Tales From the Dark Slide: The Lost Picture Shows

Continued From: "Michael's 'Navy'" and "'A Hard Day's' Plight"

Looking at the movie pages of "The Atlanta Constitution," Aug. 5, 1964, it's interesting to see the heading, "Now Playing: Atlanta's Finest Drive-In Theatres." "Finest" meaning, of course, those businesses willing to fork over the costly advertising fees for inclusion.

There are 16 venues listed in the "Drive-in Ladder," which fills nearly an entire column of newsprint, however there were more theatres on the landscape. By 1965, at the peak of the drive-in boom, approximately 25 sites operated in the greater metropolitan outdoors.

Increasing real estate values, daylight saving time, video cassette recorders, cable TV, and a shrinkage in family-friendly fare were among the villains in the demise of drive-ins, beginning in the late '60s. I'm convinced the corn dogs did not help.

Only one drive-in has survived, the Starlight. No longer known as the "Twin Starlight," it was reconfigured years ago into twin triple Starlights with six total screens.

As a projectionist, I loved the drive-ins. I've said many times, there's nothing quite like running a movie at two o'clock on a warm, breezy summer morn, standing outside beneath the stars and a full moon, watching a panoramic western unfold.

I operated the equipment in eight of these theatres during the 1970s, as part-time income and mostly for fun.

1. South Expressway -- My first night ever for the local projectionists' union was here, showing 35mm "Paint Your Wagon," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," and a color cartoon. It was a Sunday in May, two weeks before I graduated from high school. Six-hour show. 9 p.m. start. Three reels repeated for the late arrivals, another hour. Oh, and that cartoon again, another seven minutes. Twenty-plus miles from bed. Me, driving Mom's Chevy Nova on the Interstate, alone. A school night. Life was good.

2. Roosevelt -- Amazingly, this early drive-in never upgraded to a modern widescreen, so all post-1953 movies were shrunk, "letterboxed" to fit. Tiny, but nice. Park real, real close.

My initial program: Steve McQueen in "The Reivers" and John Wayne and Rock Hudson in "The Undefeated."

3. South Starlight -- Legend says this is Atlanta's first drive-in. I played a triple feature of little-known schlock horror retreads on my first night and "Apocalypse Now" nine years later, the last.

This is the only theatre I ever worked where a customer offered me marijuana for pointing him to the toilet.

I told him, "No, thanks."

I was afeared of the Corn Dog Munchies.

4. Northeast Expressway -- First movies: "Vanishing Point" and Jacqueline Bisset in "The Sweet Ride."

Yuck, the many years of eating those bad cardboard pizzas. That explains my high cholesterol and my pepperonis.

5. Bankhead -- The projection room was inside the snack bar building. Unbeknown to me, a marauder broke in after hours and stole cases of raw meat out of the kitchen freezer while I was showing "Scream, Blacula, Scream!" or something less educational, 40 feet away and near the condiments.

Remarkably, the corn dogs were left unscathed.

6. Scott -- The closest location to my childhood home and the sentimental favorite. The single night I was on the payroll was the worst stretch of my career. The Scott was a junk equipment nightmare. I don't recall the mediocre titles on view, but the plethora of technical problems besmirched my doubly romantic memories of "Munster Go Home" and "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken," emanating previously from this very shrine.

7. Thunderbird -- A one-shot guest appearance for me, unspooling the inaugural Billy Jack, "Born Losers," and another American-International time killer / soul snatcher.

The Thunderbird screen was centered under the landing pattern into the nearby Atlanta airport, busiest in the world. Low flying, extraordinarily loud, immensely terrifying jets weren't annoying at all between the every four minutes. I waxed nostalgic for old-fashioned howling babies interrupting a movie.

8. Glenwood -- I calendared three years in that bunker, one night per week, starting with "Smokey and the Bandit." The job wasn't a lure financially, but it had well-maintained big boy toys.

Although I worried for my safety amongst the irate customers on an unfortunate 4th of July, I couldn't help but smile when our frantic crew failed to ignite their huge, damp fireworks display. "And now, enjoy 'The Boatniks!'"

Coming Soon to a Drive-in I Could Be Near

I may inquire about substituting for a night at the North Starlight, the final drive-in and one I missed. (In projectionist terms, the North and South Starlight are separate operations.) I checked out the North booth in 1972 and got called away, missing the gig. I feel like I owe 'em.

And then they can close.

Special thanks to Stan Malone
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