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Taking a family of five to a regular indoor movie could be very expensive in the 1950s, even if you tried to sneak in your own candy (which we did). It was much cheaper to go to the drive-in theater. When I was around 10 years old, my brother was 8 and my little sister was 3 (and always slept through the movie), we would pile into the car to see a movie. Going to the drive-in was a true adventure, full of the unexpected and out-of-the-ordinary experiences.
Before we left in the late afternoon, Dad would make a huge batch of popcorn. He used a heavy metal skillet with a heavy glass lid. I would often watch him as he carefully measured the oil, the popcorn, and put on the glass lid, followed by shuffling the pan back and forth on the gas burner. (Obviously, this was long before popcorn poppers or Jiffy pop.) The amount of shuffling was important, since getting just the right rhythm ensured that most of the corn would be popped and not burnt. I was his right-hand girl, breathing in the aroma during the entire process.
Once he finished making the popcorn, he let it cool a bit and then put it in a large grocery bag, adding salt to each layer. (No one worried about germs from a paper bag back then.) Mom would pack up sandwich-sized wax bags so that we could each hoard our own portions when she handed them out at the theater. She would also make an extra-large thermos of ice-cold water, which was perfect for washing down errant kernels or quenching our salty throats.
Just before we headed out for the theater, Hi-Way 39, Dad would put the car bed in the back seat. If you’ve never seen one, it’s kind of a plywood contraption; I think ours had hinges so it could be folded up and put in the garage when it wasn’t being used. We covered it with quilts and pillows and bounced up and down, anticipating the undertaking. It was still daylight when we pulled up to the theater. Since they only charged by the carload, it was a pretty cheap entry for us. Dad would look for just the right position in the drive-in parking lot, scouting for the optimal view. His next duty was to check out the speaker. Dad would roll down his window and reach for the speaker on his side of the car, hook it over the window and turn up the volume. They usually played music before the movie began and if there were vocals, we could decide if they sounded more like zoo animals or human beings.
Once that task was taken care of, we kids would race off to the playground. There we had swings, slides, and a whirl-around, placed near the snack bar. (I’m sure that was strategic.) We were in our pajamas, slippers and robes, of course, and I have no idea if other kids were dressed the same way. Dad would keep an eye on us, and when it looked like the movie was about to play, we’d race back to the car—popcorn!!
As we patiently (not really) waited for our little waxed bags of popcorn, Mom would open the big shopping bag. The scent of still-warm popcorn was mesmerizing. I took my wax bag in hand and was determined to eat only one piece at a time, to make it last as long as I could. (I still eat popcorn that way.) The first piece would trigger my saliva glands, so I slowed down, but just a little. That first kernel tasted so good!
Suddenly the drive-in screen lit up! Advertisements for the snack bar tried to tempt us, and I don’t remember if we had cartoons before the main feature. I could swear that one time we saw The Wizard of Oz there, but I can’t be sure. Anyway, I would have my first paper cup of ice-cold water and snuggle into the blankets on the car bed. By then, my sister was usually asleep. I asked for another bag of popcorn (“say please”) and settled in for the duration.
Those were great times.Published in