The Last Picture Show

Movie theaters used to have majestic screens, rocking chairs, and real butter. Some still do.

A final caveat: If you're looking for quiet, the library is three blocks up. (James Diers)

65 Hi Drive In Theatre
10100 Central Ave. N.E.

Vali-Hi Drive In Theatre
11260 Hudson Blvd.
Lake Elmo

John Noltner

Cottage View Drive In
9338 S. East Point Douglas Rd.
Cottage Grove

As the pink of twilight deepens to purple, the pace quickens. Car after car groans through the humped dirt rows, and the night air is filled with the crunch and pop of gravel under the tires. Doors burst open, spewing anxious children and their work-weary parents, young couples itching with anticipation of the dark, and clusters of jeaned and T-shirted teens.

The children lead their parents to a makeshift playground--a rusty swing set with two black rubber seats, a beat-up but serviceable slide, and mounds of dirty sand--while the couples and teenagers make a beeline for the concession stand. A couple of 16-year-old boys slouch in line, punctuating their conversation with what they must consider gangsta gestures and surreptitiously eyeing the entrance. Behind them, a young man and woman are woven into each other's arms; when the line moves, they move as one.

As the magic hour approaches, parents drag their children back to their cars. Teens pull out lawn chairs, blankets, and coolers filled with sodas and whatever contraband they've conned out of siblings or swiped from parents. Couples hunker down--some of their cars will appear abandoned until the heads resurface at intermission--and, finally, the giant screen begins to flicker.

For nearly 50 summers this scenario, with slight period variations, has played out in drive-in theaters around the country. Minnesota's first outdoor theater, at 1101 E. 79th St. in Bloomington, opened in 1947 with Carnival in Costa Rica, a decidedly B movie starring Dick Haymes, Vera Ellen, Celeste Holm, and Caesar Romero (better known to boomers as the Joker from the Batman television show). Among those in attendance that evening was Minneapolis Tribune columnist Will Jones.

Jones took a cab to the premiere, racked up an extravagant $9.15 taxi bill, and regaled Twin Citians with a detailed account of the experience in the next day's paper. "We watched Carnival in Costa Rica," wrote Jones. "It was, however, poor second to the Minnesota moonlight." His Yellow Cab driver was quoted as remarking that "it was nice to watch a movie without someone crunching popcorn or peanuts in your ear."

During their heyday in the giddily motorized '50s, drive-ins primarily appealed to families and teens. Parents on a budget could bring popcorn and treats from home, no baby-sitters were required, and the cost of admission was made for large clans--one ticket per carload, regardless of size. For teenagers, the appeal was self-evident: Countless relationships were either consummated or wrecked during such classics as I Was a Teenage Werewolf (starring the late Michael Landon) or Beach Blanket Bingo, with perennial teens Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.

At the peak of drive-in mania, there were 40 theaters sprinkled throughout Minnesota, 19 of them in the metro area; among the latter was West St. Paul's the Corral, decorated in a Western motif, and Mann's France Avenue Drive-In in Edina, the first to offer two screens at one location. By the late '60s, however, drive-in attendance had plummeted. One of the industry's last-ditch efforts was to offer individual heaters in hopes of creating year-round entertainment: "Electric in-car heaters keep you in comfort even at below-zero temperatures," crowed a 1967 newspaper ad. But the fad--as well as a few brave patrons--soon froze out.

According to Dan Shattuck, a local drive-in buff whose exhibition of photos, ads, and owner interviews is currently on display at Blaine's 65 Hi--one of three remaining metro drive-ins--a few key developments spelled the demise of the outdoor theater: Daylight-saving time (implemented nationally in 1967), the advent of the VCR, and the raising of the drinking age to 21. "I understand how the first two affected business," says Shattuck, "but the last one puzzles me." After all, he reasons, drive-ins had long been a hotbed for underage drinking, and the change should have brought more customers.

But though it may be endangered, the drive-in experience is not extinct yet. At the three local drive-ins--the Cottage View in Cottage Grove, the Vali-Hi between St. Paul and Hudson, and the 65 Hi--weekend nights are packed, and once school lets out, the weekday nights should fill up as well. Best of all, admission is still charged by the car, not the number of passengers. (Mary Ellen Egan)

Boulevard Theatre

On April 26, the Boulevard's two screens showed the crime noir L.A. Confidential and the Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle The Man in the Iron Mask--both excellent choices, in terms of taste and marketability, for second-run films. Tickets were $1.50, half of what it would have taken to rent either film from a video store.

Less than a month later, the red-and-gold marquee at Lyndale Avenue and 53rd Street reads, "Closed." The Depression-era facade is boarded up; yet someone has taken the time to write on its glass pane in pink glitter lipstick, "We Love You, Blvd." In a few months those words will be erased, along with the rest of the Tangletown theater's history, when the 1930 building becomes home to a Hollywood Video outlet.

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