RICHMOND — As high school teens, we thought we were terribly clever, not to mention daring, when we pulled over a short distance from the drive-in theater, opened the trunk and put our smallest friend in there.
None of us ever had any extra money, the theater charged by the person rather than the car, and we were cutting the cost by 20 percent. We parked a discreet distance from the ticket taker and got away with it every time. Looking back, it seems more likely he saw the extraction from the trunk and just shrugged and smiled.
We all loved the drive-ins, huge barren spaces with rows of what looked like parking meters with speakers that provided the sound — sometimes less than adequately. We went with our girlfriends often and when one had a date, it was a sure thing the rest would quiz her about the movie plot to find out how much distracting "necking" was involved.
Usually with double features, drive-ins attracted carloads of families as well, providing inexpensive entertainment with sodas and popcorn (messy cars) and, often, an invasion of mosquitoes. Drivers honked at friends when speakers didn't work or just for the fun of it.
From a peak of 4,063 in 1958, the number of drive-ins plummeted to 2,074 thirty years later and in 1991, the last one closed with fanfare in New Jersey — the state claiming to be the birthplace of drive-ins. Attracted by multi-choice theaters in malls and theater seats, the public was done.
This summer, like a Phoenix, drive-ins rise in parking lots and fields, with screens of varying sizes and sound sent through the car radio. One of the happier life changes caused by the nasty coronavirus, drive-in patrons need no masks if they're within their family group, and cars line up several feet apart. Thus, two groups of us went to a parking lot behind the venerable Cape Cod Playhouse and lined up to see "The Wizard of Oz."
The screen was fairly low, and when a very tall SUV backed into a space two rows ahead, we were sure to miss the wicked witch's feet sticking out from under the house and a third of the yellow brick road. But a parking attendant was on it, and the behemoth was relegated to a back row. With all windows open, we had surround sound — from family on the left and strangers on the right.
And then the amazing voice of Judy Garland soared out of a little girl in a blue and white dress, and the magic of a 1939 movie was on. It's easy to forget the number of forever things Oz creator Frank L. Baum gave us, not least the fact that pouring water on a witch melts her into nothing. Good to know. Familiar expressions that live in our talk include:
" we're not in Kansas anymore."
"Follow the yellow brick road."
"A horse of a different color."
"A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others."
"Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don't you think?"
"There's no place like home."
This last actually came from an 1823 folk ballad, but the Wizard is more likely to get the credit. Along with, more recently, Motley Crue. And then, everyone knows the power embedded in shiny red shoes.
Still, with the marvelous movie "Judy" fresh in mind, it was hard to look at the kind, vibrant, determined Dorothy without remembering her grim life. She skipped expertly and joyfully along that brick road with the Tinman, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion under the influence of drugs that would haunt the rest of her life. And her managers half-starved her in hopes that this money-making child wouldn't grow.
The tiny Munchkins, dancing with excitement because Dorothy has killed a wicked witch, included 40-year-old men who sexually harassed her, something she would experience later on with Hollywood executives. This present-day knowledge casts a cloud over the rainbow — but also reveals that Judy Garland, acting under horrible conditions, was even more magnificent than we knew. But in the world of virus, a charming old movie at a new drive-in site proved a pot of gold.
Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.