This note from Scott Kirsner’s CinemaTech blog caught my eye. It links to this NY Times story about the closing of the Buffalo Drive In Theater in Cheektowaga, NY. I remember going to this drive-in as a kid- I grew up not too far from there in Hamburg, NY. I have distinct memories of wearing my pajamas, lying in the family station wagon at dusk watching Bugs Bunny cartoons on the giant outdoor screen before falling to sleep. Meanwhile my parents got to enjoy a movie date with me and the brother konked out in the back seat. It’s almost Rockwellian when I think about it.
Keeping this related to animation, to the best of my recollection that was the only time I’ve ever seen old WB classic cartoon shorts on a big screen before a film, just the way they were designed to be seen when they were made 30 years earlier (at that time. Now 60+ years earlier). I have only one other time where I recall seeing the old WB films up on a big screen, also as a child. The local ABC affiliate TV station occasionally held neighborhood screenings of the “Bugs Bunny & Roadrunner Show”. Tom Jolls, the WKBW weatherman was also the host of the after school and Saturday morning cartoon programs. Capt. Tom was his moniker and he’d wear a red bellboy outfit of some sort as his ‘captain’ costume. Anyhow, Capt. Tom came to the local high school theater when I was probably 8 or 9 and had a mid-summer screening of a bunch of WB shorts on 16mm. So for a glorious 90 minutes about 500 kids sat in the darkness and got to blissfully revel in a wide array of classic WB cartoons up on the big screen- the way they were meant to be enjoyed. To this day that stuff sticks with me.
Later as an adult when we lived in Lockport, NY (about 20 miles north of Buffalo in Niagara County) we used to take our kids to the Transit Drive-In theater. This was the late 90’s. My kids still remember those trips and the films they saw. Something about being a kid and seeing a film outside of the local cineplex- someplace with character and soul- makes an indelible mark on the mind. My two oldest kids still remember watching A Bug’s Life in the Lockport Palace Theater, an old deco era, victorian style local main street cinema with the balconies, the ceiling murals, the stage, the curtains, etc. At the time it wasn’t in the best shape, maybe they’ve spruced up a bit since. Still, even experiencing the film in such a declining, yet character filled venue as an adult I found it profoundly different than seeing it at the mall. There’s something meaningful about where you see a film. The venue of viewership can contribute value to the experience. To this day A Bug’s Life remains probably my favorite Pixar film and I do attribute some of that sentiment to the whole viewing experience. Friend, colleague, animator, director (and frequent commenter here on ye olde’ blogge’) Tim Hodge expressed to me that his experience viewing Cars in a local main street theater in Franklin, TN (combined with the subsequent evening enjoying a small town main street summer evening) impacted his appreciation and fondness for that film. Meanwhile I saw Cars at a mall cineplex and I can’t stand that movie. Yet we both agree on the flaws of the film. Maybe if I saw more movies at drive-ins or in old 1920’s era, main street, one screen theaters I’d like more films. Sadly the only places to see a film here in Cuiaba’ Brazil is in two mall cineplexes. I have no idea where they used to show movies here before they built the malls. Sounds like a homework project for me.
Like the old WB classic cartoons that no longer are shown in front of films (today we get endless trailers and “Hollywood Trivia” Powerpoint slides- sure signs of the “progress” of western civilization) Drive-In’s and main street theaters remind me of a time in my own life where I got great enjoyment from much simpler things. They say you can never go back (and to be sure you can’t), but I’m not so sure going forward means we need to keep moving in the direction we’ve been going as a society. Homogenization, efficiency, franchisement. Sand off all the edges, make it slick, make it clean, smooth, highly processed, refined. Make it the exact same thing in Atlanta, Chicago, Des Moines, Phoenix, Little Rock, Syracuse, Denver, Tampa. Just change the color of the paint and maybe the theme of the knick knack decorations. It’d sure be nice if we would slow down, quiet down and settle down and we’d be comfortable once again with tastes, flavors, sights and sounds that aren’t comfortingly, numbingly polished to look the same except for the ‘themeing’. And yeah, I’m talking on two levels here- a societal one and an animated one, which is merely reflective of the former.