I Saw It At the Drive-In
During the school year, Louis "Buddy" Rames was a no-nonsense junior high school Algebra teacher and a competitive high school baseball coach, but during the summer he managed Hillsboro's Hilltop Drive-In Movie Theatre. Actually, the guy lived at The Hilltop – ala Jim Rockford in a trailer in the back of the sandy lot.
Buddy was my pal Hoover's uncle and for years Hoover promised us jobs at The Hilltop as soon as we turned fourteen. In the meantime, we mowed lawns, shoveled snow, and delivered papers to make our money while biding time until we 'came of age' and merited inclusion in the neat world of drive in theatres.
I liked the summer time Outdoor Movie Theatre Manager Buddy Rames a lot better than the winter time school teacher Mr. Rames. At school, we had to call Hoover's Uncle "Mr. Rames." He was only in his early thirties when we were in junior high, a tall and handsome guy with wire rimmed glasses and a mod haircut, but he was a serious teacher who wore coats and ties and penny loafers and kept a tight control of the classroom.
Algebra was not my favorite subject. I had a hard time grasping the basics of the subject and Mr. Rames believed I was an idiot. He called me "Mister Snyder" in a tone that made it sound like he was saying "Mr. Shithead".
I couldn't catch a baseball with a bucket, hit a baseball with a tennis racket, or make it down the first base line in less than ten seconds and Coach Rames considered me a total waste as a baseball prospect which made me feel all the more inferior.
Mr. Rames liked quiet study halls and loathed food fights when he had cafeteria duty. He ran Detention like he was a Prison Warden and he was known to throw smart-assed kids against a locker if they were dumb enough to lip off to him in the hallway between classes.
One time, Mr. Rames stopped his classroom instruction when he heard some shenanigans going on in the hallway. He stepped out of the room and we heard loud yelling, screaming, threatening, and arguing taking place.
A red faced Mr. Rames returned to the classroom after the fracas was over and somebody asked him who he was yelling at.
With a serious look on his face, Mr. Rames waited a beat and then, in a perfect deadpan delivery, replied "My mother".
To be honest, I was afraid of the winter time Mr. Rames and barely said boo to the guy.
But the summer time Rames was an entirely different person. He drove a cool red Thunderbird Convertible and wore motorcycle glasses! He lived at a movie theatre! He smoked cigars! He didn't treat me like a moron kid flunking algebra or the spastic clod who disgraced the baseball diamond. He called me Randy and he let us call him Buddy. He was cool, hip and fab, a fun guy to be around. He was Hoover's Uncle Buddy, not Mr. Rames the tough guy Algebra Teacher.
As promised, Buddy hired his nephew Hoover, our mutual pal "Hammy" Allen, and me onto the Hilltop Drive-In staff, allowing us to land one of the best teenaged summer gigs in town. A couple of other neighborhood kids enjoyed brief stints at The Hilltop, but Hoover, Hammy and I were the only ones who lasted our entire high school careers, becoming veteran "Toppers" who knew the business inside and out.
Hoover was a wise-ass with a floppy mop of red hair and more freckles on his face than stars in the sky. Hoover could push the limit knowing his Uncle wouldn't have the gall to fire him no matter how much he goofed off or fooled around.
Hammy was a burly kid with short legs, Popeye arms, and a wry sense of humor. He was destined to be an all-star baseball catcher and Buddy gave him preferential treatment knowing he needed him on the high school team.
I was the throw-in of the deal. Buddy didn't have a need for me and he didn't owe me any favors, but he was willing to give me a chance and I appreciated the opportunity to prove my worthiness. I did my best to show him I wasn't as bad as I seemed in his Algebra Class!
Buddy called us "The Three Amigos". Hammy said that was better than be called The Three Stooges!
"If you're here for the money, quit now," Buddy advised when he first signed us on. "This job doesn't pay jack. But if you're here because you like the movies and you want to help me out, you'll have a good time."
"We get free popcorn though, right?" Hoover asked.
*** *** ***
We were already familiar with The Hilltop long before we started working there.
I remember being called in from playing in the backyard on a fading summer evening when I was about six years old. My mother told me to go put on my pajamas because we were going on a special treat and I would be able to stay up past my regular bed time.
I happily climbed into the backseat of our '59 Ford Galaxie with my two sisters who were also in their pajamas. We brought our blankets and pillows as ordered by our mother.
"Remember this moment," my father said as he packed the car out of the driveway. "You're about to experience a piece of Americana."
"What's that?" I asked.
A few moments later, we were stopped behind a line of cars on the side of a road.
"Is this a funeral?" my sister Nellie asked.
"It's a drive in movie," My father explained.
We excitedly waited while the line slowly inched its way along the road. Up ahead, I saw flashing neon lights around a sign that said "The Hilltop" on it. "The Nutty Professor" and "Bye Bye Birdy" were written in black letters on the white metal sign underneath.
We finally reached a window in a brick wall and my father was given a ticket after he passed the girl a wad of bills. Before us unfolded a huge white screen as we drove into the outdoor theatre. Dad parked next to a pole and lifted a heavy grey speaker onto the driver's side window.
My mother handed us a bag of potato chips and some bottles of lemonade. My father offered to take us to the playground up front but we were in our pajamas and refused to go. He disappeared for a while and came back holding the largest hot dog I'd ever seen, plus a slice of pizza.
"What are we waiting for?" My sister Sarah asked after we sat for a while.
"Dark," my father explained.
It finally got dark and we watched a very large Jerry Lewis come on the screen, filling the entire front windshield of our car. The sound from the creaky speaker was scratchy and sometimes I couldn't see over my parents, but it was a remarkably amazing memory that I never forgot, even though I fell asleep before the end of Bye Bye Birdy.
That was my first experience with an outdoor movie but it wasn't my last. Buddy let the Hoovers in for free and Mr. Hoover would pack his white Chevy station wagon with as many kids from the neighborhood as we could squash in there to watch such classics as The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, The Love Bug, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Christy Ryan was one of the prettier girls in the neighborhood and we called her "Christy Christy Bang Bang" after that movie came out (behind her back, of course).
Mrs. Hoover would give us a couple of big brown grocery bags full of homemade hot buttered popcorn to share. Sometimes we'd put our pajamas on underneath our clothing and most of us brought pillows and blankets. Sometimes, Mr. Hoover would make a special stop at Newton's Penny Candy Store and we'd fill a little brown bag with all kinds of treats.
"Don't start eating that stuff until the movie begins," Mr. Hoover would warn us.
Mr. Hoover brought us so we could play on the playground and we usually goofed off there until the movie projector lights flashed on. As soon as it started getting dark or the screen lit up, we'd race back to the car, tearing off our outer clothing right down to our pajamas in excited anticipation for the move to start.
Mrs. Hoover came in a second car and Mr. Hoover would join his wife, leaving us alone to fool around amongst ourselves in the big wagon.
Usually, of course, there would be ten minutes of coming attractions and the endless advertisements for the refreshment stand with the ticking clock ("Just eight more minutes until show time!") while the hot dogs danced across the screen. That's usually when the fights broke out as the car became engulfed in commotion.
After an eternity, the movie would finally start but some of us never made it through the second film, falling asleep in one of the seats or stretched out in the back of the station wagon.
My father took me to a couple of other movies at The Hilltop. I remember watching How to Murder Your Wife and The Russians Are Coming! The Russians are Coming! in the rain, and later M*A*S*H* with my old man going hysterical during the football game scenes, although I remember the shower scene more!
We also rode our bikes the mile and a half from our neighborhood to The Hilltop on Dawson Road to play army among the speaker poles or mooch free cokes off Buddy when he was around.
But it wasn't until I started working for Uncle Buddy Rames that I developed a keen sense of appreciation for the drive in movie theatre.
"We offer the ultimate in personal movie viewing," Buddy told us on our first day on the job. "Where else can you watch a double feature, eat, drink and talk without being bothered, all in the comfort and privacy of your own car?"
"You can make out without getting busted," Hammy added.
Buddy was a walking encyclopedia when it came to drive-in movie theatres. He explained that a guy named Richard Hollingshead invented the drive-in movie theatre in 1933 after America became infatuated with the automobile.
"The guy loved both cars and movies and he tried to connect his two passions," Buddy said.
Hollingshead used a sheet hung in some trees for a screen and mounted a Kodak projector on the hood of his car to project the footage onto a screen, using a radio for sound behind the sheet to test the practicality of watching movies from a car. He tested the sound with the windows up, down, and then half way. He even used his lawn sprinkler to simulate watching a movie in the rain.
At first, the cars in front blocked the view of those in the rear. Hollingsworth solved the problem by spacing out the cars and designing ramps so that the front of each car would provide the best angle for viewing and that's basically how the drive-in theater was born.
"How intriguing that one man's simple vision, hard work and persistence created one of the most iconic American creations ever," Buddy marveled.
Buddy claims that the first drive-in theater opened in Camden New Jersey on June 3, 1933, showing the film, Wife Beware.
"The idea of the drive-in theater caught on and within a year there were outdoor movies from coast to coast," he said. "Even though it was the depression, people wanted to be entertained and the fad caught on."
Buddy said the early drive-ins used huge booming speakers placed atop the screen instead of the individual metal car speakers we were familiar with.
"If you were in the back row, you got sound delay and you'd see lips moving on the screen before you'd hear the words."
It wasn't until 1940 when RCA introduced the first in-car speakers that the sound problems were solved according to Buddy. He said the first New England drive in theatre opened in Weymouth in 1936. Providence RI opened one in 1937 and Portland Maine got one in 1939.
Buddy said the outdoor movie theatre craze really took off after the war.
"With the Baby Boom in full swing, people discovered that they could enjoy a movie and bring the kids in the comfort of their car," he said. "It became the Mecca of American culture for both families and horny teenagers. A passion pit institution."
Buddy told us that the rage peaked in 1957 (the year I was born!) when more than 5,000 outdoor theatres populated the country, including 86 in Massachusetts. By the time we started working for him as high school freshmen in 1972, there were less than 4,000.
"They're starting to build those multiplexs at the mall," Buddy explained when we asked why the number was starting to wane. "There's color TV and cable television is getting more popular. And real estate is getting expensive. Developers want the land."
The Hilltop Drive-In was built by a guy named Charlie Dawson in 1949 on an empty plot of land far from the residential area of Hillsboro.
"I was nine years old," Buddy said. "I remember riding out here on my bike. All there was were woods and empty fields. Dawson Road was dirt." He waved his hand. "There wasn't a house within a mile of here."
By the time we started working at The Hilltop, it was surrounded by several neighborhoods and a large factory had been built across the street.
The Hilltop wasn't much different from any other drive in. There were only four in the Blue County area – The Hilltop in Hillsboro, The Starlight in West County, The Mountain View in Mt. Griffin, and The Constellation in South County, and all of them looked basically the same.
The Hilltop was encased by a ten foot high green wooden fence that ran around the entire lot. A large Marquee sat atop a brick wall at the entrance with the ticket booth inside the wall. Large magnetic black letters announced that week's movie. The white screen was front and center with a children's playground directly underneath, consisting of swings, see-saws, a merry-go-round and a couple of jungle gyms for kids to fall off of and break their legs.
There were a couple of sets of benches on either side of the playground (with speakers) for parents to sit and watch the movie while the children played, as well as in front of the concession stand so escorting parents didn't have to miss any of the movie while the kids were inside loading up.
The concession stand, which also housed the projection booth and bathrooms, was an ugly white cement building in the middle of the lot.
"It looks like a jail," Hoover said.
"It's where we make our money," Buddy let us know.
Because the food was the money maker, most of The Hilltop's promotion was focused on the concession stand that offered food that could be served quickly (hot dogs, pizza, hamburgers, popcorn, soft drinks, candy and French fries). To get customers to the snack bar, trailer advertisements (Buddy called them "snipes") were shown before the feature and non-stop during intermission, often featuring animated foods like dancing chili dogs and talking boxes of popcorn.
Buddy decorated The Hilltop Snack Bar with movie memorabilia and artifacts. Several framed movie paintings and posters hung on the walls and some high school art students painted an attractive movie mural on the far wall years earlier. Buddy also slapped autographed black and white head shots of popular Hillsboro athletes and politicians on the walls, along with old time photographs of the drive in during its early 1950s heyday. George Dawson was featured in the middle of the wall standing next to the brand new ticket booth in 1949.
There was also a large picture window on the wall facing the movie screen so customers could watch the movie while waiting for their food.
I always thought The Hilltop was impressively large by the sheer dimensions of the place. The screen was huge and with everything out in the open the lot seemed endless, but Buddy said The Hilltop was "relatively small" with enough speakers and spaces for about 225 cars on a full night.
"There's a place in New York that can park 2,500 cars and in Detroit and Texas there are a couple with enough space for 3,000," he reported. "I think there's one in Newark, N. J. that can fit 2,400 cars."
*** *** ***
Our jobs at The Hilltop varied. In the beginning, we mostly cleaned the concession stand bathrooms ("a smelly job," as Hoover put it; "a shit job" as Hammy would say). I still remember the smells of those bathrooms. No matter how many of those little pink and green room deodorizers we stuck inside the toilets and urinals, the place still smelled like……..piss.
Sometimes, Buddy would hand us bottles of Windex and towels before the movie started and told us to go around offering to wash peoples' windshields.
Another mindless task we were given was to walk through the lot and turn down all the speakers before we opened so the pre-movie music being played didn't become intrusive.
Occasionally, we would be required to walk around before the show started with collection tins for various charity benefits – the local hospital, The Elks, The Moose Club and The Lions.
One time, we did one for The Jimmy Fund, but not until intermission when an advertisement played on the screen. This was not the best idea because it was dark, later in the night and some folks who had been drinking or fooling around during the first picture were not in the mood to be disturbed by some zit-faced teenager asking for money.
Hammy advised that we avoid the back row, but Hoover decided to give it a try and got a peek at some woman's set of knockers when he stumbled upon a car not interested in The Jimmy Fund, intermission or anything else except some front seat romance.
Other duties included directing traffic in and out of the lot and mopping up at the end of the night. We'd also stopped by The Hilltop during the day to clean up the rubbish people had thrown out of their car windows the night before.
I was surprised by some of the disgusting stuff we found, especially if someone got sick from to much booze and hung their head out the window to puke. We'd find baked vomit in the hot sun, candy wrappers, popcorn containers, spilled soda and popcorn, empty booze bottles and beer cans, pizza boxes from the Hillsboro Pizza House, half eaten cartons from the Chinese place, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts, dumped ashtrays, spent lighters, shoes, an occasional bra or panties and, if we were really lucky, money.
"Who the hell filled this balloon with milk?" I asked one day as I picked up a deflated piece of rubber with a stick.
"That's not a balloon, you idiot," Hammy told me. "It's a used condom!
I had never seen a condom before!
We also checked for broken or stolen speakers and inspected the fences for damage or holes dug underneath where kids attempted to sneak in. We learned how to rewire speakers that had been pulled off its post by an absentminded driver who drove off before taking the speaker off his window!
We'd spray the property once a week with bug repellent in hopes of keeping the mosquitoes and other pests away and if I die from cancer before I retire I'll know it was from spraying that crap all those years!
We painted and patched the wooden fence, scraped rust (and dried snot) off the playground pieces, swept sand off the pavement and playground area, and washed out smelly trash cans.
I liked climbing up on the Marquee and changing the letters for the next show.
Eventually, as we learned the various jobs and could be trusted with more responsibility, we manned the ticket booth, prepared and sold food at the concession stand, served as security guards, and – my favorite – ran the projection machine.
*** *** ***
The Hilltop projection booth (we dubbed it "The Pen") was in a separate room in the front of the concession stand. Buddy said it was like working inside of the left field wall at Fenway Park – it was cramped and, on hot summer nights, about 110 degrees inside.
The bathrooms were on the opposite side of the building and, on muggy nights, those working in The Pen could be gassed out from the mixture of smells that came from both the concession stand and the bathrooms that merged their way into the hot and stagnant booth.
Everybody who worked at The Hilltop at one time or another wrote their names on the inside walls of the projection booth, along with assorted graffiti.
"I fucked Carol Jones here last night. Boomer Davidson, 7/23/68" was the first line that caught my eye.
There were also faded photographs of forgotten stars and old movie posters sealed to the cement walls from years of summer baking, along with a couple of discreetly hidden centerfolds from various issues of Playboy.
The Hilltop was still a respectable operation in 1972 but Buddy was feeling the pressure of a dwindling audience and he was constantly trying to figure out ways to keep the audience numbers up. He was also competing with the other theatres in the area for titles to show.
The Constellation in South County had already started showing exploitation films and porno movies to bring in extra income by attracting a different audience and offering other choices.
"What's an exploitation movie?" I naively asked.
"Low-budget movies featuring sex, violence, drugs, nudity and monsters," Buddy explained.
"What's wrong with that?" Hoover wanted to know.
"Charlie Dawson would roll over in his grave if I started showing that crap," Buddy said. "Besides, I'm a school teacher. I can't be associated with smut."
Buddy tried other attention-grabbing gimmicks to entice people to The Hilltop. He brought in a small petting zoo with a cage of monkeys one weekend. He got a washed up actor from the 1950s that lived in the area to come and sign autographs in the snack bar. One year, he had fireworks on the Fourth of July. He hired local musical groups to play before the show. He made Thursday night 'Lucky Buck Night, with admission at one dollar a carload.
"One buck for two movies," he'd brag. "Can't beat that!"
*** *** ***
The Three Amigos were motivated to promote up from cleaning the shitty bathrooms and getting rid of used condoms found in the dirt. Moving to the concession stand was the first big step. We shadowed the more experienced kids and learned how to roll the hot dogs on turning metal grids, warm the pre-made frozen pizzas in the hot oven, cook the hamburgers on the greasy grill, pop and properly butter the popcorn, change the canisters for the fountain soda, and boil and salt the vats of French fries.
Bob Rich was the head concessions honcho. He was eighteen going on forty, with a pre-maturely receding hairline and a nose in the shape of a clothes pin. We made fun of his name, calling him Rich Bob instead of Bob Rich.
Bob's big thing was hygiene.
"Don't be picking your nose when you're in here," he'd say over and over. "Wash your hands every five minutes. Wear a hat. Don't drool."
Boring Bob wore the standard concession uniform – white shirt with black bow tie, white pants, and that corny paper beret type hat on his head. Amazingly, the guy never looked dirty. By the end of the night, I'd have layers of mustard, catsup, grease, butter and god knows what else splattered all over me but Bob looked like he had just walked into the joint.
Bob was devoid of a measurable personality and took his responsibilities way to seriously which motivated Hoover to fool around all the more. Bob had a nasally voice and used big words nobody understood. Hoover hated him and went out of his way to razz and rattle the guy, but Bob never lost his cool.
Preparing the food was easy enough, cleaning up at the end of the night was tolerable, and seeing people I knew was always fun, but I still hated working the concession stand. We were often surrounded by throngs of rude, angry, uncouth, and impatient jerks bent on getting their food, snacks and drinks as quickly as possible so they don't miss any of those exciting coming attractions!
Because we were goofy teenagers, people treated us like creeps, but Bob insisted that we provide quality customer service no matter what kind of asshole was waiting for his giant tootsie roll. I was working with Carol Larson one night when some moron threw his box of popcorn at her because she wasn't quick enough for him!
We had to listen to whiny customers complain and insult us but all we could do was smile and say "Yes, sir." In Bob's book, the customer was always right.
Intermission was a hectic time and we learned to line up drinks and popcorn on the counter during lulls in the action for quick service when the rush started.
I dripped from the buttery sludge of the popcorn machine and reeked of stale popcorn butter for days every time I worked the concession stand. I didn't mind cleaning toilets and picking up trash instead of cooking the fries – that's how much I loathed the snack shack.
Working the Ticket Booth was a more enjoyable experience but Buddy usually had the pretty girls stand that watch since people enjoyed being greeted by an attractive female instead of a zit-faced, stringy haired guy!
You had to be good at math to work the ticket booth and because Buddy had me in his Algebra class, I wasn't his first choice to man the booth. But I got to help out a few times and I liked greeting people. The customers were generally well behaved because the ticket booth had the power to turn people away. Teenaged girls flirted, especially if they were trying to get into an R-rated movie or hoping to get in for free.
I occasionally passed through someone I liked for free, hoping for a return favor later on. Freebies usually included some pal's older sister or girls from school I wanted to impress.
It was interesting peering inside cars that pulled up to buy admission tickets. Crying kids in the backseat getting yelled at by their angry mom while a flustered Dad politely and calmly bought the tickets. Angelic kids in their pajamas holding on to their teddy bears in the back seat. High school kids on dates trying to act cool and worldly. Goofy teens squashing as many bodies as they could into one car. One time, Eddie Brown pulled up in his VW Bug with seven guys inside! Older couples with a picnic basket on the front seat. Families with enough food in the car to feed an Army. Scantly clad broads who figured they weren't leaving the car anyway and could wear whatever they wanted. I think the saddest sight was letting in some lonely middle-aged guy who came alone to watch a movie.
Security detail was another job I enjoyed. Buddy sent us on secret missions down the street in the twilight before the movie started in hopes we'd see kids climbing into trunks of cars to sneak into the movie free. We'd make a mental note of the car and then scoot back to the ticket booth and bust the culprits upon entry. We became experts on spotting "low riders" – cars sagging in the back from extra weight.
"At least the cars aren't as big as they used to be," Buddy observed. "You could fit three or four guys in the trunk of those huge old cars from the fifties and early sixties!"
Daring drivers who were quick and had good enough timing could drive into the exit without paying, so we often stood in that area in hopes of catching some chiseler trying to sneak in. Sometimes one of us would stand out on Dawson Road and confront cars that stopped in front of the entrance or exit to catch a few minutes of the movie.
We'd prowl around the drive-in to catch kids climbing out of trunks or over the fence. One night, I caught Al Stanley slipping out of the back of Stu Erickson's Chevy. Al was one of the richest kids in town and I busted his chops for being such a miser.
"Hell, it's not about the money, Randy," Al explained, giving me five bucks. "I just wanted to see if I could get away with it!"
We patrolled the fence border as if we were immigration officials to catch any offenders attempting to slip through, under or over the fence to join their buddies already inside. Nothing felt better than surprising some kid as he sat perched on top of the fence.
We periodically checked the bathroom to make sure there weren't any fights, muggings, drug deals, or other monkey business going on. Teens were especially obnoxious at the drive in and went of their way to give us a hard time, but the first time Hammy cold cocked some smart ass behind the concession stand, most of that stuff stopped.
We came up with "The Hump Alert" when we saw cars that were either bouncing up and down or had fogged up windows. The rear row is where most of that sports action took place. A car parked off by itself on a slow night was another indication of funny business going on.
There was an obvious sense of voyeurism being on the Security Detail and I felt like a pervert for spying on people, but Buddy said it was important that we maintained good order and discipline at The Hilltop.
"We don't want to earn a reputation here," he said. "It's basically a family friendly business. Letting people have sex in a relatively public arena or engaging in sexual activities in full view of other customers is not good."
"Yeah, who's going to watch the movie if they can watch a real live x rated movie in the car next to them?" Hoover said.
Working the Security Detail allowed me to discover things about people I otherwise never would have known. I remember being surprised when I saw the sweet Casey Huntley puffing on a cigarette in the front seat of her boyfriend's car. Another time, I was stunned to see the virginal Patty Garner passionately making out with Gary Thomas in his Corivar parked in the back row.
"Did you see who was kissing who tonight?" Hammy would ask whenever one of us had Security Detail.
My older sister Nellie told my parents she was sleeping over at Olivia Matthews house, so imagine my shock and horror when I saw her necking with Chuck Bates in the back row of The Hilltop instead. I didn't tell Hammy who I saw kissing who that night!
Drunken football quarterback Barry Martin stumbled out of his car one night in the middle of the movie and took a piss on the side of the car next to him. I saw him with his wang hanging out, but lied when the guy in the pee covered car complained to Buddy. I didn't want to be responsible for getting Barry kicked off the team (where would we be without Barry?) and I certainly didn't want to get the shit kicked out of me by the rest of the team for narcing on the star.
Lots of times, kids from Hillsboro would go the one of the other drive-ins so they could be incognito and not worry about gossip and rumors, and kids from other towns would show up at The Hilltop where nobody knew them. Hammy dated Carol Wilson from Greenville after meeting her in The Hilltop concession stand one night. You never wanted to be seen at your hometown movie theatre if something scandalous was playing and you were an altar boy at the local parish!
We sneaked down the rows of darkened cars working Security like commandos on a secret mission. Hoover nearly got knocked out one time squatting unseen next to a car and getting lay weighed when a car door flew open and cracked Hoover on the head.
One of our most memorable nights on Security came when a skunk wadded out of nowhere and meandered across the front of the lot during the second feature. People on their way to the concession stand or bathroom screamed and ran and everybody froze waiting to see if the critter was going to stink the place up. We drew straws to see who would try to scamper Pepe Lepew away.
One of our jobs as Security was to make sure people kept moving when not in their cars. Kids especially had a habit of stopping in front of cars to chat or gossip and we'd move them along before some unhappy viewer laid on the horn or screamed Down in front!" out the window.
Sometimes, people who were bored with the movie or maybe had a fight and fled the car would roam around the lot and we'd have to keep an eye on them. Hoover picked up a girl from South County one night that was hiding out in the concession stand all night avoiding a boyfriend that tried to go to far with her in the back row.
When I think back on it, we were lucky we didn't get the shit beat out of us or even shot during some of those scenarios. How would we stop some nut case if something really terrible was going on? What was a teen like me going to do if some abusive drunk was beating up his wife?
Security Patrol included traffic patrol, especially at the end of the night. I remember some older girl yelling, "Hey Flashlight Boy!" as I stood at the exit waving cars by with my flashlight.
There was always a risk of getting run over by some half-drunk driver in a hurry to get out of the lot before everybody else. We held a poll every night to see when the first car would leave……two minutes before the end of the movie? Three minutes?
"Don't forget your lights!" We'd yell if some car zipped out of the exit without its beams on. Other cars would blind folks by turning their lights on as soon as they started their car, catching us in their high beams as they passed.
"Parking lights only!" was our battle cry whenever cars entered or left the lot.
The most nervous I got was when we had to shoo along the stragglers (especially in the back row) at night's end. There were lovebirds reluctant to end the make out sessions, or drunks who had fallen asleep and we never knew what we might find when we approached those cars.
"I think Helen Clark was giving Jed Marshall a hand job," Hammy insisted one night when the class president's car was one of the last ones left in the yard. "He was zipping up when I went over."
I never knew what a hand job was until I started working at The Hilltop, which is where I learned most of the stuff I knew about sex, either from the movies on the screen, the stuff we saw going on, or the bullshit we talked about while on the job.
There were some nice and tender moments, like the romantics who climbed onto their roof to watch the moon or Big Dipper, holding each others hands in the dark and waiting for us to make them leave.
We were required to do one last sweep of The Hilltop before leaving for the night to make sure there were no stragglers hiding out or any other problem.
One time, I stuck my head into the girl's bathroom assuming nobody was around that late. "Anybody here?" I called out, hitting the light switch.
"I'm here!" I heard a voice call out in the dark.
I flicked the switch back on and noticed two feet in one of the stalls.
I waited a few moments and a humiliated Roberta Collins who worked the concession stand came huffing out of the bathroom.
"Can't a girl have a moment's peace?" she complained and she avoided me after that, knowing I had interrupted her while she was taking a shit.
*** *** ***
Manning the projector in The Pen was what I loved doing the most at The Hilltop. I never got tired of watching the same movie over and over again. I was fascinated by the bugs dancing through the stream of light being cast from the mammoth humming projector. I loved the feel of threading, splicing and rewinding the film reels. Most of all, I liked being responsible for keeping people entertained and I liked how it felt knowing I had the power to make everybody happy.
Roy Reed ran the projector when I first started at The Hilltop and I hung around him as much as I could to learn the tricks of the trade. Roy was the last guy who should have been in The Pen. He weighed nearly three hundred pounds and sweated like a pig. He'd sit on his stool drenched in perspiration with his long hair matted to the sides of his head and we would take bets on when the guy would keel over.
He told me about the different types of projectors and how they worked, and he let me run the projector once in a while under his tutelage. There were three different projectors in The Pen – two for use that night's show, and one as an emergency back-up.
The Hilltop was still using a Carbon arc to produce the light in its projector when I started working there, but switched to long-burning xenon bulbs as the light source by the time I left. The older projector used carbon rods within the machine's heavy metal casing to generate the necessary light. Electricity jumped a small air gap between two carbons placed one end to the other, igniting the sticks and creating a white-hot arc of light.
The newer xenon bulb projector was way more efficient. Roy said he could get a few thousand hours out of one bulb instead of going through a couple of cases of carbon. In the long run, the newer projectors were cheaper and easier to use although it was an expensive investment for Buddy to make at that stage in the game.
Roy started the movie and hung around making sure the film stayed in focus while waiting to change reels or splice the film together if it broke. Buddy said the last sound he wanted to hear was the honking of horns when something went wrong in the projection booth.
We changed the carbon rods in the projector about four times a night during a double-feature. Movie reels had to be changed every twenty minutes unless we spliced all the reels together and ran the movie as one continuous reel.
A bell would ring about two minutes before the reel expired. A small, white circle then appeared in the left hand side of the screen prompting us to start the second projector where the movie's next reel was threaded.
"It takes a few seconds for the second projector to bring the first frame of the film down from the reel and into the lenses," Roy explained the first time I watched him work. "That second white circle on the screen tells me to switch the sound and picture over from the first machine to the second."
Years later, I saw the movie Cinema Paradiso, an Italian film about a famous film director named Salvatore who returns home for the first time in nearly thirty years and reminisces about his childhood at the village movie theatre where Alfredo the projectionist taught him his love for films. When I saw the movie, I couldn't help but think about Roy Reed and my summers inside The Pen at The Hilltop.
It was the Projectionist Alfredo who caused Salvatore to fall in love with film making and it was Alfredo who painstakingly taught Salvatore the skills that became a stepping stone into the world of film making. The film is a history lesson in the changes in cinema and the dying trade of traditional film making, editing and screening and all I could think about was my summers at The Hilltop which, like the Cinema Paradiso, went out of business.
*** *** ***
My favorite time at The Hilltop was when dusk slowly made its arrival and everybody waited for the movie to start. People bided their time watching the sun totally disappear beyond the horizon and for dark to replace dusk so the movie could start. As soon as the gate opened, people would stake their claim inside by picking the best spot to park. Some would spread a blanket on a car hood and watch the last of the setting sun. Others would sit in lawn chairs and chat about the Red Sox or an upcoming summer vacation. Voices would carry across the lot on the evening breeze. Sounds from car radios would echo across the drive-in as if some sort of competition was taking place. The smells from the concession stand would drift over the rows, enticing those folks who hadn't brought food from home to check out the offerings.
Folks with trucks would park backwards with folding chairs and blankets in the bed to watch the movie. Station wagons would do the same, dropping the tail gate so the kids could lie on their stomachs in the back and watch.
*** *** ***
As far as I could tell, Buddy's main job was being "The Decider". He was the one who decided which movie to book. Sometimes he'd bring in a title that had already been shown a few weeks earlier at one of the downtown indoor movie theatres in the area, arguing that a different cliental came to the outdoor.
Occasionally, he'd ask us our advice on what to book. Of course, we always went for anything that had skin in it!
Hoover spent most of that first summer trying to convince his uncle that Deep Throat would be an historic choice.
"If I want to get fired," Buddy replied.
Buddy was the guy who decided when it was dark enough to begin the film. There was an intercom system between his trailer, the ticket booth, the concession stand and The Pen so that all the players could stay in contact. The lead Security guy often had a walkie talkie so he could report any problems too.
Roy Reed or whoever else was running the projector couldn't start the movie until he heard Buddy's voice come over the crackly intercom with his brief "Okay, show time" announcement.
Buddy usually waited until the first asshole bonked his horn or flashed his lights on the screen before he gave the okay. Other times, he waited until as many cars as possible were inside before he'd let Roy begin.
"There's nothing more annoying than having a line of cars parade in after the movie's started," he said.
Buddy was also the baseball umpire who had to decide whether to scratch that night's viewing due to inclement weather. On rainy days, Buddy would spend most of his time in front of the television or radio trying to figure out if the weather would break in time to show the movie. If he called the night off too early, he risked closing for nothing if the rain stopped. If he went the other way and waited until it was too late, he had a crew full of workers standing around serving three cars dumb enough to come out in a monsoon.
If it started raining during the movie, Buddy would just shrug his shoulders.
"That's what God made windshield wipers for," he'd say.
I remember a cool night near the end of the season when, out of nowhere, a thick bank of fog rolled in during intermission. Half way through the second feature, the screen disappeared behind a blanket cloud of murkiness and plenty of pissed off people left without seeing the climatic finish.
On most nights, Buddy could be found in the early going sitting on his trailer porch watching the night unfold. Most of his responsibilities were done behind the scenes during the day – paying bills, ordering supplies, placing advertisements, and booking films. At night, he was mostly just around in case of disaster and he usually left the routine to the those of us who worked for him.
There were some nights when Buddy wasn't even on site and that's usually when we would be more daring or forceful in our roles. Hoover was especially confident in his authority.
"Hey, I don't need to ask Buddy nothin'," he'd proclaim if something dicey came up. "I know what I'm doing."
Sometimes Buddy would turn in before the end of the second feature and none of us wanted to be the one to have to wake him up if a crisis unfolded.
"If somebody dies or robs the place, get me," Buddy said one night. "Otherwise, don't bug me!"
*** *** ***
Technically, we weren't supposed to be working at The Hilltop when an R rated movie was being shown until we were seventeen but Buddy didn't want to bother figuring out who could work when, so he didn't enforce that rule and our parents didn't seem to be bothered about what we were doing or what we were seeing..
"Just close your eyes when anything bad comes one," Buddy would joke. "Besides, I'm sort of kind of your guardian."
"I don't want to know," My mother would say when she saw me heading for the outdoor knowing something trashy was playing.
"I bet you've seen just about every kind of movie there is, huh Uncle Bud?" Hoover asked one night.
"I've seen them come and go," he answered. "From cowboy flicks and musicals to horror flicks and nudies."
I noticed there were regulars who came to The Hilltop, especially when there was a movie they liked. Judy Toler and Mary Johnston bragged that they saw Paper Moon six times in seven nights.
"It's a really great movie," Judy insisted.
"No movie is that good," Hammy replied.
There were some folks who were on a first name basis with most of The Hilltop workers because they took in a movie practically every week.
I never paid much attention to movies until I began working at The Hilltop. Roy Reed knew more about film than anybody I met and I listened to him for hours talk about what makes a good movie. He critiqued the films we watched night after night and I was pretty good at determining what merited a good movie by the time I left The Hilltop.
The Poseidon Adventure was the first movie I saw as a Hilltop employee, the first of the new line disaster movies. Hammy liked it because Stella Stevens ran around for most of the movie in her underwear.
I was pretty naive about real world stuff before I began at The Hilltop. I didn't even know what homosexuality was until I saw Deliverance playing on the big screen.
"Christ, how many times do we have to watch poor Ned Beatty take it up the ass?" Hammy asked after about the fourth night and that's how I learned about homosexuality beyond the usual fag jokes at school.
Hammy came up with a "T and A" Quotient and ranked the success of the movie on how many nude scenes it contained. No matter where we were or what we were doing, Hammy always made sure we were strategically placed for all the good scenes. We knew when it was time for Barbara Hershey's bare ass in Boxcar Bertha and we made sure we could see the screen for all the skin shots in Prime Cut with Gene Hackman and Lee Marvin.
Whenever a movie that we didn't know anything about but was rated R played, we paid extra special attention on the first night to make sure we didn't miss any memorable scenes. We thought Big Bad Mama with Angie Dickinson and William Shatner from television fame was going to be some modest gangster movie, but it turned out to have some great skin scenes and we tried to get Buddy to hold it over for a second week.
We spent so much time and effort just for the chance for a two second cheap thrill that we felt like little perverts every time we succeed in our attempts, but it all seems so silly looking back on it since kids now have access to any video they want from the video store, pay television, and the internet. The MPAA Rating System that once traumatized us means little now. I've seen more nudity on HBO then I did at The Hilltop.
"Any movie that drops the F bomb even once gets an automatic R rating," Roy Reed explained during one of those Hilltop summer nights. "An ass shot may be PG" (it was GP for a while, but PG-13 didn't come along until after our teenage years). "But if you get more than one or two tit shots, it's going to be an R," Roy explained. "Any violence beyond the television level is an R too."
We took notice whenever the red (for Restricted) color showed up during the sneak previews. If the coming attraction was rated R, there was a good chance there was going to be some skin in it.
The Longest Yard was rated R for intensity, violence and language but it didn't have any nudity in it (since it was about guys playing football in a prison), but I remember the coming attractions including graphic sexuality and nudity that left me embarrassed to have seen it.
I was glad when we finally turned 17 and didn't have to worry about being busted or ratted out for being underage viewing "material unsuitable for audiences under the age of 17", but I still felt embarrassed when the nude stuff came on (especially if there was a female peer nearby).
I remember chatting with pretty Getsie Fortini as we stood in front of the bay window of the concession stand one night while some naked shower scene played on the screen behind us. We both pretended we didn't notice, but it was still an awkward moment.
It just wasn't the nude stuff (although it was definitely a thrill) that made working at The Hilltop enjoyable. The first Woody Allen movie I saw was Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid To Ask while working and I was hooked as a Woody fan from that moment on.
My parents came to see The Godfather and I was proud to be working the theatre that night (except for the scene when James Caan humps the girl against the door). My parents treated me with more respect as I began displaying mature insight and knowledge about movies.
My sophomore year at The Hilltop was the best season as far as movies went. Buddy booked The Exorcist, The Sting, American Graffiti, Paper Moon, Cinderella Liberty, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Paper Chase and Sleeper that summer, some of the best movies I saw during my tenure.
The Three Amigos were minor celebrities working at The Hilltop. Our peers were envious of us having such neat jobs and some tried to work us for favors. American Graffiti was one of the most popular movies of the era and half the school showed up to watch it which didn't hurt our popularity.
Kids who ignored me at school made it a point to chew the fat if I was behind the concession stand, selling tickets in the entrance booth, or roaming through the drive-in on security detail. Sometimes, guys would use the drive-in as their cover story when they were really seventy-five miles away doing something completely different. They'd pump me for information on the movie and who had been there so they could bullshit their parents about what they saw that night.
"Yeah, Mom, the entire Burnwood family was there! Mrs. Burnwood had her hair in curlers!"
I didn't mind being used if it meant I was more popular than I otherwise would have been.
The downside of working at The Hilltop was that we couldn't watch an entire movie with friends, especially with girls on classic date movies. I sneaked into the car with Judy Toler and Mary Johnston during one of their multiple viewings of Paper Moon and was able to impress Judy with my movie knowledge.
In fact, Judy was so taken with my movie smarts that we started dating, usually taking in movies at the various indoor theatres during the off-season. I refused to take Judy to The Hilltop because I didn't want Hoover, Hammy and the others spying on us, but we did sneak off to The Constellation and Starlight a few times, including stints in the back row!
The Exorcist was one of the grossest and intense movies ever made and I had a couple of nightmares after seeing parts of that thing six or seven times, but we were minor celebrities around school because we were able to see the movie when others couldn't get in.
Buddy booked a little known movie called Bang The Drum Slowly, a cheaply made but classic baseball movie starring Michael Moriarty and a young Robert DiNiro as a dying baseball catcher. Every baseball movie after that had to measure up to the caliber of Bang The Drum Slowly in my critical eye and I never would have seen that movie if I wasn't working at the drive-in.
Last Tango in Paris was the scandalous release of our sophomore year summer and we tried to talk Buddy into booking it but he refused. It went to The Constellation instead and Hammy's brother Ricky saw it there three times.
Junior year brought some pretty good movies to The Hilltop too, including The Towering Inferno, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Earthquake, The Longest Yard, Chinatown, Death Wish, and The Great Gatsby, although The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ranked as the all time most unbelievably gross movie I ever saw.
One of the few times we talked Buddy into booking something he knew he shouldn't have was when he brought in The Groove Tube on our recommendation, a funny but raunchy comedy about television with plenty of skin, including the first male penis I ever saw in a main stream film (dressed up as puppet).
My friend Shawn Miller foolishly brought pretty Molly Parks to that movie as a first date. I tried to subtly talk him out of staying when I saw him in the concession stand with her, letting him know that The Grove Tube was not the kind of movie for a first date but he wouldn't listen. Needless to say, Shawn never got a second date with Molly after she was humiliated by The Groove Tube!
We graduated from high school in June of 1975 and worked one last summer at The Hilltop which was struggling, despite such draws as Jaws, Shampoo, Dog Day Afternoon, The Great Waldo Pepper, Love and Death, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, The Sunshine Boys, and Rooster Cogburn.
Buddy was still managing the place but he had gotten married the previous winter and he moved out of his cool bachelor trailer in the back of the lot.
Buddy didn't even show up on most nights and we knew he was getting ready to bail and that The Hilltop we had known would be changing forever.
"It's probably best we're moving on to college," Hoover noted. "I think The Hilltop is about to hit the end of the line."
Still, we were four-year men that summer, the most experienced and respected of the crew. Bob Rich and Roy Reed had both moved on and I got more time in The Pen, although a small thin older guy named Curtis Washington split his time between one of the indoor theatres in Greenville and The Hilltop.
Curtis was a peculiar fellow who didn't have much to say and rarely expressed any reaction or emotion to anything going on around him or on the screen. What I remember most about him is that he didn't have any teeth which may have explained while he kept his mouth shut. Curtis kept his head buried in a paperback most of the time and had an uncanny ability to know when it was time to change reels without even looking up to see the spot on the screen.
A large jolly woman named Gertie replaced Bob at the concession stand and she ran the place like it was her kitchen at home instead of a business, treating each customer like a long lost visiting relative. Hammy had become one of the all time great grease monkeys and the regulars said he made the best hamburgers in Blue County. Gertie made him her left hand man.
We didn't fool around or goof off as much as we had in our younger years and it was amusing to watch Hoover, one of the former all time great practical jokers and screw offs, ream out some sixteen year old for doing something wrong or skimming or jerking around, something Hoover had been famous for in his earlier years.
All three of us carried a lot more authority in our fourth year – snot nosed high school kids weren't about to screw with us when we stood Security and the high school girls were more likely to flirt with us older men.
"Man, when we started here none of the girls would even talk to us," Hammy observed. "Now they won't shut up!"
*** *** ***
Buddy got a job as a principal in another state that winter and left Hillsboro behind. We were off at college and I never got a chance to say so long to the guy or to thank him for giving me a chance.
Hoover and I retired from The Hilltop and moved on to other summer venues during our college careers. Only Hammy continued his summer employment at The Hilltop which continued operating under a different manager for a few seasons, but the place quickly went down hill. The new guy opted for the exploitation stuff Buddy had avoided for so long and The Hilltop earned the reputation as a sleaze place.
"No more family nights," Hammy told us. "We took out the playground."
Drive-in theaters across the country had begun their slow decline and Buddy had bailed out just in time. The babies of the boomer generation were no longer babies and the family core audience for drive-ins stopped attending. By the mid 1980s there were about 3000 drive-in theaters still in operation. Most were turning a profit but as the real-estate market heated up, drive-in theater owners began selling off their properties. By 1990, fewer than 1000 drive-in theaters were left in the country, with only seven in Massachusetts by 1998.
The Outdoor had become obsolete, even with the new technology that replaced the speaker unit with a special frequency system that allowed the movie to be heard on car radios. Economics made property increasingly expensive for drive-ins to successfully operate. VCRs and video rentals, the massive movie multi-plexs, and satellite dishes also helped bring about the sharp decline in the popularity of The Outdoor.
The Starlight in West County was the first to go under in Blue County, disappearing in 1986 to make way for a Walmart. The Constellation of South County followed in 1988, replaced by a housing project. The Hilltop limped along until it finally closed as a shadow of its former self in 1990, replaced by a self storage plaza.
On its last legs, The Hilltop was showing exploitation movies and dusk-to-dawn horrorfests. It finally met its merciful end following a controversy of showing x-rated movies. Residents protested because the movies could be seen from the road and by passing cars (and kids who hid out nearby to catch glimpses). After months of debate and squabbling at Selectmen meetings, The Hilltop finally and mercifully pulled the plug for good.
I was living in Ohio at the time and heard from Hammy Allen for the first time in years. He sent me a newspaper article on the closing and wrote "An era ends" in magic marker across the picture of the deserted and weed covered Hilltop.
Hoover moved to Colorado in the early 1980s and became a construction guy. I hadn't seen him since his father died. I moved back to Blue County in 1999 and was surprised to learn that the Mountain View Drive-in in Mt. Griffin weathered the storm and remained viable, although it rented out its site during the day for flea markets, auctions and other venues.
I was amused to learn that old pal Hammy Allen, who became a successful and prominent real estate agent in the area, bought the place in 1994 as a moonlighting opportunity, renaming it "The Night Owl Drive In".
I brought my kids to the Night Owl not long after we returned to the area, my first trip to an outdoor in more than twenty-five-years. I remember seeing Grease at The Starlight in 1978 and the first Back to the Future film at a Florida drive-in when I visited my sister there in 1985.
"Where we going, Dad?" my ten year old asked when I loaded the kids into the car.
"To see a piece of Americana," I said.
"What's that?" the nine-year old wanted to know.
Going to The Night Owl was my kids' first experience with a drive in.
"Look!" The nine year old exclaimed, seeing Toy Story 2 and Inspector Gadget listed on the Marquee. "It's a movie theatre!"
"An outdoor movie theatre," I let her know.
It was hard to miss Hammy Allen as we approached the entrance to the Night Owl. He was still within his high school playing weight, although he had shaved his head which made him look ten years older. He told me he was divorced.
"Buying this place was the final straw for her," he admitted.
It was like driving into a time warp when I saw the inside of the drive in, although it was strange that there were no longer any speaker poles. Still, I was thrilled for the glimpse into my past.
"Everybody waxed nostalgic about outdoors but nobody bothered going to them," Hammy complained as we exchanged pleasantries at the ticket booth. "The only reason outdoors closed was because people wouldn't support them."
His tone made it sound like he was blaming me personally for the demise of the Drive-in! Hammy told me that he had rescued most of the stuff from The Hilltop before they tore it down and that some of it was now a part of The Night Owl.
"Check it out when you go into the snack shack," he said.
"I'm surprised this place is still standing," I admitted.
"The numbers shrank to under 700 country-wide in the late 1990s and most people thought I was nuts to buy," he said. "But hey, the drive in is making a come back! The number of theatres has now increased to about 800 and that number is growing. We're the only outdoor in a fifty mile radius, so we're doing pretty good."
"Uncle Buddy would be proud of you," I said.
"A new generation is discovering the fun of drive-in movies," Hammy continued, sounding as though he was making a sales pitch. "The outdoor is a whole new adventure for a whole new generation, plus old fogies like us love the nostalgia. It's not so expensive that a family can't enjoy a night out with the kids. We're seeing mostly families with young children here just like the crowds of the 1950s. Hold the phone, because I'm telling you the drive-in is not dead and buried."
"I believe you," I said, noticing that the place was packed.
"Oh, Dad! A playground!" The seven year old exclaimed happily. "Can we play?"
"Just don't break your leg," I advised.
"Have a great night!" Hammy said as we drove into the lot.
I let the wife take the kids to the play area while I went to check out the pizza and hot dogs at the concession stand!
*** *** ***