Guest-Starring at Omaha’s First Drive-In
May 16, 2018 02:56PM
By Ronald Ahrens
In the summer of 1972, I discovered the power of a flashlight with an orange wand.
Nobody had ever paid attention to me—an undersized 16-year-old—until I worked at the 76th & West Dodge Drive-In and accepted that mighty Eveready-powered scepter. Cars went where I pointed. Sneak-ins crawling out of trunks trembled in the beam and then marched to the box office to buy tickets. The wallop of authority was mine, at $1.35 per hour, ushering at Omaha’s first drive-in theater.
The manager, Gil, and assistant, Sam (fresh from the Navy in San Diego and owner of a new Nova), ran the joint. It had opened in 1948. That was 15 years after the first drive-in theater opened in Camden, New Jersey. The enticement for Omahans (as a local newspaper ad claimed) was privacy and comfort. “Smoke, talk, take refreshments, all without disturbing others!” Adults paid 60 cents, kiddos were free, and no need to rub against all those germy people in a proper theater. Other drive-ins would follow: the Sky View near 72nd Street and Military Avenue, the Golden Spike at 114th Street and West Dodge Road, and the Q Twin at 108th and Q streets.
Besides the glory of receiving my first paychecks, it was a summer of warm nights and hot snack-bar girls. I was smitten with the shy blonde from Papillion. As I remember, she was the projectionist’s daughter. He toiled with those reels as a second job, getting by on little sleep. The box office ladies were earning a little extra for their families, too. The brunette who completed the snack bar staff returned with her boyfriend on a night off, and their Pinto hatchback with wide rear glass let them display their passions.
I reported for work at 6 p.m. Right away one evening, still new at the job, I was asked to replace the bulb in one of the tower flood lamps. The screen tower had its own self-supporting internal structure and was enclosed, providing shelter for the many pigeons that roosted inside, coming and going through an unknown opening. Carrying a large new bulb during the long climb up the internal ladder, I emerged through a hatch onto the narrow roof and had the unprecedented experience of being untethered and confident above the city. When a couple of early-arriving patrons honked in acknowledgment, it was my first starring role.
Catching sneak-ins before showtime was important and returned several times my hourly pay. Obscured by a tree limb, I sat waiting atop the back fence. Cars drove right up to that point; the driver got out and opened the trunk; and one, two, or three people climbed out. Before they could even take a step, I vaulted off the fence, shook my scepter, and exclaimed, “You’re gonna have to pay!” Seeing grown-ups quiver was gratifying. One Carter Lake motorcycle gang-type wasn’t impressed, though. He snatched away my scepter and chucked it, the beam rotating on its own axis, clear to the snack bar’s roof. Then he walked through the theater and got into a car four rows from the front, near the lot’s exit. Gil called the cops, but the subjects drove away too soon.
One night my friend John Fulmer was visiting to see how I ruled over the place. After dark, we got some action when two kids came flying over the east fence. I chased them back over, and with no firm plan in mind, pursued full speed beyond the property into an open field until one of the pursued turned midstride and delivered a shot of pepper spray. For some reason, before fumbling them, I’d been holding onto the keys to John’s blue Malibu. I made it back to the snack bar, where sympathetic Gil oversaw my eye-washing. Meanwhile, John put on his X-ray specs and found the keys.
The B-movies shown that summer were instructive. Reflecting Sartre’s ill effect on cinema, Vanishing Point gave us existential hero Kowalski in a cross-country chase movie. Star actor Barry Newman was a second-rate Steve McQueen, but the Dodge Challenger excelled in its role. And making for an even better movie, a naked hippie girl rode a Honda! The chase ended when Kowalski crashed the Challenger into a Nevada roadblock, and the audience understood that life is meaningless. The plot creaked like the screen tower’s structure in the wind. No matter, though, the movie achieved masterpiece status by holding over a second big week. Popcorn sales kept the snack-bar girls humming.
At my hiring, no one had mentioned cleanup duties. After getting home around 2 a.m. on weekend triple-feature nights, I was expected back at 8 a.m. to poke around with a steel spike on a long shaft and fill trash bags. Patrons left everything on the ground but their acne. Besides snack bar purchases, they dumped ashtrays, beer cans, diapers, and to limit future diapers, family planning measures.
Old South Omaha Joe, the wizened authority of theater cleanup, soloed on weekdays. Come the weekend, three of us split up the lot. In his 70s—I couldn’t believe such a fossil could still work—Joe and his spiked-stick covered about three or four times my territory. Sunday mornings were the worst, and the closer to noon, the more putrid it all was.
When we took a fresh-air break inside the snack bar, indefatigable Joe capered around to the tunes of the Big Joe Polka Show.
Changing the marquee was a Thursday-night ritual. Our big sign sat on a steel structure near the street. Two of us climbed up with boxes of plastic letters that snapped into metal tracks, and we concentrated on our spelling despite the din of honking horns.
Besides Vanishing Point, Omahans had a taste for material that derived from another French writer, de Sade. In their service came my introduction to porn. Women-in-prison films—“Soft young girls behind hard prison bars”—were nearly mainstream in those days. I thought about reminding Gil that I wasn’t old enough to see R-rated movies, then got a grip and entered the sordid world of Roger Corman, starring Pam Grier. My parents had no idea!
Gil and Sam had been awfully nice, so I felt bad about putting down my scepter and going back to school. The lessons from that summer—handling large mowers, directing traffic, kicking ass, and not being a glutton for free popcorn—stayed with me. I can say that I never misused my authority, getting too bossy or smart when marching detainees to the box office or pranking patrons by faking police sirens in their moment of ecstasy.
The 76th & West Dodge Drive-In closed in 1983, and retail space occupied the site. Until the other day, I thought drive-in theaters were passé. Then Elon Musk said he wants one at a Tesla charging location in Los Angeles. The outdoor screen would display “a highlight reel of the best scenes in movie history,” Musk tweeted. I presume that among them we would not find any from Women in Cages.
But Musk should think hard about the likelihood of Tesla owners being the only people on earth who don’t litter. Just wait. They’ll open their gull-wing doors and throw out herbal tea bags and energy bar wrappers like other humans. And another point: providential managers like Gil and Sam, hot snack-bar girls like the Papio Blonde, and a quick man with a stick like South Omaha Joe are hard to find. An usher with some attitude is good to have around, too.
This article was printed in the July/August 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine.