The local drive-in was just outside Lanett, where I grew up, in the town of Shawmut, AL (which would later get incorporated into Valley, AL; a more nondescript name for a conglomeration of related burgs you couldn’t come up with if you tried…you might as well have called it “City, AL”). At the time, the Hi-Way Drive-In seemed like paradise. You could go in your pajamas, watch movies, fall asleep in the back seat (hey, I was under 10, and not able to enjoy the more steamy attractions of the drive-in), and still come away with memories of great movies. Or at least memorable movies. And if your folks wouldn’t let you go see certain movies, you at least had the titles to engage your imagination. Coupled with the ads in the local papers, and tossed around with a heaping helping of TV spots, you could pretty much come up with a pretty decent approximation of the lurid grotesqueries being projected on the billboard-sized screen. And folks who lived closer to the theater than I did swore that if you crawled through the right patch of kudzu, you could see (if not clearly hear) all the restricted entertainment you wanted.
I remember all sorts of movies coming through town. Sunn Classic Pictures’ offerings, any number of Kung-Fu flicks, the almighty Young Frankenstein (which I finally got to see there after having to miss it during its first run), the Cheri Caffaro vehicle Too Hot To Handle, and the requisite onslaught of horror movies. I’d give my eye teeth to actually have a listing of everything they showed in my childhood. How many movies that I’ve “discovered” during the years had their titles planted in my brain by passing by that marquee every day? They’d also occasionally have a fair back there as well to keep things interesting. Rickety rides, spookhouses, games and the like. It was the place to be. It might not have been the classiest establishment, but the place was lousy with atmosphere. I probably didn’t see that many movies there, but I know I slept through a whole hell of a lot, the tinny soundtracks pouring into my unconscious brain from the window-mounted speakers as my folks sat in the front.
Sitting right in front of the Hi-Way was the Royal Rocking Chair Theatre. The big enticement there, of course, was that the seats rocked. They were also falling apart, but nobody let that stop them. It was your classic one-room auditorium with an enormous screen the size of the back wall. It was the kind of place where the floors were so sticky that after you left, you could walk up walls. As much of a monolithic establishment the Hi-Way was, I actually have more memories of the Royal. I’m sure this is at least in large part because the movies at the Hi-Way started so late, it kind of prohibited me from being able to attend as much as I’d wanted. But there were two incidents that took place at the Royal that branded themselves on my brain…One was seeing a gorilla in a cage (okay, a guy in a gorilla suit) outside the theater’s doors. I don’t know what it was in regards to. I don’t know what it was promoting. But there was a goddamned gorilla in a cage out there. This was the kind of thing I could get into. This was showmanship. I didn’t care what movie was going to be showing, all I knew was that if there was a live gorilla involved, it had to be good. Unfortunately, I couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4, and there was no way my folks were going to let me go to this thing. I know that I raised holy hell about it, much as I did demanding to see any horror movie that came through. Shortly afterward (it could have been a year, for all I know…the time flows together in these twilight days), a real live Spook Show came to town. I wish I could remember the name of the guy who put it on. I just remember the newspaper ads promising “live snakes crawling down the aisles!” and “monsters come alive and sit right next to you!” Again, as much as I demanded, this wasn’t going to involve me. I distinctly remember either my mom or hers telling me that I could get bitten by the snakes if I went, in a futile effort to scare me out of wanting to go. They probably knew best, after all, seeing as how I once nearly had a nervous breakdown seeing some guy doing a ventriloquist act with a Frankenstein’s Monster dummy. But that was the last time either one of those things happened when I was a kid, and in these recent years as I’ve learned more about the classic Spook Shows of old, I’ve come to regret that I never got to experience one of them firsthand. I’d have lost my mind in fear, I know. I’d have come away traumatized somehow, I’m sure. But knowing that the time when these showmen took their acts on the road and entertained theaters full of kids with monster movies, magic acts, and horror-related fun’n’games; and that those days were just outside of my reach…so close that I could see their set-ups outside the theater but far enough away that I could never realistically experience them…well, all I can do is sigh. That, and be happy that there’s the Silver Scream Spookshow in Atlanta (last Saturday of every month at the Plaza Theatre!) to bring back those halcyon days of yore.
I eventually went to the Royal pretty often. I’d go along with my folks, with birthday parties, etc. Every now and then, they’d have the “kiddie shows” on early Saturday mornings, which is where I saw a lot of sci-fi flicks I don’t really remember the names of, and the insanely beautiful Toho production of King Kong Escapes, which I couldn’t forget if you brainwashed me. As I got older, when I didn’t require my folks being with me all the time, they’d drop me off and I’d call to have them come pick me up outside after the show. Thank goodness that my parents were lenient and that the ticket sellers at the Royal didn’t give a shit, because otherwise I’d have never gotten to check out stuff like Return of the Living Dead and see Linnea Quigley dancing nude in a graveyard in between bouts of zombies seeking out the brains of the living.
But the Hi-Way closed down eventually, in that post-’70s malaise when for some reason, the vast majority of drive-ins closed up shop across this great country. The Royal continued on, though, holding on for a few more years. But in the early ’80s, the home video revolution got under way, and it cut a huge dent in their profits. There were nights when they just closed up shop because nobody showed up to see anything. Movies promised as “coming soon” never came. They set up some spinning racks of VHS tapes in the lobby, and eventually that’s all anyone came in for. And seeing as how almost all of the tapes were “rented out” because the people working the theater would let their friends just take stuff and never return it, people stopped coming in for even *that*. If people wanted to go see movies, they’d head down to nearby Auburn or Columbus, where the theaters were built next to malls and restaurants instead of next to a bowling alley in Shawmut. Or they’d rent them from Video Land (and more on them in a later post).
With a sense of surrender, the Royal closed, and was torn down. For days, the only thing left standing was the wall with the screen on it. Taunting us all, as if to say “though you wouldn’t come in to look at me, you’ll all be forced to see me now, for this last time.”
For a while, in the space once occupied by both theaters, a grocery store-centered strip mall operated. Now, I think it’s some local telephone company call center or something.
All good things come to an end. Even if you don’t know that they were good things at the time.
(Note: I was going to illustrate this, but could find no photos of either theater. These places are nothing but memories now.)