Drive-in movies turn 80, but their days may be numbered

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CIMG0121The world’s first drive-in movie theater opened 80 years ago on Thursday. According to History.com, Park-In Theaters opened on June 6, 1933, in Camden, New Jersey.

Drive-in theaters boomed after World War II, and by the late 1950s, there were about 5,000 of them across the country.

Two years ago, the last time the National Association of Theatre Owners counted, there were 366. This summer, there are surely fewer.

Our closest drive-in, the Hi-Way 50 Drive-In in Lewisburg, Tenn., closed after last season. We found out when we went online a couple of weeks ago to see what was playing. The website was gone, but we found a message from the owners on the theater’s Facebook page. It says they’ve retired but they’re hoping someone will buy it and reopen it.

I hope so, too, but I know it’s unlikely.

Drive-in theaters are a risky business. They’re at the mercy of the weather. No one goes to the drive-in when it’s raining, and no one goes if it’s sticky hot, either, but the owners have to pay a fee to the movie studios either way.

Hard-top theaters make money by overcharging for popcorn and Cokes, but it’s easy to bring snacks and pizzas and a cooler to the drive-in, so they don’t make a lot of money on concessions.

Drive-ins used to make money by showing second-run movies (which don’t cost nearly as much to rent as new movies on opening weekend), but VCRs and then DVDs, Blu-Ray and streaming services such as Netflix have pretty much killed the demand for second-run movies. The movies in theaters today will probably be at Redbox by the time school starts in the fall.

The latest threat to the drive-in, according to a story in The Los Angeles Times, is the shift toward digital projection. This may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The paper says Hollywood may stop distributing 35-millimeter film prints by year’s end. Hard-top theaters have already converted, but a lot of drive-in theaters probably can’t afford the cost of a new projector. The Times puts the cost of conversion at about $70,000 per screen.

So, this summer, find the closest drive-in theater and go, and take the kids. Take a Frisbee or a ball and play in the field between the screen and the first row of cars while you wait for it to get dark enough for the movie to start. Walk to the concession stand and listen to the sound of the movie echoing from car radios and boom boxes. Take pictures.

Because this might be the last summer you have the chance.

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‘… go over to Thelma Lou’s and watch a little TV’

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Andy Griffith passed away this morning. He was 86 years old. He played a Southern lawyer named Matlock for 9 seasons. Before that, he played a Southern sheriff named Andy Taylor for 8. Matlock was OK, but Andy Taylor was a keeper.

A while back, I tried to describe “The Andy Griffith Show” to a Londoner born in South Africa. She’d never seen the show, never heard of Mayberry.

I failed.

I sort of explained the setup, but I couldn’t explain what makes the show so great, and why it still matters to folks here in the South.

If she’d ask me to explain, “Everybody Loves Raymond,” I could have. It’s about a guy named Raymond, and everybody loves him, but they don’t get along with each other, right?

When you explain “The Andy Griffith Show,” though, it sounds pretty mediocre.

I explained that it’s a show about a widowed sheriff who lives with his son and aunt in a Southern town called Mayberry. I could imagine her eyes glazing over, so I added that the sheriff’s cousin is his only deputy and that it’s funny because of the characters, not because of the jokes, but it sounds strange to say that a comedy isn’t about the jokes.

Really, though, the writing on “The Andy Griffith Show” was subtle and brilliant, and the humor was genuine, especially when you consider the quality of most sitcoms at the time. I can’t think of too many shows where the laughs don’t come from what the characters says but how or why they say it.

For example, “Hello, doll.”

If you know the show, that’s one of your favorite lines, ever. If you don’t, it would take too long to explain it (but I’ll try if anyone asks).

What’s really hard to explain, though, is that here in the South, “The Andy Griffith Show” isn’t just another rerun. It’s part of the culture. Here in the South, it’s beloved.

We know it wasn’t real, that Mayberry was just a set on a Hollywood backlot, but it feels real. It feels right, and movies and TV shows about the South never get it right.

Mayberry is how we remember our hometowns — a little eccentric, maybe, but friendly and basically decent and a good place to raise kids. We wish we could live there.

Nobody wishes they could live in the world of “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

“The Andy Griffith Show” has been around almost 52 years, and it’s still on. In some markets, it’s on several times a day, and every last episode is on Netflix, and they’re just as good today as they were the first time around.

Andy, we’ll miss you.

You know what I think I’m gonna do? I’m gonna go home, have me a little nap and then go over to Thelma Lou’s a watch a little TV.

No, I won’t go see your $150 million 3D movie in the theater

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Thing 2 likes “Star Wars,” but he’d never seen the prequels, and when he saw a trailer for “The Phantom Menace” in 3D, he asked to see it.

So, I went to Fandango.com and got 2 tickets to last Sunday’s bargain matinée for $29.25. The theater charges extra for 3D movies, and there was a $2.50 “convenience fee” for buying the tickets online. Obviously, my idea of a bargain matinée clearly isn’t the same as Carmike Cinemas’.

A medium popcorn, a couple of sodas and a box of Nerds came to about $15. So, going to the movies with my 6-year-old became a $45 outing, and as I sat there watching this terrible movie — it earned only a 38% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes — I had an epiphany:

I’m not doing this again.

Then, I thought, don’t be stupid. Of course, you’ll do this again. You’ll take the kids the movies. They’re kids. You like movies. You’re not an ogre.

So, I had another epiphany:

I’m not taking the kids to the movies again unless the movie a) gets great reviews and b) is something they really, really want to see — unless c) we’re talking about going to a drive-in, in which case the movie is less important than the adventure of going to the drive-in, because d) drive-ins are awesome, or e) the restored old movie theater in the town where we live that shows old movies and charges only $5 a ticket.

I also thought, f) great reviews or not, if it’s a movie for grownups, I’ll wait and get it from Redbox or Netflix.

I’m sorry, but I’m looking at you, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”

The last grownup movie I saw in the theater was “Midnight in Paris,” the Woody Allen movie. I liked it a lot, but I don’t think I’d have liked it any less if I’d waited 3 to 6 months and watched it at home.

Hollywood hears that a lot, apparently. BoxOfficeMojo.com says total ticket sales in the U.S. fell almost 4% between 2009 and 2011.

This is why so many new movies are in 3D. The studios are hoping we’ll pay extra for an experience we can’t easily duplicate at home.

The problem is that a) 3D glasses make everything look too dark and b) a bad movie in 3D is still a bad movie, while c) a good movie is a good movie, either way.

“The Phantom Menace,” for example, was just as bad in 3D as it was in plain old 2D. It still didn’t make a lick of sense, and Jar Jar Binks was still annoying.

On the other hand, George Lucas was thoughtful enough to replace the puppet of Yoda with a computer-animiated cartoon of Yoda, so, at least, there was that.