Drive-in movies dredge up memories

By Karl Terry: PNT columnist

The slightest cue can spark a moment of nostalgia for me these days, such as the sight of a step van reminding me of going to the drive-in movie in a bread truck.

I guess the first thing to do is make sure those under 35 or so know what a drive-in was because there are precious few of them left in the country (just four in New Mexico now). Drive-in movie places have been around since the 1930s but soared to popularity in the 1950s. You would pull your car into a lot in front of a giant movie screen and take a speaker off a pole and hang it in your car window.

It was the closest thing we had to renting home videos because you could stay in your own car be as noisy or romantic as you liked and not distract or be distracted by other moviegoers. It was always at least a double-feature at the same price as the sit-down show where you only got one movie and a cartoon, so the value for a family was great.

My first memories of going to the drive-in were as a kid in my folks’ 1964 Chevy station wagon. Often Mom would make a supper of hamburgers and sometimes popcorn to take. She would let the back seats down on the car and make us a bed back there so we could fall asleep to the noise of the U.S. Cavalry attacking Indians. We saw a lot of good old Westerns at the drive-in.

We had three drive-ins to choose from in these parts when I was growing up — the Varsity in Portales and the Yucca and La Fonda in Clovis. By the time I moved to Tucumcari in the late 1970s the drive-in there was closed and the screen had come down. The Varsity, located just east of the location where the Portales hospital is today, stayed open until the mid-1970s, then was reopened briefly while the Tower Theater was being rebuilt after it burned in 1978. The La Fonda quit operating about the same time and is still decaying along south Prince Street.

The other drive-in I recall was Star Drive-In at Montrose, Colo., which still operates today. Its claim to fame is that it is the oldest drive-in in America owned and operated by the original family. It is celebrating its 60th anniversary this season.

Besides being convenient and cheap for families, drive-ins were a great place to take your lover. It was the one place where a bench seat was preferred over buckets, because your sweetie could slide over close and cuddle. If it was a little cold out windows would fog up and you could tell who was on a hot date by looking for the car not running the engine to defog the windows.

Drive-ins worked hard promoting themselves and would often advertise a full night of Westerners or Disney or all motorcycle flicks or car chase movies.

Sometimes on special occasions they would run as many as four movies in a night. Another gimmick they used was “carload night,” when one price got everyone in the car in the movie.

Of course we pulled the age-old scheme of putting extra teenagers in the trunk and sneeking over the back fence but the best one we ever pulled was on one of those “carload nights.” The drive-in was advertising a bounty of concession stand fare, including a “bushel” of popcorn for the vehicle with the most people attending. My good friend Mickey had a retired bread truck he used to haul band equipment around in and he decided he was going to take the bread wagon with as many people as he could find and win the popcorn.

We got a lot of people but we knew others were gunning for the prize too so when we went in the gate we all crowded up close to the front of the wagon to make it appear the entire vehicle was full of people. They asked how many we had and Mickey gave them some outlandish number. The manager said he’d be by after the picture started to verify the count before we got the popcorn.

As soon as we parked several of us fanned out across the lot to recruit more folks to come over and be a part of our headcount. Soon we were munching popcorn out of large paper grocery sacks from lawn chairs atop the bread wagon. It was a great night.

Karl Terry writes for Freedom New Mexico. Contact him at: