Since the COVID-19 pandemic took up residence early this spring in the United States, it has stalled out many businesses throughout the world in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. One such industry that took an economic hit — movie theaters. The virus also shut down the actual filming of movies and television shows for many months as well.
But one branch of the movie industry continued to be active — drive-in theaters. With vehicles and their occupants (usually from the same household) safely socially distanced, this seemed to be a safe alternative.
A popular form of entertainment back when I was growing up was the uniqueness of the drive-in theater, which thankfully continues today.
Though many have shut down, with owners selling off the valuable land, others have sprung up. Within a 45-mile radius of Defiance, there are three such outdoor theaters — Field of Dreams Drive-in Theater in Liberty Center, Van-Del Drive-in in Middlepoint and Auburn-Garrett Drive-in, Garrett, Ind.
The majority of us have memories of pulling into the large stone lot on Defiance’s North Clinton Street, parking next to one of the many metal posts and attaching the speaker to the window in order to hear the soundtrack of the movie at the Defiance Drive-in.
Kids would pack the cars and take advantage of the food at the concession stand — pop, hot dogs, pizza, popcorn and candy — nothing particularly healthy, but enjoyable just the same. While waiting for the movie to start, families could play the pinball machines.
Others had their own ideas and brought coolers filled with their favorite adult beverage of choice.
While people have their own memories of the local drive-in theater experience, I have a special point of view. I used to be the ticket seller in that small, drafty, green booth out front.
While most people were honest with the full tally of people in the van or car as they passed by my booth, others fudged those numbers. Without fail, there was an elderly Defiance lady (Helen, as I recall) who would drive up to purchase tickets for her grandchildren who filled her car. While she purchased four or five tickets, my fellow co-workers and I quickly learned that at least two or three kids were stashed away in her trunk. I had her followed one evening.
I never confronted her because I likely let a friend or two, or even a cousin or two, sneak in on occasion.
But the fun for me came after the gate was closed and the money/paperwork had been completed. My friends manned the concession stand and projection booth, so a mini pizza and diet Pepsi were always ready for me. I would help out in the concession stand as well to help handle the rush.
After the work was concluded, it was time to enjoy the late-night double feature for ourselves. On more than one occasion, we would climb onto the roof of our car, giving us easier access to the roof of the concession stand. And when we brought up the lawn chairs with us, we had the best seats in the house, though now that I think about it, we likely didn’t have any sound.
The original drive-in was built in 1947 and could accommodate 500 vehicles. That screen was damaged by a storm and replaced in 1980 by new owner Mick Sobieck, who also owned the Valentine Theater and Holiday Cinema, where I also worked.
Closing in 1986, the last movies to be shown at the drive-in were “Heavy Metal” and Cheech and Chong’s “Things are Tough All Over.” The drive-in property was sold off and now accommodates Applebee’s, McDonalds and Northtowne East Mall.