Archive for July, 2009

Passion Nouveau at the Passion Pit

As the sun goes down, a sell-out crowd at the Showboat Drive-in waits for the film to begin

As the sun goes down, a sell-out crowd at the Showboat Drive-in waits for the film to begin.

Okay, now, everyone who has seen a movie at a drive-in theatre raise your hands.
(Yes, we know this will date you.)

There was a time when Houston was awash in drive-in theatres, ranging from the older single-screen theatres such as the South Main (one of the oldest ones in town) to the multi-screen venues that came later. For a city like Houston, numerous outdoor theatres were inevitable. As in other Texas cities, there was no shortage of land to build out upon. America’s love with the automobile was still in full rapture, and this passion helped in the success of the outdoor theatre. And in true Texas fashion, everything was done bigger, a brag that citizens of the state took to heart.

So came the driven-in theatres, a lot of them. The roll call of the Houston’s drive-in theatres covered multiple decades, beginning in 1940 and on through the nineties: the Texas (later named the South Main), Epsom Downs, Winkler, Shepherd, Market Street, Airline, Trail, Hempstead Road, Irvington, Post Oak (two different ones at different locations on Post Oak), King Center Twin, Hi-Nabor, the infamous Red Bluff (still remembered for its later days as a porn theatre), Tidwell, Loew’s Sharpstown (with a massive kiddie park that included a train ride), Telephone Road, Gulfway, Thunderbird, McLendon III, Pasadena, Bayou, and the last of the old line, the six-screen I-45 Drive-in, which was built in 1982.

It was a good run, with six decades of movies, memories, and lots of necking. There was a reason for its nickname as the passion pit, since it was, in many ways, the perfect date site, offering, privacy, intimacy, and little supervision. Unlike an isolated lover’s lane, drive-ins did offer the safety of others nearby.

Despite this, the drive-in always held massive appeal for families. Reasonable admission, on-site playgrounds, and no worries if the baby started crying, were all part of its popularity.

Then – one by one – the drive-ins all died off, a result of changing public desires, increasing real estate values, daylight savings time, to name just a few reasons. The last to be built, the I-45, was the last to close. When it did – February 29, 1992 – Houstonians saw it as an end of an era.

But sometimes, the past has a way of resurrecting itself. In the case of the drive-in, this occurred in 2006 with the opening of the Showboat Drive-in – not exactly in Houston, but close enough in nearby Tomball. Along with another drive-in that opened the year before (the Starlite) a new era began for watching movies beneath the stars. It was an act of bold defiance, since the idea of a new drive-in seemed completely out of sync with modern movie-going economics. What has since become clear is that there is still a place for an old-style ozoner in the twenty-first century.

So how well does a drive-in theatre do in today’s world of digital THX movie expectations? Judging from a recent Saturday-night visit to the Showboat, quite well. I took my family to see the Pixar film, “UP!” which was shown on a double bill with “Night at the Museum.” A good thirty minutes before the feature started, the place was pretty much a full house, and I found it difficult to find a place to park. On the other side, a slightly smaller crowd had collected for “Terminator: Salvation.” And while my son had been there before with me, this was the first time that my daughter had ever experienced a drive-in. They both enjoyed the experience, but I somehow feel that they could not comprehend the joy that I did when I went to one as a youth… or later on when I could drive there myself. I have to remind myself that they do not have this framework to their experience. They see it for what it is.

True, the picture is not as clear as it would be in a pristine digital indoor auditorium. True, the sound can vary since it is pumped in on an FM frequency, meaning the sound is only as good as your car system. There is still the issue of mosquitoes, and sweltering heat, or the chance of rain.

On the other hand, there is this wonderful communal feel, with everyone sitting in their cars, or relaxing in foldout chairs in the summer air. And there are the stars… far away from the lights of Houston, it is a simple thing to look up and clearly see all the stars in the sky

So while it is, after all, a different world where a movie can be watched on iPod in the palm of your hand, there is this inherent magic to watching a movie in this nostalgic manner, where the past meets the present, old-tech meets new, and people can gather as one.

This was obvious to me the night I was there. And I would lay odds that in one of those cars, someone was getting their fair share of passionate smoochies before the second feature. Some things never change.

To find out more about the Showboat Drive, in, visit their website at www.theshowboatdrivein.com.

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Cinema Houston celebrates a vibrant century of movie theatres and moviegoing in Texas’s largest city. This weblog is a companion to the Book, Cinema Houston: From Nickelodeon to Megaplex (University of Texas Press, 2007), and website, www.CinemaHouston.net.

David Welling is a writer and artist who lives in Houston with his wife and two children. His lifelong interest in movies (and the places that show them) led to the writing of Cinema Houston, which included fifteen years of research, and its subsequent website.