My parents started a family tradition a few years ago called Backyard Movie Night. They hire a movie-showing company that comes to their home to play a movie. Yes, my parents do own their own DVD player, and yes, they do know how it works.
You see, this isn't just any movie-showing company. For starters, they encourage customers to schedule their movie on a warm summer night when the air is still, the sky is dark, and the stars are many. They recommend that you have lots of hot dogs and hamburgers on hand. And if you plan on making out during the movie, make sure to bring your own blanket and sit in back because there will be plenty of kids in the front row.
This year's big night will take place on June 27th, weather permitting. The movie-showing staff will show up about thirty minutes before showtime to put up a large white screen on the side of the garage. My parents will have the task of choosing the movie ahead of time, a flick that must appeal to the interests of movie lovers 3 and up. That means something along the lines of Disney's "The Wild," not to be confused with "Wild Things" which stars Denise Richards, Nev Campbell, and a swimming pool.
The kids think Backyard Movie Night is a modern invention, the result of too many years watching indoor DVDs on a couch while eating stale potato chips. But we adults know better. Backyard Movie Night takes us back to a simpler time when the best way to truly enjoy a movie was outdoors under the stars.
Growing up during the 1970s, the only way to watch a movie with Mom and Dad was in the back seat of Dad's Ford Maverick at one of Cleveland's many drive-in movie theatres. Going to the drive-in was more than just about the movies. There were the gravel-lined playgrounds that my siblings and I spent practically every moment leading up to the movie skinning our knees on. And there were the miles and miles of open space we could run around squealing like banshies as the sun was setting while many of our counterparts were at home getting ready for bed. Wasting energy wasn't a problem because the concession stand had hot dogs, chili dogs, burgers, and fries so we could refuel during the main event.
The drive-in movie experience did have its stressful moments and they usually happened at the beginning of the movie just as the opening credits were starting. We could see the frustration on Dad's face as he tried his hardest to position the car ever so carefully next to the speakers to get them to sound better. And of course there was always at least one speaker that did not work and Dad usually found it. Embarrassed, we slid down in our seats while he started the car back up and began the slow crawl ten feet over to the right or left to another speaker, hoping not to disturb the other movie-goers and run the risk of getting pelted with popcorn and slushies.
With hot dogs and pops in our laps, we were finally settled and ready for the opening movie. If we were lucky it was a kids movie, like Herbie the Love Bug, or even a cartoon. Whatever it was, I watched until I drifted off to sleep, not even the caffeine in my cola could keep me awake for the second movie. One time, however, by the almighty power of some unknown force I remained awake for the nightcap of a cinematic doubleheader. The movie was the adult classic Shampoo, starring Julie Christie and a handful of meaningless other actors. Her long, shapely legs, soft lips, and a timely case of insomnia kept me awake long enough to see my first unrated movie at the tender age of 9. Yes indeed, the drive-in movie was indirectly responsible for my first crush on an older woman I had absolutely no chance with.
I'm quite sure that filling my head with impure thoughts while viewing movies like Shampoo was not the intention of one Richard Hollingshead, the inventor of the drive-in movie theatre back in 1933. In his own backyard in Camden, New Jersey he simulated an actual movie theatre, even going so far as to see what the experience would be like in the rain by turning his water sprinkler on. He loved hanging outside in his car and he loved movies. Why not combine the two and see what happens!
The idea caught on. By the summer of 1937 Ohio opened its first drive-in called the Starlight Auto Theatre in Akron. Cleveland got its first one a year later in the vicinity of Thistledown Race Track on Northfield Road. The real boom across America took place in the ten years following WWII as the number of drive-ins climbed from 155 to over 5,000 nationwide.
But as competition from indoor theatres, Beta machines, the VCR, and currently the DVD enabled people to come in from out of the rain to watch movies, the novelty of the drive-in waned. By the 1990s for every new drive-in that opened, dozens more closed. Fifty years ago Ohio had nearly 200 drive-ins. Today there are about 40, preserved and operated by die-hard fans of the venue.
My personal favorite growing up was the Cloverleaf Drive-In, located in Valley View. Some patrons may recall this drive-in having a large clock on the back of its screen with Coke bottles for hands. I just remember that we did not have to drive very far because Grandma and Grandpa lived at the top of the hill. Even when we weren't at the drive-in, we could still get a glimpse of what was playing because the screen was so huge and could be seen from Granger, Canal, and Warner - the three main roads nearby. This fact sparked controversy from the local do-gooders who felt the youth was being corrupted whenever R-rated movies were going on and families were idling their cars out on the street waiting for the lights to change. "Elmer, the light's green." "Don't rush me darling, my favorite part is coming up!"
The Cloverleaf Drive-In closed for good back in 1984. Ironically, the owners became born-again Christians and tried showing Christian-themed films their last season of business. The idea didn't save their drive-in, but their days were numbered anyways. Nearby Garfield Mall was drawing many customers to their indoor theatre, and you could always catch a flick for a dollar at the warm and cozy Mapletown a few miles up the hill.
Clevelanders ages 40 and up can now only look back with great fondness upon the drive-in theatre as they plop another movie into their DVD player and tear open a bag of stale chips. Depending on how much gas money you've saved up, you could always take a trip out to one of the last few remaining drive-ins northeast Ohio has to offer. Chardon's Mayfield Drive-In is still open for business and is showing Iron Man as of this writing. Or you could just hire a movie-showing company and simulate the drive-in experience by hosting your own Backyard Movie Night. Just make sure to check the timer on your automatic sprinkler before the guests show up!