Drive-Ins were passion pits. That’s what I heard. In 1966, my father was the manager of the Motor Movies on Tennyson Road and Mission Boulevard in Hayward. Hayward Motor Movies, as it was usually called, was my father’s first outdoor theater. He had been running the Del Mar in San Leandro while my mother was running the Fruitvale in Oakland. My mother gave up her managerial position so that they could work together again. They would save on gas and time since she didn’t drive. It would also give my father a pair of eyes behind the candy counter to make sure that there wasn’t any theft or pilfering.
When his theaters came up short, my father always made up the difference. When employees stole from the theater, they weren’t stealing from United Artists, my father and mother’s employer, they were stealing from my family. I think it was more of a survival technique than work ethic. I know that my parents got by sometimes by borrowing money from petty cash or from the candy and cigarette machines. The box office had its own system of checks and balances, ticket stubs that had to be put in an envelope at the end of the day and mailed to the main office in San Francisco.
At Hayward Motor Movies, the box office and the manager’s office were in the same building. The marquee was only a few feet from the ground, so every once in a while someone would shuffle the letters to spell something other than the titles of the current double bill. This wasn’t a major hassle for my father. I think he actually liked some of the anagrams that would pop up overnight.
I remember climbing up on the platform in front of the Motor Movie marquee one day and singing “Hanky Panky”. Tommy James and the Shondells covered the song that year and I was driving my father crazy humming it constantly in the car. I couldn’t get it out of my head.
The set up was pretty typical. The snack bar was near the back of the property. The bathrooms and the projection booth were located in a building in front of the snack bar. You had to go down some cement stairs to use the bathroom. There was a drainage issue. When it rained this underground bunker frequently flood.
There was a fence in front of the projection booth, so that people wouldn’t cast shadows on the screen by walking directly in front of the projector beam. The screen was pretty high up. It was located just behind a playground where kids would continue to play even after the movie started. Inventory was kept in the screen tower, but had to be well protected from field mice, rats, and birds. All perishable items were kept in a big walk-in freezer in the snack bar.
The drive-in audience was much more informal than an indoor theater audience. Parents would bring their kids to a drive-in dressed in their pajamas. Drive-ins were the urban alternative to camping out. Patron’s cars established a home base near a speaker post and the occupants of the cars would either remain in the vehicle or spread out using lawn chairs, pillows and blankets. Drive-ins offered a cheap night out for families, but they were also a breeding ground for young adults. Drive-ins didn’t serve alcohol, but the consumption level was much higher than in a movie theater. Sometimes skirmishes would break out among feuding tribes of teenagers. Gang fights didn’t just happen in the movies. I remember my father complaining about the riff raff that films like Wild Angels and Hell’s Angels on Wheels brought in.
Whenever I went to work with my parents, which was happening more and more often, we would stop at a cafe for lunch that had great cold turkey sandwiches and potato salad. There was usually a newspaper available and I could read the comics. I always read Peanuts and Odd Bodkins. I wasn’t quite sure what Odd Bodkins was all about, but it had a seductive subversive quality that I liked.
It was a long ride from Oakland to Hayward. We mostly drove the city streets instead of the congested highway. I would bring a good supply of comic books to pass the time. It was the pre-seat belt days and I would lie on the floor in the backseat enjoying the latest Fantastic Four, Batman, Superman and Spiderman issues while my mother and father discussed what need to be done when we got to the theater.
A typical day at the drive-in included playing on the playground, watching a movie, then going to the office and rolling coins. There were simple plastic sorting machines to separate the quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies, but when it came to rolling the coins, it was all done by hand. The paper rolls had to be stamped with the bank account number first, then the rolling would begin. I guess you could say rolling coins was my first job. As it would turn out, rolling coins was my father’s last job.
The typical drive-in in those days had speakers that you hung on your window and heaters that you could put on the floor of your car to keep you warm on a cold night. It wasn’t necessary to run down your battery using your radio. Still, people did run down their batteries. It was against theater policy to give patrons a jump start for fear of a law suit. The main office didn’t want patrons accusing theater employees of damage to a car’s electrical system. The patrons were on their own if their battery went dead. They could find another patron to help them or call the auto club. After a fatal accident at another drive-in, patrons were told that they had to stay in their cars and watch the movie. Lawn chairs and blankets were no longer an option.
At this point in my life, I was obsessed by super heroes and UFOs. When it got dark on Belvedere Street, I would spend hours standing on the curb, gazing up at the stars. I could identify both dippers, big and little, Aries, and I could point out Venus and Mars. I had seen Pinocchio and wishing on stars was a night time ritual.
From Mrs. DeElton’s back porch, I could watch planes arriving and departing the Oakland Airport. Mrs DeElton lived in the duplex next-door to Nana. The Pace family were her tenants. Mrs. DeElton didn’t seem to mind me playing in her backyard or parking on her back porch. I had binoculars that I would sometimes use to watch the movies playing at the Coliseum Drive-In. I remember watching The Sand Pebbles and trying to read Steve McQueen’s lips. Now that my father ran a drive-in, drive-in movies were my new obsession.
I had heard that drive-ins were a great place to take your girl friend and if you were lucky you might even get to make out. I had never kissed a girl and I really wanted to give it a try. I asked my father if I could bring Theresa to the drive-in to see A Man Called Flintstone. My parents and Theresa’s parents met and agreed that it would be alright as long as Theresa’s sisters, Pam and Sandy, were part of the deal. Since my parents would be working, we would be unattended for most of the evening and the girls wouldn’t be getting back to Oakland until very late. Theresa’s older sister, Pam, was very intuitive. I think she was able to read my mind. She was actually taunting me to kiss her sister. On the way home, I gave Theresa a peck on the cheek and she gave me a nasty look. Pam and Sandy laughed. I remember my mother turned around to see what was so funny and we all put on the face of innocence.