COLUMN: Perry Bergson — April 21, 2014

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Perry Bergson
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Perry Bergson

In the latest instalment of “Bergson is sometimes nostalgic but mostly a cranky old guy” -- in other words my weekly column -- it’s time to discuss another casualty of the age.

I first remember going to a drive-in movie in the summer of 1974. I’m sure that I had been to them before but for whatever reason, I have a clear recollection of a film called Uptown Saturday Night.

It starred Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte, Flip Wilson and a young Richard Pryor. It’s a comedy about a guy going to nightclub, which is robbed. Poitier’s character hands over his wallet, which he learns the next day contains a winning lottery ticket.

The rest of the movie then has Poitier’s character and Cosby’s character in pursuit of this wallet.

It’s a reasonably funny movie that is apparently about to be remade. I likely won’t see the new one, mostly because it would have none of the magic that came with the old one.

It’s tough to describe to someone who’s never been to a drive-in movie what the allure is. After all, you’re watching a movie through your bug-stained windshield -- unless you remembered to bring your glass cleaner -- sitting on your somewhat uncomfortable vehicle seats.

In the old days, you hooked a clunky metal speaker on your window. The sound might be OK or it might be really bad; those were essentially your two options.

The drive-in experience was completely different than the theatre experience.

It might rain during the movie. It might get super cold. There might be mosquitoes looking for a meal.

But there was always a sense of a communal experience that you were sharing with others from the intimacy of your own vehicle.

Years later when I was married, we would head out to the drive-in a few times a summer. We packed blankets, pillows, snacks and drinks. I would always buy popcorn too -- it was a greasy delight that has my mouth watering a decade after I last ate it -- but it was part of the adventure.

I would occasionally have to give Mrs. Bergson a gentle elbow to wake her up, particularly if we were watching a triple feature. (Ask anyone younger than 30 what a triple feature is; you’ll enjoy the blank stare you get back.)

I would get the same protest from Mrs. Bergson that she was just resting her eyes but was following what was going on in the movie, a familiar line of defence that she has used consistently since 1990.

I don’t remember buying it even once but I admire that she continues to deploy it.

I do have one drive-in story that stands out above all of the others.

It came in 1977.

I’ve written before in this space about spending big chunks of my summer out at the farm. And so it was that summer.

My cousin was back from B.C., and, if memory serves, a couple of other cousins were in visiting from Calgary.

I was a timid kid back then when it came to my movies; horror movies were something unimaginable for me.

I slept on the couch the night that I saw Jaws at the theatre in 1975; for some reason in my fear-addled brain, sharks were more likely to attack someone in their bed.

I have no idea how my parents dealt with that one with straight faces.

That summer, there was a movie out that seemed far worse than the others. Even the TV commercial scared me.

One night my cousins decided that we should head into Dauphin to the drive-in north of the city. We had no clue what was playing but we had a pretty good idea when it started.

Imagine my terror when we rolled up the drive-in that night and there was the movie.

It’s a mostly forgotten movie written by Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg called Rabid.

It starred porn actress Marilyn Chambers as a woman who comes out of surgery with the need for human blood. She would lure men in and sting them with this giant thing under her armpit, and the men would then become crazy zombies.

While some 12-year-old boys might have been pleased with the bounteous nudity, this one was more concerned about not seeming like a complete princess in front of his older cousins.

I did my best that night, closing my eyes a few times and getting through it.

With everyone back visiting the farm I was likely sleeping on the couch anyway, which was obviously a good thing. I’m not sure if this is well known, but sleeping on the couch protects you from sharks, zombies and bad women who would turn you into sub-humans.

Even after seeing Rabid, I think that it was a sad day for this country when the drive-ins began to close. One source that I saw on the Internet suggested that at its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, there were an estimated 5,000 drive-ins operating in Canada and the United States.

The latest number that I could find suggested there were 62 in Canada and 380 in the United States, statistics that seem a bit high to me.

By the time I started going to the drive-in in the 1970s, the entire industry was in a freefall.

The end was hastened by satellite TV, VCRs, DVDs and the Internet. You can watch a movie on your phone now with no sense of what you’re missing.

There won’t be kids on the swings in front of the screen. There won’t be people walking back and forth to get their snacks. There won’t be the one drunk guy staggering; it almost seemed like that was a requirement to show the movies.

There won’t be people smuggled in by lying in the trunk.

There won’t be couples breaking up in the car next to you and leaving early. Conversely, there won’t be couples steaming the windows and staying late.

I miss sharing an experience with a couple hundred strangers, all of us safely tucked within our own little worlds.

I miss surprising my best girl with a hidden snack -- usually chocolate -- and making sure that she was well covered with the blanket for her impending nap.

I miss the days when the world was a little slower.

 

 

Perry Bergson is the Daily Herald’s managing editor. You can reach him at 765-1302 or by email at perry.bergson@paherald.sk.ca

 

Organizations: Uptown Saturday Night, Daily Herald

Geographic location: Calgary, Canada, United States

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