Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Gone Ozoning

By Matt Hanks

JUNE 8, 1998:  Harry Pankey isn’t big on histrionics. Asked why he’s committed most of his life to one pursuit, he answers simply, “I’ve just always loved drive-ins. I guess there’ll always be a place in my heart for them.” Pankey started working at the Summer Drive-in shortly after it opened on September 1, 1966, and he’s been there ever since. For the past 15 years, he’s even made the 26 paved acres at Summer Avenue and I-240 his home, residing in an apartment above the concession building.

I meet Pankey, now 50, at the drive-in on a hot Sunday afternoon. He greets me with a handshake, and the first of many understatements. “The drive-in looks different during the daytime, doesn’t it?” Sure enough. Save for a single clean-up truck, the Summer lot is completely barren. The speaker boxes (still functional, by the way) stick out of the asphalt like bristles on a giant hairbrush. The rolling fields behind the drive-in’s northern wall stand in contrast to the strip malls and convenience stores that clutter Summer Avenue. “I like how quiet it is,” Pankey remarks.

At the time of its construction, the 1,400-car capacity Summer offered the latest in drive-in-novation. It was the first ozoner (as opposed to hard-top theatres) in the city to offer two screens (its third and fourth screens were added in the mid-’80s). It came equipped with car heaters, perimeter traffic lanes, and a streamlined, temperature-controlled concession stand. Back in ’66 the Summer even offered indoor-viewing auditoriums for vehicle-weary patrons. Pankey recalls that, “It was all very modern compared to the usual mom-and-pop gravel-lot drive-ins of the time. And we did tremendous business for a long time. We sold out every Friday and Saturday night, regardless of what we were running. In the ’70s I actually sold out this drive-in in the snow. That’s how popular this place was back then. We actually had to take tractors and pull people out at the end of the night.”

The Summer Drive-in still operates year-round, but it hasn’t sold out a screening in some time. In a 1983 interview with The Commercial Appeal, Pankey prophetically insisted that, “ … This drive-in will be in operation 20 years from now.” All indications are that Pankey was right, but the Summer drive-in has overcome more setbacks than he would care to count. He’s steered it through fiscal challenges (the proliferation of hard-top theatres in the area has cut into his business considerably), social indifference (“A lot of people in Memphis seem to have forgotten that this place exists”), even natural disaster (the Wolf River flooded the Summer in 1973, putting it out of commission for more than 10 days during peak season). But through it all Pankey insists, “We’ve built quite a loyal following here. Some people just will not go see a movie at a hard-top theatre. That’s our core audience.”

To understand Pankey’s commitment to his job and his patrons, you have to know the history behind them. His isn’t just a career, it’s a preservation act.

The brainchild of amateur inventor Richard M. Hollingshead Jr., the first drive-in was built in a mere three weeks and opened for business on June 6, 1933, in Camden, New Jersey. The price of admission was 25 cents a head. Twenty-five years later Hollingshead’s humble backyard invention had given rise to one of this century’s most distinctive, and at that time, ubiquitous American icons.

Inside a projection room.
Photo by John Landrigan

Hollingshead’s idea was simple. In those Depression-beset times he noticed that movies were one of the last means of affordable recreation for struggling families. But even a simple night at the movies could be prohibitively expensive. Babysitters needed to be hired (in those days, families didn’t attend movies together; children went to matinees, adults went to evening shows), parking needed to be found and paid for (remember, before the advent of suburban multiplexes, before the advent of suburbs for that matter, movie houses were located on a city’s main drag, thus making parking a pretty daunting task), and of course, the appropriate evening wear was required (no kidding, the movies used to be a serious social event).

Hollingshead reckoned there had to be a way to reduce some of these extraneous costs. His drive-in encouraged families to attend movies together, and obviously, it rendered parking a non-issue. Since these families could enjoy a night out without ever leaving their cars, dress codes were also amended – to the point where some families attended the drive-in in their pajamas.

After a slow start, drive-ins peaked in the prosperous 1950s, reaching their absolute zenith in 1958 with 4,063 theatres nationwide. But that number has dwindled steadily ever since, now totaling a mere 487. (Ironically, Hol-lingshead’s native New Jersey, is one of only three states – along with Louisiana and Alaska – where drive-ins have gone completely extinct.) But numbers will never convey the true importance of the drive-in. Though it’s since given way to a spate of homogenous megaplexes, the drive-in still stands as one of the most defiantly populist leisure-time activities in American history. As Pankey puts it, “People can do whatever they please at the drive-in.”

The difference between a hard-top theatre and a drive-in is an immense one. Whether we realize it or not, every architectural and aesthetic element of the hard-top theatre is the product of a hidden agenda to rival that of a Tunica casino. Hard tops, with their dark rooms, rowed seating, disproportionately large screens, and mandatory silence, demand our undivided attention. They turn moviegoing into a solitary, almost dictatorial event. Ozoners, on the other hand, emphasize the act of moviegoing over the movies themselves. That’s why drive-ins conjure such fond memories for so many people. They encourage a shared, democratic experience; an experience where the film is not the center of attention unless the patrons want it to be. As Austin Powers (who enjoyed an extended stay at the Summer drive-in last year) says, “It’s freedom, baby, and it’s very groovy. Yeah!”

As with its metaphorical counterpart the dinosaur, theories on the “death of the drive-in” abound. Factors like weather, economics, and the changing face of popular film notwithstanding, could it be that the film industry – from Hollywood on down – saw drive-ins as a direct threat to their means of production? Could it be that the aforementioned megaplexes that have replaced drive-ins aren’t as much an innovation as a rebuttal? Probably not, but every trend needs it conspiracy theory.

Back at the Summer. Winding through its narrow entrance lanes is like entering a time portal. Scarcely anything has changed in the 32 years since it opened. “The most substantial innovation in the past couple decades would have to be the introduction of FM stereo sound,” Pankey notes. “Other than that, the drive-in really hasn’t changed, and it probably never will.” Two of the most perfectly preserved remnants of the Summer Drive-in’s heyday are the cone lights at the entrance and the intermission trailer shown between features. I mention these two nostalgic totems to Pankey, and he immediately cracks a smile. “Oh yeah, we know how much that stuff means to people. The cone lights date back as far as the drive-in itself. The entrance to the drive-in has moved twice [due to commercial construction in the area], and the cones have always moved with it. Once when we moved them, we kept them in storage for a couple of weeks. We had all kinds of calls from people that were pretty irritated that we weren’t gonna put them back up. We assured them that we were. Yeah, those cones are just a part of the drive-in now, a pretty important part.”

When applied to the Summer drive-in, the old cliche that “the trailers are the best part of the movies” takes on an entirely different meaning. It screens the usual coming-attractions trailers like any other theatre, but the Summer’s real jewel is the short 10-minute intermission film shown between features; an impossibly kitschy montage of concession foods interspersed with strange, overtly amateur shots of puppies, kittens, and flowers, all set to a slithery yet pre-disco instrumental track. Pankey admits that, “We’ve shown that same intermission trailer for years, but it’s the only thing I make a point of seeing anymore”

According to Pankey, the drive-in’s clientele are similarly consistent. “You generally have the same kind of people coming to the drive-in today as you always have. In the ’60s and ’70s there were more teenagers, and in the last 10 years we’ve seen more families and young adults. I guess those teenagers have just grown up.” This loyal drive-in demographic is perhaps its best hope for continued vitality. As nostalgia commands an ever-widening province in the post-modern American imagination, the market for vintage and restored films is on the rise. It stands to reason that a vintage venue could benefit similarly. Pankey agrees that it’s a match made in pop-culture heaven. “The big summer action films will always end up at the drive-in … but we’ve seen some other kinds of films do really well recently. Grease was very successful. It surprised everyone here.” It seems that the Summer Drive-in’s future might derive from its rich past.

After our interview, Pankey takes me on a tour of the Summer’s lesser-known treasures. In the projection booth he shows me how trailers, features, and the beloved intermission film are all spliced together to create a continuously running reel every bit of six feet in diameter. He points a proud finger toward Screen Two. “That’s the longest film throw in the world you’re looking at there,” he informs me. “It’s 740 feet from this booth to that screen.”

Back at ground level, he guides me through a series of sheds that house artifacts from other local drive-ins long since closed; a popcorn popper dating back to the ’50s, a mosquito fogging machine circa ’60s, box after dilapidated box of old reels, marquee letters, and speaker boxes. There’s enough archaeology back here to open a drive-in museum. I ask Pankey if he’s ever given thought to such a prospect. He smiles and shrugs his shoulders a little. “Not really.”

And then I realize why. Pankey already curates one of the finest museums in the city. What need would he have for another?

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