Chapter 9

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!