercial theater. I explained to Hilde that this had not always been the case, describing the exploitation films and formerly disreputable atmosphere by means of my “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” story. The only remnant of my 1970’s drive-in experience that survived into the twenty-first century was a ten-minute package of damaged intermission films that the Cottage View showed between the features.
At the drive-in of 2003, the other people in attendance were often more compelling than the movies. This audience was now primarily families, couples with young children, who would turn their pickup trucks backwards to the screen and recline with the kids on cushions in the back to watch the movies. One night, Hilde and I observed as two boys in footed superman pajamas tried to stay awake through “The Devil Wears Prada.”
At the end of the summer of 2012 the Cottage View announced that it was going out of business. Hilde and I made a final visit to pay our respects. It was early September, still warm for Minnesota. The Cottage View was situated on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River and the 1960’s neon marquee was visible from a distance as one approached on Highway 61 from the north. We always arrived at the drive-in early to watch the people before the movies began, but when we arrived that evening a long line of cars had already formed at the entrance. We’d taken out sushi from a Japanese restaurant and bought a bottle of Cava, so we ate our dinner while we waited to enter. The gates opened, we chose a spot (it was always a little livelier near the screen) and the drive-in’s version of “Playtime” began through the windows of our car:
A heavily tattooed man on a motorcycle with a sidecar set up lawn chairs. In his low-slung jeans, his legs appeared comically short. The ten-year-old boy with him wore a bushy foxtail. We initially labeled them ‘father and son,’ but after a few minutes of watching, our interpretation had evolved into ‘slightly wild uncle indulging nephew.’ A pair of middle-aged women unpacked an entire living room from a minivan. They carried two chairs and a table into the space next to the van. Then they produced a pair of audiophile speakers and a receiver, a cooler, a battery powered heater and, finally, a small puffy dog that they leashed to the table. Young hipsters with waxed, ironic mustaches smoked pot and juggled glowing balls as the sun began to set. The older man directly behind us had set up a table and chair in front of his car and appeared to be preparing his taxes amidst a pile of loose paper.
When it got dark and the first movie began, which I remember was a “Bourne” film without Matt Damon, our attention focused on the social activity immediately adjacent to our car. On our left was a pickup truck turned backwards to the screen. A young couple sat with their baby on folding chairs in the back of the truck. The woman, who at this moment was silhouetted against the remaining light in the west, was utterly fascinated with her new baby. She dangled the child in front of her face, the child giggled with delight and the mother glowed with purpose. Her husband, somewhat disconsolately, walked a collie puppy on a leash back and forth at the foot of the truck. He’d glance supportively at his wife and child, but his attention wandered more intently to the group directly in front of us. Three teenaged boys and two girls climbed in and out of a parent’s car in an ambiguous play of childish chase that also had a suggestion of courtship. They surreptitiously sipped from beer bottles that someone had bought for them. The new father with the dog watched them nostalgically. Ten years earlier, he had probably been part of just such a group, and Hilde and I imagined that he now missed that sense of frivolous adventure. On our right, a couple approximately our age sat in a giant SUV eating fried chicken out of a paper bucket. Two teenage boys stood outside the car separately, ignoring both their parents and each other, talking sullenly into their cell phones and also glancing at the group with the beer.
The atmosphere that night, probably due to the imminent closing of the Cottage View, was pervaded by longing. As Hilde and I finished our Cava, I concluded, “We’re still behaving like the kids in front of us.” In a way, we had never really grown up and I recognized that I wanted the drive-in to confirm that something young, at fifty, was still alive in me. I remembered the days of the St. Croix Hilltop Drive-In and was projecting my own desires on the scene.
The “Bourne” film played and only the couple to our right watched it, having proceeded to a paper bucket of popcorn. The mother on our left held her baby between her eyes and the screen. Her husband paced with the puppy. The sons of the couple to the right had disappeared completely.
When the “Bourne” movie ended the intermission films began. Hilde walked to the bathroom while I watched puppies playing in slow motion with a ball, edited to a generic 1970’s funk soundtrack. “There are just eight minutes until show time, be sure to visit our concession stand now.” On the screen, unappetizing images of burnt pizzas and hot dogs appeared. The deeply scratched and buckled surface of the film print abstracted my attention from the familiar imagery and I fell into reflection. The general atmosphere of my youth drifted through my mind in a jumble of non-specific memories: the scarred, wooden floors of a ski chalet, “Up Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon” on the a.m. radio, the metallic taste of my trombone mouthpiece, the peculiar smell of a wallpaper store . . . each sensation following the previous one randomly, dream-like and irrational. “There are just six minutes until show time.” A German-accented, animated character from the 1960’s drew my focus back to the content beneath the scratches and dust. This professorial caricature hawked ‘day-lee-shus hot doggies’ and ice cream bars that rolled on a factory assembly line behind him. I had seen this ad many times at the St. Croix Hilltop. It had probably played on the night of my “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” story. Maybe this was the same print. “There are now just four minutes . . .“ The distinctive wah-wah guitar sound of the era returned and a helicopter shot of the California coastline segued into kittens rolling with balls of yarn. These sounds and images were my native element, the pop cultural, amniotic fluid in which my awareness of the world was formed. I was merely the sum of the environmental influences into which I had been accidentally born; my identity was made of the 1970’s. “Only two minutes to go, last chance to visit the concession stand.“ Hilde opened the passenger door and startled me back into the present.
“Tom, why are you crying? Ooooh, it’s the intermission films . . . you are so melodramatic!”
“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Show Time!”