The 65 foot-high drive-in theater screen rose into the grey Oregon sky like a giant middle finger foisted toward the housing development that was smashing through the fence and overtaking the ramped expanse that was the Motor Vu Drive-in, now on its way to being cleared and sold for scrap.
But, it’s a stupid screen anyway—a shining example of “Experimental” instead of “What-the-hell-were-you-thinking?” Yes kids, this screen was built facing west. Towards the sunset. If the sun is setting behind the screen, say like at a normal drive in, the screen gets darker faster. If the face of the screen is reflecting the warm tones of the end of a summer day, nothing short of a nuclear reaction could provide enough light to get an image on the screen. Or, you get to wait an extra hour and a half until ol’ sol has dropped out of sight before you can start the show and ensure the image is visible.
Most people have maintained the ability to look past such idiosyncratic annoyances and just love and care for this drive-in. For the last several years it’s been Jeff Mexico keeping the flame burning at the Motor Vu in Dallas, Oregon. He and his posse shepherded the conversion from film to digital, which is a ring-tailed bitch—even in an indoor theater. At the drive-in getting enough light onto a screen almost 100 feet wide drenched with ambient light (like, I don’t know, the sunset) had been hard enough to do with film. Digital projectors that could accomplish this task are painfully expensive and, frankly, do not provide as good a presentation. Film projectors could survive the ravages of winter and be resurrected with little more than an oil change and a slap on the rump; a leak in the projection booth roof would render $75,000 worth of digital equipment into a cautionary tale about neglecting roof maintenance. Jeff was able to keep the massive screen lit, and do it well.
My history with the Motor Vu started in 1985 when my childhood (and -ish) friend Ron purchased the theater. It was not my first romp in the world of outdoor cinema. Ron and I had previously worked the Woodburn Drive-In Theater in, of all places, Woodburn, Oregon. Imagine a couple of eighteen year-olds given the keys to thirteen acres, living in an apartment under the huge drive-in screen. I mean really, what could go wrong? Well, a lot did. But more went right. Enough so that Ron eventually grew a small empire of movie theaters and I seemed to keep orbiting in and out of the business until I landed in the little college town where I turned an old riverfront bow-truss building into the Avalon Cinema. My roots grew into the riverbed lands of Corvallis and so did my business.
In late February of this year, Ron and I extracted what we could from the grounds of the Motor Vu before the property becomes populated by rabbit-hutch subdivisions, erasing all signs that for 64 years, people were losing their virginities (Yes, plural. Use your imagination.) where the Jones now park their motorhome and riding mower.
Ron enlisted a robust young man of our long acquaintance to do the work we deigned not to do. Aaron is too smart for this kind of work and felt no restraint about letting us know that. Immune to his complaints, Ron’s laser-like ability to fixate on the most “interesting” of things reigned supreme when he decided he needed to keep every one of the junction box heads—those aluminum boxes that rest atop the metal speaker posts. The posts provided guidance for parking and a place to string the iconic drive-in speakers. Today these junction boxes are all the rage at car shows and are worth their weight in printer ink when combined with said speakers, of which Ron has a butt-load. Now, after 64 years of Oregon climate the junction boxes were not just leaping off the posts. Thus it was decided that they needed to be lopped off the posts with a saw.
All 400 of them.
Aaron was given a Sawzall (a rather magnificent machine designed to turn electricity into 90% vibration and 10% cutting force) and a generator. In a move of outstanding passive aggressiveness, the generator to power the Sawzall ended up in the back of my van, to drag the generator about the drive-in field. The generator exhaust pointing fragrantly into the van.
Meanwhile, Ron and I retreated to the projection booth (where it wasn’t raining) to remove all the antique film and sound equipment.
It was noted that Aaron’s progress was not what we had hoped. In our usual style we waited until the end of the day to look at the situation. It was then we discovered that Aaron was trying to cut through antique metal pipe with blades made for wood. Twenty-five blades to be more accurate.
The next day started with little fanfare but undeniable success by using blades created for metal. I had the fabulous idea to get a huge pipe cutter at the rental place. This monstrosity clamps about the pipe and two handles sprout out to be driven, ox-like, around the pole with the blade being pushed deeper with each rotation until the pipe is cut. No generator. No extension cords. No incessant whining from Aaron about how his arms hurt. Win-win.
The cutter turned the pole in the ground like a merry-go-round and there was no pipe cutting to be had. Humiliation ensued and Aaron was back to profanely lopping junction heads off with the Sawzall.
The rain and hail graced our endeavor, which had Ron pining for the winter climate at his Las Vegas home. Soon enough all the guillotined junction heads were marshaled into the back of the trailer and Aaron was on his way back home, thus ending the critical mass of inappropriate humor always achieved when the three of us are in the same place. Ron and I were left looking out over the acreage upon which no small part of our youth had played out. Every countertop, nook, and corner held a memory—some good, some that only became good with the seasoning of time.
As significant as the jump from 35mm film to digital cinema is today (which affords no backwards-compatibility), we had been part of advances just as significant that happened before we even knew what a pixel was. Ron and I both started running projectors when the typical setup was two projectors with carbon arc lamps and the need to switch between them at just the right time to keep the movie going. Dangerous and dirty, we fell in love with the mechanics of getting pictures to move on a big screen. We saw the arrival of xenon lamps, which made carbon arc obsolete. Side-winders, and then platter systems allowed us to get by with just one projector and one set of lenses. Vacuum tube amplifiers with mono sound evolved into solid state stereo, then to eight-plus channels of sound. At the drive-in we saw speakers hanging in the car windows give way to AM radio sound, which was replaced by FM stereo played through your car stereo. Digital conversion from film was the most expensive transition we’ve seen in our decades in this industry, but not the most significant.
Today, as if a reminder of the analogue and tactile days, the film rewinder from the Woodburn drive-in that I first used as an 18 year-old is in the booth of the Darkside. There is no longer any film to rewind, but neither Joey (who cut his teeth on film) or I have found a reason to unscrew it from the wall. I guess it is all about continuity.
With Ron Vegas-bound, I found myself sitting in a lawn chair in front of the snack bar looking at the monolithic screen, listening to the encroaching backhoe growling behind me. I remembered I’d turned 30 sitting in this exact spot running movies one August night decades ago. (I had turned 20 in the projection booth of the Woodburn Drive In.) To celebrate my 30th I waited until all the cars had left and I was alone in the warm night. Driven by too much rum, I visited a significant number of the 400 speaker posts and changed out the dead junction box lights. These lights were supposed to help cars see the speaker posts in the dark but rarely worked for more than a week, so once they burned out we left them dark. This night they all were lit and I sat alone in a lawn chair gazing over the glittering acreage, imagining them as the best birthday cake anyone ever had.
Here’s to whatever comes next. May it continue to surprise and amaze us all.