I read your drive-in story (Reflections After Sunset) and was totally impressed. What a heartfelt account of you, your dad, and the people involved with it all as well as the trials and tribulations of the biz as well as life in general.
Kudos to you! I LUV’ d it!
Phill Hill, Southern California’
Read all 7 chapters:
Reflections After Dark, Memories of the Drive-In
COLUMBUS, GA — I suppose my childhood was not unlike that of other children raised in the 1950’s & 60’s. The first home that I remember was a modest two bedroom affair with a small yard. My parents had the front bedroom and my three sisters and I shared the back bedroom. I can remember on cold winter days we would all play in the living room where the heater was kept burning. If I went into my bedroom to fetch another toy, I can remember that it would be so cold that I could see my breath. Those were the days before central heating. You never heated the whole house. You only heated the room you were using at the time and besides, it saved money.
We were certainly not wealthy nor were we poor. My father, Herschel Gilbert, managed the Rex view Drive-in Theater in Columbus Georgia and from time to time my mother, Annie Lou, worked in the Bibb Mill. A treat for us was to go to the store next door to buy a piece of penny candy. If there was enough money we might even buy a soft drink. The most prized treat was ice cream.
It was always a big treat to go to my father’s drive-in theater. We had only one car and daddy would use it to go to work. If we went to the show it meant that we would have to walk. That was not a problem. The drive-in was only about a mile from the house and to me the short walk was always fun. We would start in the early evening as the sun was slowly sinking in the west. We would walk past my school and then through a black neighborhood. We passed many houses where sat ancient women in their flowered bonnets spitting snuff into the yard while old men rolled cigarettes with trembling hands. I could smell brewing tea and the aroma of pork chops and meats being cooked all mingled with the smoke of the stove wood. From some of the houses, I could hear the faint sounds of laughter from radios where folks were listening to Amos N’ Andy. But we didn’t have to listen to Amos N’ Andy. We were going to the drive-in to watch Sampson and Delilah and a cartoon.
The 1950’s was the golden age of the drive-in theater and Box-office Magazine hailed the Rexview as, “The most beautiful drive-in theater in the Southeast.” As we turned onto 45th Street we could see the theater’s marquee a short distance away. I was excited because daddy would be there. I would get to see Miss Bonnie, the cashier and R. L. Hughes, the concession manager.
R. L. worked at Tom Houston’s Peanut Company and sometimes he would bring us a box of candy. Then there was Mr. Webb who cleaned the lot. He smoked and had a terrible cough and once advised me never to start smoking. I took his advice long before the American Cancer Society ever ran its first anti-smoking ad. Then, almost as cool as my Dad, was George Reese the projectionist. He was the one who put the show on the screen. Sometimes he would give me a few frames of film that had been cut from some feature. Those were prized possessions and I would take them to school and show them to my friends.
A few moments later we had walked down the entrance and up to the box-office. The day had been hot but one didn’t notice heat in those days. In spite of the heat, daddy’s office was surprisingly cool. Someone had mounted a black box in his office window and it was making a humming sound and dripping water onto the sidewalk outside. Cool air was blowing inside his office. This was only a momentary curiosity however and after greeting my father my sisters and I would make a dash to the walkway that leads to the lot. There was a railing that followed the sidewalk and we loved to play and climb on that railing.
The architecture of the Rexview drive in was interesting. Not everyone had a car in those days and the drive-in had a lot of foot traffic. To accommodate the pedestrian clientele there were two areas on either side of the concession building with theater seating. To the left was a covered seating area that was open in the front which would seat probably 75 people. A speaker on the wall provided the sound. The seating area to the right was enclosed with a large glass window facing the screen. This was heated so the visitors in winter could enjoy the show. The aforementioned sidewalk and railing lead from the box-office, through the fence between the entrance drive and the lot, and wound to the front of the screen. The railing ended and the sidewalk turned right and led through the lot down to the seating area. Patrons seldom used the sidewalk. Once through the fence, they would duck under the rail and cut across the lot to the concession area. I mean, why walk all the way to the screen and then down to the concession when you can just cut across the lot?
After a few minutes of play, Mother would round us up and tell us to get into the car. She would drive us onto the theater lot and park, usually close to the concession. She would tell us to stay in the car but that didn’t last too long. Somehow I would always slip out of the car, usually through a window. Then I was all over the lot. There was a railroad track that ran behind the back fence and if the gate had been left open I would sit atop an unused loading ramp and watch the freight trains lumber by. Soon it began to grow dark and I felt it would be safer to go back to the car. Mother had gone to the concession and found a small cardboard box and filled it with popcorn. It was given to my sisters and me. That would keep us quiet until the popcorn ran low.
It was now twilight and the lot was filling up fast. The smell of popcorn mixed with frying hamburgers wafted across the lot. The rumble of automobiles with the accompanying sound of gravel crunching under their tires greeted my ears. There was also the sounds of people moving toward the concession and others returning to their cars with trays of popcorn and soft drinks. Adding to all of this was the pre-movie music playing from hundreds of speakers.
“This is your old Uncle Ben, Ben Parsons here at the Rexview Drive-In Theater. They’re just three minutes before the show starts so make your way on down to the concession stand now. And here’s a little number that should take us right up till Showtime here at the Rexview Drive-In Theater.”
I would dash out of the car and get as close to the drive in projection booth as possible. I knew that the show was about to start. The music ended and Uncle Ben announced, “And now it’s Showtime!” At that moment I heard the carbon arc strike and the projector motor come to life. In another second I heard a loud “Clack” as the projectionist hit the changeover switch. Suddenly there was sound and picture. The show had hit the screen. A blue image faded up from black accompanied by a drum roll.
Instantly, trumpets blasted a triumphal fanfare as animated searchlights scanned an airbrushed sky. For the next ninety minutes a celluloid photo play, shrouded in darkness, would dance on the Rex view’s 90′ wide screen. I was usually all over the theater but Sampson and Delilah captivated me. Sampson was every little boy’s dream. He was so strong he could push down a stone temple! The movie was so interesting that I was awake at the intermission and the cartoon. I just knew that I would be as strong as Sampson one day.
Several times during the movie daddy would walk past the car on the way to the concession and then back to the box-office. He always wore a ring of keys that hung from his belt. It was a huge ring of keys. I knew that my father must be an important person to have so many keys. I was always so proud of him. In those days a theater manager was an important person. Before the days of television, the theater was the primary source of entertainment. The manager had the power to admit one to the show for free! Everybody wanted to be my father’s friend. Daddy always carried a book of theater passes with him. When he’d buy something from a shop, many times he would give the attendant one pass. It was actually a good advertising gimmick. No one wants to go the drive-in by himself. If you brought a friend, he would have to pay and because you got in free, you might be more inclined to but something in the concession. After all, that’s where a theater makes its money, in the concession. The box-office money goes to the distributor and the theater’s money is made on popcorn. A theater is, in essence, a candy store that shows movies.
As the second feature started, flashes of lightning could be seen in the distance. It was just some distant summer thunderstorm but it made daddy nervous. Just eighteen days before I was born my parents were living in an apartment in the screen tower when the Rexview was hit by a tornado. For years afterward summer thunderstorms would make him uneasy.
The afternoon of April 18th, 1953 was warm and balmy. It was also a wedding anniversary. My dad’s brother, Arthur and his wife Polly, were coming to the drive-in apartment where my mother was cooking their anniversary dinner. My mother was a wonderful cook and fried chicken was to be the main course that evening. As she cooked she noticed that the sky was growing dark and a cool breeze was blowing through the open window which looked out onto 45th Street. Daddy decided to walk to the concession to make sure there was enough coke and popcorn to make it through the weekend. “Montana Territory” wasn’t exactly a box-office smash but it was the weekend and westerns usually did well. Upon opening the door he noticed that the clouds were unusually dark and low. Large raindrops began to fall as he dashed to the concession and unlocked the door. The interior of the concession was so dark that he went to the fuse box to turn on a few lights. Before he could reach the box, the doors and windows began to shake violently. He opened the back door just in time to see two horrible funnel clouds gyrating and snaking their way towards the theater. The winds were so strong that he had to force the door closed and even then it was rattling so violently that he had difficulty fastening the safety chain. It had all been in vain. The instant he stepped away from the door it came crashing in with part of the wall. Mother was at the stove frying her chicken when the window blinds stood straight out into the room blown by the force of the wind. She heard a very loud grinding and tearing and the walls began to move. The room in which she was standing suddenly lifted up over her head and was gone. She was left standing on a concrete pad in the open being pelted with rain and debris. She said her only instinct was to run. The speakers had all left their stands and were stretched straight out as if being pulled away from their stands by unseen hands as daddy ran toward the screen tower but it had vanished. Through the rain and debris, he saw mother running from where the apartment had been. He tackled her and they rolled into a ditch. She was frightened and bleeding profusely from her right leg. Something had laid her leg open and daddy took his handkerchief and tried to stop the bleeding.
The storm lasted only a few minutes but when daddy looked up from the ditch, the drive-in was gone. The screen had landed on top of Daniel School across the street and the concession was flooded and lay in ruins. Part of the building had landed on his car and had crushed the vehicle nearly flat. He picked mother and carried her to the nearest house for help. The power and phones were out at the home but the resident volunteered to drive mother and several other injured people to the hospital. There wasn’t room for daddy so he returned to the theater to survey the damage. He told Mother that his brother had been on his way and he would get Arthur to drive him to the hospital. The rain was tapering off as daddy made his way back to the ruined theater. Arthur was already there and a group of boys were frantically trying to remove debris from the crushed car. “Mr. Gilbert’s in this car and we’ve got to get him out!” they shouted when my uncle asked what they were doing. “No, he’s not. Here he comes now,” he said pointing at a wet, tattered figure moving toward them.
Mother’s injuries were not life threatening but she carried a scar on her leg to her grave. The screen was a total loss and the toilet from the apartment was found sitting upright in the school. Daddy’s desk was still sitting in its proper place on the floor of what had been the office, his glasses still on the desk and the payroll in the top drawer. The storm was actually never listed as a tornado but was called a “big wind.” Local Meteorologist Tom Floyd had gone on record as saying that because Columbus was located in a valley that it was “tornado proof.” But my father saw a phenomenon that wouldn’t be photographed for another 40 years. Some F-4 tornadoes will have a main funnel with several smaller funnels swirling around it. This is what my father saw and described decades before it was actually photographed. But the Rex view was to rise from the ruins.
Within days repair crews descended on the ruined theater. The concession was pumped dry.
Walls were repaired, doors and windows were replaced but there was the problem of the screen. The first solution was to erect poles from which a large tarp was hung. Though the picture was small, this worked until a few nights later another wind blew the tarp down the street. At a nearby church, a preacher told his congregation that the judgments of God had come upon the Rexview and God Himself had blown down that screen upon which wicked movies played. (Of course, it had nothing to do with the fact that a tarp in the wind acts like a sail and the contractors knew this when they put it up.) The next temporary screen was a solid surface built on scaffolding and guyed to the ground. Because two screens had been lost to the wind, removable panels were installed in this screen to let the wind blow through. They would be removed after each show and replaced the next evening. During this time the foundation for a new screen was being poured. It would be 90 feet wide and have a curved surface. The office would be built inside and it would have large work and storage areas. The apartment would not be rebuilt. Mother had proven that such a structure was a dangerous place to be during a high wind.
I was born 18 days after the storm. My parents had moved into a small apartment and set to work rebuilding their lives. Most of their belongings had been blown away in the storm. Within a year they had moved to 5245 Hamilton Rd. next to White’s Hardware. This is where my memories begin.