Ran originally in the Sunday, March 8, 2020 editions of The Times and The News-Star. This column came about, as most of them do, strictly by mistake.
A man was innocently driving north on Interstate 45 this week, Huntsville to Denton, tiring and wondering why they made Texas so big, when out of the rolling hills and truck stops and billboards and beige, gray grass rose a relic of the past, a metaphorical landline rising above a sea of cell phones, a testament to the tender truth that at least a few genuine old-schoolers are still out there, hands to the plow.
Because all of a sudden, alongside the endless ribbon of asphalt, the page turned back in time four decades and there she was …
A drive-in theater.
It wasn’t the last thing I expected to see while rolling north in Texas. A dodo bird sitting on the head of Big Foot sitting in the Loch Ness Monster’s lap was the last thing. A billboard saying there was no Dairy Queen at the next exit was No. 2.
But of all the things I didn’t expect, a drive-in theater by the interstate had to be in the Top 10.
What a great surprise. A glorious surprise. Everything sort of looking the same, all the cows and billboards beginning to run together, and then these gigantic white screens, the “parking lots,” the little poles that hold the sound box you hook onto the window, and even a giant marquee that told me “Call of the Wild” was batting leadoff here at the Galaxy Drive-In of Ellis, Texas.
Thank you, Thomas Edison, for getting the ball rolling. And thank you, Ellis, for offering the locals a beautiful slice of yesteryear.
And seven screens! Not just a drive-in theater, but a seven-screen drive-in theater. And big, too. As you’d expect anything in Texas, outside of the Dallas Cowboys’ winning percentage, to be.
“Theater” would not have been necessary to type back when there was such a thing as a busy signal and a party line and there wasn’t such a thing as drive-in windows at fast food restaurants. This was way back before Brooks, in The Shawshank Redemption, shared what he discovered when he got out of prison, that “the world went and got itself is such a big damn hurry.”
The first movie I ever saw at the drive-in was Shenandoah. It was about a Virginia farmer, played by Jimmy Stewart, who had to make some unsettling decisions during the Civil War. My parents and two sisters and me saw and heard it in a two-door Impala, white with a black hardtop, not far from the house, I think in Myrtle Beach. Or Dillon. Or did Mullins have the drive-in? I was a kid so what do I know…
My favorite part was Jimmy Stewart’s saying grace around the big family table, giving thanks, at least sort of:
“Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and we harvest it. We cook the harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we’re about to eat, amen.”
Jimmy’s character sort of missed the point, but then again, I’m not a Virginia farmer with sons in the early-1860s. Those were tough and confusing times. They didn’t even have drive-ins.
But we did, once upon a time. There are extinct in Louisiana now; it’s easier to find a fat man who’ll turn down a chili dog than it is to find a drive-in.
There was one in Ruston long ago. Sat in a folding chair in the bed of my pickup truck — this was the early 1980s when being immature had its advantages — and watched Airplane with JJ Marshall, Greg Hilburn, and Linda Barker. Precious memories.
People talk in movie theaters now, like they’re in their den. Cell phones go off. You can lean back in easy chairs, sure, but the popcorn cost what it cost my parents to get my appendix out in 1969.
Maybe they’re unsafe now, drive-ins, like so many other things we used to take for granted. But they must be doing something right at The Galaxy. They’ve got seven screens, it costs $7 for adults and $4 for adults to get in, soft drinks and popcorn and burgers are $4 or less.
Makes you think it could work somewhere closer to home. Maybe some entrepreneur who used to get out of the car mid-movie and go to the little shed to get popcorn will hear the call of the wild and open one.
Tell you one last thing. Once you enjoy your show and leave Ellis, drive back on up I-45N and then grab you some I-35E and I-35N and cruise through Oklahoma, where the Sooners and the Freightliners and the wind and the whiskey bottles come sweeping down the plain, and you’ll see clawing mesquite and redbuds, live oak and Southern Reds soon to bloom, cattle and hills and a pony or three, the occasional collapsing gray barn, creeks, and a big sky you couldn’t walk across in a million lifetimes.
It is not a Louisiana landscape.
But in one way, it’s the same. You won’t see any more drive-ins. A change in things, at first subtle, then over the years dramatic, has driven most of them out.
But there was a time, as there still is in Ellis, when you drove in and you stayed out, watching stories under the stars.