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20 Seconds at the Drive-In

She knew what was photogenic and what was not. When I went to the refreshment stand to photograph anyone (and purchase popcorn), server Sheila Ramsay felt the small size (a large white styrofoam cup) “wouldn’t make a nice picture.” She suggested I purchase the medium size and she was right. It did look much better.

The Ruskin Family Drive-In Theatre opened the year Dwight Eisenhower became president. In 1952 alone it could have shown Singing in the Rain, The Quiet Man, High Noon, and – I’d like to think – the classic film noir Clash by Night. Nowadays, they still show double-headers, and for $6 a head, it’s roughly a quarter the cost of a mall cinema complex. When I first visited in 2007, it was showing Alvin and the Chipmunks and Enchanted. The drive-in prides itself on showing “family entertainment,” which means only G/GP fare. No classic “drive-in movies” here, redolent of horror and sex. No “passion pit” this.

But things haven’t always gone as smoothly as one of their movie plots. A few years back, the film industry did away with film stock, which necessitated the changeover to digital projectors at a cost of about $100,000. To do that, owners Ted and Karen Freiwald had to take out a mortgage. And last year, Publix Supermarkets decided to build across the street and tried to get the theater closed because it was a “public eyesore.” The Freiwalds won that battle too. For them, running the theater is not just a labor of love. It’s an entire raison d’etre.

Drive-ins are still closing up north – Massachusetts has only three left – and the ones that stay open have to do double duty as flea markets during the week. In the south it’s still possible for drive-ins to make it because of the year-long season. Nearby Tampa even has a triple screen.

But it’s still a struggle.

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Peter Bates

Peter Bates is a writer and photographer living in Florida. He is the administrator of this blog and runs the blog Stylus.

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4 Comments

  1. Carl Carlsen Carl Carlsen

    Hi Peter  ==  I’ve been enjoying your posts very much and your new one reminds me of all the motels along Tamiami Rd. in Sarasota on the way to the airport from downtown.  They are all one or two stories in the classic model of the would it be sixties or seventies motels.  They all have great names and as we drove by I wished I could take pictures of them all, but to what end?  I’m talking really great names.  And signs just like the drive in here.  One had a sign advertising  Clean Rooms   Hmm my wife said     What could that mean?   Clean Rooms ??  Isn’t that a given?    Anyway — now I’m wishing you might be somehow moved to go see for yourself and perhaps take a series of photographs of these really great signs with really great names on this really great Motel Mile.   I’m sure you get tips all the time and this is mine.   Keep up the great work.   Your fan  —  CC

    • Hi Carl,

      Good to hear from you. I hope you two are well. Yes, I’ve noticed this same stretch of 50s-style motels. I plan to get there some Saturday eve near sunset and photograph the cars coming and going. I will look into it soon, as we are going to Sarasota in a week or so. Next time you’re in that area, let us know and we’ll get together. We may be up in your area next summer (not the one in three weeks). This summer we are off to Europe.

  2. Dorothy Derrifield Dorothy Derrifield

    I keep meaning to tell you how much I enjoy your photos, but procrastinate, of course. I particularly enjoyed this one. It certainly brings back a lot of memories of the “passion pits” of my growing up years. And I love the name of this one. What do you suppose John Ruskin would have thought of the aesthetics?

    • Thank you Dorothy. There were two drive-ins in my youth, both in MA: The Route 114 Drive-in in Middleton and the Revere Drive-in. The Revere Drive-in was so close to Route 60, the main route into Boston, that you could see the screen when driving in. Later, when they started showing R-rated movies, people complained that distracted drivers were causing accidents. The rumor was that topless scenes hastened its closing, but it was probably just a casualty of the general drive-in decline of the 80s.

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