McCallum: At the drive in

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(HOST) Tomorrow marks an anniversary that brings back memories for commentator Mary McCallum – of the the magic of going to the drive-in on a hot summer night.

(MCCALLUM) On June 6, 1933 Richard Hollingshead opened America’s first drive-in in Camden, N.J. The novelty of watching a film from the comfort of the family car caught on like wildfire in a country enamored of the automobile. Soon towns across the U.S. sprouted huge outdoor screens that faced vast parking lots studded with hundreds of speaker poles.

Once there were more than 20 drive-ins around Vermont, but that has dwindled to just four. The technology has changed, but it’s still the cheapest way for a family to go see a film together. Yet I wonder if the luminous outdoor screenstill holds as much magic for today’s kids as it did for me.

I remember being ten, sitting in the back of our Nash Rambler watching Scarlett O’Hara, dressed to kill in dark green velvet, go at it with Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. My parents stared at the drive-in screen through the fly specked windshield while I strained to hear dialogue from the crummy speaker hanging on the driver’s door. Even through the distorted sound I understood that Scarlett and Rhett were dancing with words the way men and women do when they really like each other but cannot show it.

I peeked out the window I’d cranked down to let in the perfume of the Concession Stand. The smell of popcorn and hamburger grease competed for my attention while the deep green folds of Scarlett’s dress caught the light as she moved on screen.

The car nextdoor looked empty. I wondered why the occupants would leave when Rhett and Scarlett were on the verge of something big. Then a hand reached up with a glass and placed it carefully on the deep dashboard. It looked like the wide glasses my parents sipped champagne from on New Year’s Eve. A minute later the hand returned and pulled the glass back down into the dark recesses of the car. A second arm wearing a man’s watch rose and put another glass on the dash and then that arm too disappeared.

Onscreen Scarlett turned to flounce out of the room. Rhett tried to restrain her while in the car next door a bare foot with red toe nails came to rest near the glasses. I couldn’t believe our neighbors weren’t watching the movie! The backs of my parents’ heads moved as they followed Rhett, who followed Scarlett. I couldn’t stand the tension. Were they ever going to kiss?

In the car a glass fell over and spilled liquid on the dashboard. I imagined the driver would be mad about losing his drink when he decided to finally sit up and watch the movie. Without warning, Rhett grabbed Scarlett and planted a forceful kiss on her lips. The long black feathers in her velvet hat arced back as she gave in to the moment.

The screen dissolved and the black and white intermission ad announced that the Concession Stand was open. The people next door didn’t seem to care, but I was out of the car in an instant, running with my 50 cents through the summer night toward the neon glow, smelling the grease and feeling the heat.

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