Silver screen, golden memories

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it. On the drive from Saranac Lake to Lake Placid, it’s on the left, on that uphill curve, just past the parking lot for Haystack Mountain.

It doesn’t look like much – just a haphazard collection of scrub brush and trees, behind a line of boulders. It’s obviously not an integral part of the surrounding forest; in fact, it’s not much of anything.

But in its day, that little wasteland was a summer hotspot unlike any other. It was the Sara-Placid Drive-in.

Today drive-ins are as close to extinction as giant pandas, Sumatran tigers and literate Americans. At their peak, there were between 4,000 and 5,000 U.S. drive-ins – 25 percent of all American movie screens. Today the number is around 360. But in their prime they were as established and revered as July 4th parades and fireworks. They were also as American as July 4th, since no other country had the land and spare change to support them.

They were a truly democratic institution that served a vast demographic: young families, older people, young couples, buddies, you name it. The only thing everyone had in common was they were all up for a fun night out, which they inevitably had.

And how could they not? I can’t remember the admission charge – $1.25 for an adult ticket sticks in my mind – but whatever it was, it was cheap. Plus, there was always a double feature, with a ton of previews thrown in for good measure all of it on a gigantic screen. And best of all, as opposed to watching a flick in a theater, you didn’t have to keep quiet. This was a special treat for me and my pals, all of us knowledgeable and outspoken cinema critics.


My memories of the drive-in are scattered and anecdotal – like all my memories of Days Gone By. They’re the opposite of a movie and are instead a jumble of small, faded, snapshots (in black and white, with a scalloped white border, no less).

So what do I remember?

The first thing that popped into my mind is the speakers. They were the finest high-tech communications equipment of the day. Made of cast aluminum, each was as big as a breadbox, weighed as much as a sledgehammer and put out a sound that, at its best, can be described as scratchy. To us, however, they were a modern miracle.

Each speaker was connected to a stand with what looked like trans-oceanic coaxial cable, and it was hung inside the driver’s window on a U-hook. This caused The Curse of the Drive-in, which I’ll save for later.

Another fond drive-in memory? The intermission, when everyone hauled to the snack bar. It was a cinderblock building in the middle of the lot that looked less like a dining establishment than part of the Maginot line. But inside, the sights and smells were enough to make any glutton worth his salt (and sugar and fat) burst into thunderous applause. I can still see the grill, which was as big as a dump truck bed, sizzling away with hot dogs and hamburgers galore, while French fries fried and popcorn popped and I salivated uncontrollably.

Something else about intermission: Just before it “officially” began, a cartoon heralded this blessed event. My recollection is tattered here, but I recall a benign little spaceman getting out of his flying saucer and announcing to everyone that he was gonna head into the snack bar and stuff his extraterrestrial face with all sorts of goodies. Since the peak of the drive-in craze coincided with the peak of the flying saucer craze, it was a most fitting symbology.

As much as I loved the drive-in, the same can’t be said for everyone. The moral arbiters of This Great Land continuously condemned drive-ins, labeling them “passion pits.” They were deemed dens of iniquity where the Flower of American Girlhood was ruined beyond redemption – probably even before the intermission began.

It was an absurd assertion. First, if anyone wanted to watch the submarine races in the Adirondacks, they had untold miles of back roads to do it in. And second, while everyone was in their own car, they weren’t the least bit hidden. So although there was an illusion of privacy, there was no reality of it. And while young people may have trouble separating illusion from reality, when it came to the drive-in, we had no trouble at all.

Man versus mandibles

Earlier, I mentioned the speakers causing The Curse of the Drive-in. So what was it?

Well, think about it: You’ve got a clearing in the middle of an Adirondack forest, at night, and in that clearing are hundreds of people. And so were black flies, mosquitoes and punkies. We were to them what hot dogs and hamburgers were to us – a gigantic snack bar. The only difference was the snack bar was open for only a short period; we were feeding the flies all night.

It was all due to that cursed U-hook. Because of it, the window couldn’t be fully closed, which left a wee gap at the top. Of course, with flies are even more-wee buggers, a wee gap to us is the Grand Canyon to them, and thus they poured in like Genghis Khan and his hordes laying Eurasia to waste. But as opposed to the poor Eurasians, we could fight back and we did.

Actually, we didn’t fight the insect, personally. Instead, our champion did it for us.

His name was Ernie Stautner, and he owned the drive-in. He was also a true champion, having been a defensive linemen for the Pittsburgh Steelers and an NFL Hall of Famer who, in a 14-year career, was chosen for nine Pro Bowls and missed only six games. Before that, he was a U.S. Marine and beyond that, he was just an all-around good guy.

Anyhow, Ernie had a Jeep which had, mounted on its back, a fogger that looked at least as big as the 16-inch guns on the Mighty Mo. During intermission he’d cruise through the lanes fogging the livin’ bejammers out of anything that flew, crept or crawled within his fiefdom.

I’ve no idea what he was spraying, but my best guess is some combination of kerosene and “the atomic bomb of pesticides,” DDT, which to us was the smell and taste of victory.

Did we worry about any bad side effects? Of course not. This was back in the Fabulous Fifties – we had no idea what chemical crap was in our food, much less which ones were killing bugs. But as long as they were killing bugs, it was all jake with us.

How effective were the sprayings? Good question.

In the immediate sense, they worked just fine. But not too long after Ernie had gone on his murderous rampage, the ranks of the not-at-all-dearly departed had been filled by their equally ravenous replacements.

Today, the Sara-Placid Drive-in is but a distant memory. On the other hand, the insects are still with us, as vicious and widespread as ever.

It is, I believe, just one more example of the inherent unfairness of life.