Maybe it was because my descent into near-panic a few months earlier watching Fantasia, or maybe they just wanted to introduce me to one of America’s finest institutions, but sometime during that same Summer of Cujo, when I was three years old, Mom and Dad decided to take me to a movie I could watch from the safety of our Skylark. It my was first visit to the drive-in movie theater.
Drive-ins were still plentiful around the Midwest in the early 1980s. One town away from where we lived, the Sky-View loomed over a back country crossroads. Not far off, the Colonial sat on a low strip of land between a two-lane state highway and the river. There were many others whose names I no longer recall. We went to the Holiday Auto Theatre, on a hilltop just west of town.
The first feature that night was The Secret of NIMH, a Don Bluth adaptation of a children’s book. Don Bluth was a name you knew if you were a child during the 1980s. It was repeated in the commercials for a string of successful animated features created by his eponymous studio, including NIMH, An American Tale, and The Land Before Time. Bluth and his crew were also behind the arcade game Dragon’s Lair, which spawned a Saturday morning cartoon from Ruby-Spears. Don Bluth Productions was sort of the DreamWorks Animation of its day, in that it produced quality animated features with big time distribution and competed toe-to-toe with Disney. Of course, Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera were still standing tall in the face of the Mouse and releasing animated features back then too, so it’s not a perfect analogy. But I digress.
The Secret of NIMH is about a family of field mice facing a disaster – the annual springtime tilling of the field where they live in a nest within a cinderblock. One of Mrs. Jonathan Brisby’s children, Timmy, is very ill and too sick for the move, sending her on a quest for help from her animal neighbors, who possess uncanny intellect and are swayed by the memory of her late husband and the unexplained debt they owe him. How did these mice and rats get so smart? What did Jonathan Brisby have to do with them? Can they delay the farmer until Mrs. Brisby can move her family? There’s a scientific (albeit implausable) cause behind the animals’ human-like intelligence, which you can probably guess if you’re old enough to know your government acronyms. It does not, however, explain the working of magic and magical artifacts in the movie.
I remember it being a little bit scary, so of course I sat down to watch it with my kids. Like their dad, they seemed to find it very mildly spooky. I can see why, but I think the swirling fogs and vivid colors were meant to lend mystery rather than chills to the film’s otherworldly, bearded and glow-eyed rat-sage, Nicodemus. The Great Owl, on the other hand, was definitely supposed to be scary. Which is great actually. What could be scarier to a mouse than an owl? A cat at least doesn’t fly.
Bluth was a believer in older techniques used during the Golden Age of Animation of the mid-20th century, and the animator’s care and regard for tradition is apparent in how The Secret of NIMH looks. Just as memorable as the animation, however, are the performances of the distinguished actors who lent their voices to the film. Elizabeth Hartman finds a balance between plaintive and persistent as Mrs. Brisby, a timid soul who dares greatly on behalf of her son. The Great Owl and Nicodemus are voiced, respectively, by Shakespeareans John Carradine and Derek Jacobi. Dom Deluise, whose name was synonymous with funny during the late 1970s and early 1980s, is Jeremy the Crow. Wil Weaton and Shannen Doherty have smaller roles as two of the Brisby children.
The second feature during my first evening at the drive-in was Clash of the Titans, the original one with Harry Hamlin, Burgess Meredith, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Ursula Andress, which had been released the previous year. I have not seen Clash of the Titans in its entirety since, but I remember being immediately freaked out by its early scenes, in which the infant Perseus and his mother, Danae, are imprisoned in what I thought was a coffin and then thrown into the sea. I remember being fascinated by the enchanted weapons and armor crafted for Perseus by the Olympian Gods. I don’t remember watching his combat with Medussa or the Kraken that night, but I definitely remember Calibos, the vainglorious young prince turned into a hideous satyr by Zeus. I thought Calibos was the Devil, and I was terrified. Looking back, I have to wonder why I had such a well-formed idea at age three of who and what the Devil is. We attended Mass, but I hadn’t yet started CCD. Anyway, maybe Clash of the Titans is a movie I should *not* share with my children anytime soon.
The Holiday at that time still had speakers you hung on your rolled-down car window. I remember drifting off to sleep under a blanket in the back of the Skylark late that night, looking out the window at the twinkling stars and keeping watch in case Calibos might appear there, trying to quietly open the door and sneak into the car.
The late 1980s and the decades after were harsh for drive-ins. The Colonial and the Sky-View both closed. The former deteriorated for ages along the riverside, its sign losing letters and very gradually collapsing, until the concrete company that has taken over its grounds finally, only a few years ago, tore down the battered, tilting colossus that had been its screen, removing the last vestige of the theater. The screen at the Sky-View likewise towered over a lot overgrown with weeds for at least twenty years. The Oakley Drive-In, far to the south, operated until the summer of 2005 but did not linger long after; it was quickly demolished to make room for an animal hospital.
The Holiday Auto Theatre endures, however. Taking me to the drive-in that night was a great decision on my parents’ part, and not just because upon our return to indoor theaters that winter my seat folded up while I was fucking sitting in it during the Gary Coleman vehicle Jimmy the Kid, which led me to demand to park my bony ass on someone’s lap at the movies for a year afterward. No, apart from the convenience of being able to sit on a non-folding car seat, I came to love the Holiday for dozens of other reasons: The starry blue sky overhead, the abundantly stocked concession stand, memories of watching movies with my parents and later my wife, vintage cartoons and intermission reels, and all the other awesome movies I’ve seen there over the years – Labyrinth, An American Tale, North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder, Gone with the Wind, The Dark Knight, The Exorcist, Halloween, The Shining… I still return at least once a year for Terror at the Drive-In, their annual Halloween quadruple feature.