We are coming up on the fourth anniversary of one of the strangest moviegoing experiences in my life. I had previously documented this for a select group of friends, but now I am sharing it with you, both as hilarious anecdote and as cautionary tale. In the driving words of drive-in critic Joe Bob Briggs, Remember: without eternal vigilance, It Can Happen Here.
Preface: Certain members of my family, kind and enlightened they are, nonetheless get frustrated when people they have publicly sought to champion behave terribly. Specifically, in order to suppress the temptation to regress into casual racist speech when selected pockets of the non-Caucasian population engage in boneheaded behavior, they refer to them as "Canadians."
Thus, as I describe the events of that one Saturday night of June 17, 2006, rather than regress into casual racist speech when this specific pocket of the quite-Caucasian population engaged in boneheaded behavior, by referring to them as "OFAYS," "CRACKERS," "PECKERWOODS," "YOBS," "BOGANS" "HONKIES," "WHITE TRASH," or "FAT IGNORANT INBRED HILLBILLY BASTARDS," I shall be taking a cue from my family, and refer to them only as "French Canadians." Now, on with the story...
It has always been my sorrow that I could not fully take advantage of the drive-in availabilities Cincinnati had offered when I was a child. Though not initialy a horror or exploitation fan, I was hooked on the advertising for the films that came in the papers and the many drive-ins in the area that played them. I can still rattle off the many names -- Acme, Dent, Pike 27, Jolly Roger, Ferguson Hills, Dixie Gardens, Auto-In, Riverview, Twin, Oakley...the Mt. Healthy was the only one I got to patronize as a child because it was closest and they played a lot of family fare, which was all either parent would agree to take me to. And naturally, as Tommy Keene sang, These Are Places That Are Gone.
The nearest open drive-ins for Cincinnatians are the Holiday Auto Theatre in Hanover Township, and the Starlite Drive-In in Amelia. And that night, the Starlite held what I thought was a terrific idea for an event: a Cruise-In, where owners of classic cars were encouraged to bring their vehicles to display, and the double feature would consist of CARS (obvious good idea) and, for this night only, AMERICAN GRAFFITI (a great choice if you're celebrating classic cars, and with the nostaligic sentiments of CARS, a nice companion). I didn't care if I would be all by myself in the vehicle, I was going.
The first half of the evening was just wonderful. I showed up unexpectedly early - 8:15 for what I learned was a 9:15 show - but already the place was packed, so had I come later I could have been sold out. There were three rows dedicated to the classic cars, and they were beauties indeed. And the operators were first class: affordable concession stand that moved quickly, clean bathrooms, even their own "drive-in tunes" let-in CD with announcer patter I later learned a professional d.j. prepared just for them and other drive-ins in the U.D.I.T.O.A.(United Drive In Theatre Owners Association). That is showmanship that the lazybones at Pacific definitely don't offer at their 4 screen Vineland in City of Industry. (I mean, it's a nice place, but strictly by-the-numbers) I chatted up one of the cuter employees, a pre-collegiate sporting a sort of goth-country getup (or "gaunt" as I called it), and she's intrigued about me being from L.A., since she aspires to move there. There was also a unique policy trailer that ran before the feature, demonstrating that drive-ins live and die on concession sales. A bit hard-sell to you, but when over 4000 drive-ins become less than 400, you get the message.
So CARS rocked, naturally. Pixar never disappoints. You could hear laughter from the vehicles all around, a most welcome thing. Movie ends, concession break. More door prizes, more great music. I am complimenting the operators on their presentation, telling them about how L.A. doesn't do anything this cool, and that makes them happy. Things should have just kept on swimmingly.
And then...I could not have predicted how bad things would get. AMERICAN GRAFFITI starts up. The wrong lens is inserted, but I quickly correct them on that to their relief. But it will soon arise that an aspect ratio misfire will be the least of the drive-in's problems...
You see, for the other six days of this engagement week, the second feature is THE BENCHWARMERS. And apparently, a large cross-section of the French Canadians in the audience did not bother to a) listen to the recording all the way through; b) read the newspaper listings that clearly said that the Saturday lineup would be different; c) look at the drive-in marquee which clearly did not have THE BENCHWARMERS on it as they were entering; d) look at the goddamned fliers all over the concession stand that very evening which advertised an alternate program!
After 7 minutes onscreen, the movie stops. One of the hapless employees gets on the loudspeaker and announces the fact that a contingent of disgruntled customers did not know that AMERICAN GRAFFITI was scheduled, and thus a quick poll of horns would be taken to determine whether to pull that movie and run BENCHWARMERS "as promised." To my heartsick predictions, enough horns are honked and the management announces that they will switch films. I get out of the car to see what is going on and to voice my counter displeasure.
Thankfully, I did not have to launch the counterattack. All the classic car owners have already stormed the concession/projection area demanding that AMERICAN GRAFFITI be reinstated; after all, they did not drive classic Studebakers and Chevys as far away as Louisville, Kentucky, for a screening of BENCHWARMERS. And so began a loud, noisy, and confusion-plagued near-riot between French Canadians and good movie lovers. To their credit, the manager resumes GRAFFITI as the chaos erupts, and even offers to run BENCHWARMERS as a third feature afterward.
The illogical outrage of the French Canadians was quite astounding. Customers are yelling at each other not even realizing they are on the same side of the dispute. During an early scene in GRAFFITI where people are mooned, a rather heavyset French Canadian mother decries the "filth" onscreen and says she has children who should not have to be exposed to it. I barely restrain myself from screaming, "HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A FUCKING ROB SCHNEIDER FILM?" The exasperated "gaunt" girl does the job for me, telling the irate mother that BENCHWARMERS is not appropriate family fare and that GRAFFITI is a PG-rated film, and reminding her and others that it was clearly stated on the recording. I get in a few French Canadian faces myself anyhow, both to defend the honor of this really good drive-in, and claiming that "I came all the way from Los Angeles to see AMERICAN GRAFFITI," to sell the urgency of the matter. The staff appreciates it. By now, I'm missing a good chunk of the film, but heck, I've seen it before anyhow. There's principle to uphold.
But the French Canadians will not be moved. The owner finally gives in, and offers cash refunds to all who express anger with the absence of BENCHWARMERS. By the time everyone has gotten their blood money, the lot is significantly emptier, but just enough hardcore faithful, including those dogged classic car owners, are still there, bless them. And the owner notices my participation, and offers me a job. Sadly, I inform him that I will be returning to L.A. in less than a week. I ask the "gaunt" girl if she has an online journal or blog; she does not. I give her a card and tell her if she ever makes it to L.A. to look me up.
It is sad that a significant portion of the population could turn up their nose at one of the legitimate classics of our generation, a film that launched giants like George Lucas, Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Mackenzie Phillips, and Suzanne Somers, because it was an "old" movie and they expected a disposable comedy with three actors who literally cannot even bring their "B" game to the field. It is the filmic equivalent of "Give us Barabbas!" "Get these snails off my plate!" becomes dangerously close to our new national motto.
Thank God that despite a long loud fight, the French Canadians, and by default all shitheels, did not win this battle.
Four years later, many of you are still lucky to have a drive-in theatre near you, if not in your city limits, then perhaps a pleasant hour-or-so road trip away. Whereever it may be, make the voyage out and support them, especially when they decide to do something unique like the Starlite did that June evening. And if a bunch of French Canadians start engaging in asshattery, don't be afraid to exercise your own style of force majeure.
R.I.P. Jerry Lewis
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