“My daughter said it’s ‘cult movie night at the drive-in’ because we operate like a cult,” joked Mike McCarthy, a Memphis moviemaker.
The drive-in is Malco’s Summer Quartet, and the “cult movie night” is an initiative dubbed “Time Warp Drive-In,” a monthly dusk-to-dawn program of classic and genre cinema that has exceeded organizers’ expectations, drawing carloads of customers to the asphalt surface of what is now the region’s only remaining outdoor movie venue.
The brainchild of McCarthy, director of such local independent movies as “Damselvis, Daughter of Helvis,” and Matt Martin, the co-founder of Black Lodge Video at 831 S. Cooper, the six “Time Warp” programs to date have surpassed or rivaled the attendance at the first-run comedies, dramas and action films on the drive-in’s other three screens, tallying 400-plus paid admissions for the likes of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Dr. Strangelove.”
“Even when it was storming, we had more than 200 cars,” said Phyllis Appleby, 60, a drive-in employee for close to nine years, referring to “Hell on Wheels,” the June “Time Warp” program devoted to such car classics as “Bullitt” and “American Graffiti.”
Two “Time Warp” shows remain this season. A four-movie tribute to one of Hollywood’s most inventive directors, “The Time Warped Mind of Tim Burton,” begins at 7 p.m. Saturday, while the final “Time Warp” show — a horror marathon dubbed “Shocktober Returns!” — is set for Oct. 25. That’s just one day short of the anniversary of the inaugural “Time Warp” event, a Halloween-themed evening that was successful enough to convince Malco senior vice president Jimmy Tashie to greenlight an entire season of throwback cinema.
Sometimes accompanied by live rock and roll, the premieres of local short films and such thematically relevant activities as a “headlight vigil” (in conjunction with August’s “Summer Fun with Elvis” program) and a symbolic “baptism” in a wading pool filled with popcorn, the “Time Warp” events have reintroduced movie lovers to the pleasures of watching a big screen against a big sky, and to the family atmosphere of a family-owned business that essentially hasn’t changed since the Summer opened with two screens on Sept. 1, 1966.
Newspaper advertisements at the time promised the drive-in was “Modern as Tomorrow,” and that’s still more or less true: The reason the Summer Quartet has survived while most of its contemporaries have gone out of business is that Malco had the money to convert the drive-in from film to digital projection, a necessity for movie theaters in the 21st century.
The digital projectors, in fact, are much younger than the employees. So is the drive-in, for that matter.
“It took a lot of the work out of the job, to tell the truth — a hard drive don’t weigh much,” said longtime projectionist Daniel Frost, 81, referring to the small “Digital Cinema Packages” that have replaced the “big ol’ cans” of film he used to tote to the drive-in’s projection booth. “I’ve been up a lot of stairs with those cans.”
Another decadeslong Malco employee is movie theater jack-of-all-trades James Lloyd, 78, who lives in the five-room apartment above the drive-in concession stand. Lloyd and Frost (who lives in Mt. Pleasant, Mississippi) could have retired long ago, but they prefer to work as much as they can. Said Frost: “I like to keep active. If you ever stop and sit down, you might not get back up.”
When the Summer Drive-In opened in 1966, it was state-of-the-art but otherwise hardly unique. Other Memphis-area drive-ins operating that year included the Frayser, the Bellevue, the Sky-Vue, the Jaxon, the Southland, the Lamar and the 51 in Millington.
In 1968, Malco opened the Southwest Twin on South Third, and the company also operated such rural drive-ins as the Fiesta in Columbus, Mississippi; the 78 in Tupelo; the Indian and Skyvue in Jonesboro, Arkansas; the Skyvue in Fort Smith, Arkansas; the Delta in Sikeston, Missouri; and the Starlight in Owensboro, Kentucky. Many of these were “cow pasture” drive-ins, with grass rather than paved parking areas.
Recent years have not been kind to parking lots as movie spaces, however. Close to 5,000 outdoor theaters operated in the U.S. in the 1950s, but the number of drive-ins as of March 2014, was only 348, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, a nonprofit group that keeps tabs on the industry.
Still, some people prefer watching movies under the stars rather than under a roof.
“I got burned out on movie theaters because of the way people acted, talking on the cellphones and all that,” said Tommy Musso, 46, a “Time Warp” fan who grew up going to the drive-in. He and his wife, Samantha, were at the Aug. 30 “Motorcycle Mayhem” screening that included “Easy Rider” and Marlon Brando in “The Wild One.” “These are films I’ve never seen in a theater, but I’ve always loved,” Tommy Musso said.
Tupelo residents Kim Stanford, 50, and Coley Smith, 46, remember hanging out at Mississippi drive-ins as teenagers, which is one reason they chose to be married at the Summer Quartet, in the intermittent drizzle that preceded “Motorcycle Mayhem.” The officiant was, of course, McCarthy, a minister through the Universal Life Church, a free-form California-based religious organization that ordains anyone who requests it.
Typically, the Summer Quartet Drive-In is open seven days a week from about Memorial Day to Labor Day, but it operates only on Friday and Saturday nights the rest of the year. The “Time Warp” effort seems to have had a residual time-warp effect, however, and this year Malco officials have decided to keep the drive-in open every night until probably November. “Right now, we’re really enjoying it out there,” Tashie said. “There’s no need for air-conditioning or heat. The weather has been very agreeable.”
McCarthy, meanwhile, admitted that because of the May “Time Warp” program that featured several of his own arty neo-exploitation films, including “The Sore Losers” and “Elvis Meets the Beatles,” he’s going to have to change the title of the planned box set of his work, which he originally wanted to call “Man without a Drive-In.”
“I’ve shown those movies all over the world,” he said, “but showing them at the actual Summer Drive-In was pretty much the be-all and end-all and the ultimate thrill for me.”