Originally published May 2014
The great thing about drive-in movie theaters was that attendees could do anything they wanted while viewing movies in their cars without disturbing others.
Well, they called them theaters, but they were just multi-car parking lots positioned before a large structure holding a big white screen, with a projection booth and concession stand several yards away. Duluth had one, but it wasn’t technically in Duluth. It was along Highway 53 in Hermantown—technically, 4954 Miller Trunk Highway).
I trust many readers of these columns recall drive-ins, whether here or elsewhere. Ours ended a run of almost 40 years in 1986, so younger folks have no memory of drive-ins at all.
A small number still exist around the United States, but only a fraction of the thousands existing in the heyday of drive-ins in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Skyline appeared in Hermantown a short time after World War II. I first went there with my parents as a child around 1950, not long after it opened. We were curious like everyone else to find out what it was like and how it worked.
How it worked was you drove your car’s front wheels up a small berm alongside a metal post topped with a small radio-like device to be taken into the car—usually hung from the driver’s side window—which broadcast the movie’s soundtrack. With the window slightly open due to the speaker, there were times when it was difficult to keep mosquitoes out. Cold was no problem; simply fire up the engine and turn on the car’s heater. Fog could be troublesome, though, and often was.
I soon learned that the drive-in theater was not the ideal place to attend with your parents. Moving into my teens and behind the wheel myself, the theater was revered by young people on what were quaintly known in those days as “dates.” We kids from western Duluth considered it our own—a sort of adjunct amenity to whatever our neighborhoods had to offer.
Many a bird and bee were discovered (along with those pesky mosquitoes) in the front and back seats of cars occupied by hormone-driven teenagers whose interest in what was showing on the screen was often secondary to the mysteries of discovering certain intimate aspects of life inside the car—its windows heavily steamed at times. Drive-ins were often called “passion pits” for that very reason.
When it all worked, it was fun and exciting, no matter what was showing, and plenty was showing (on the screen, I mean). The Duluth/Hermantown Skyline usually ran what were known as second-run movies—shows that had already played at West Duluth’s Doric or West theaters or downtown at the NorShor, Granada, World, Garrick, Lyric (also often second-run itself) and majestic Lyceum, always second-run in those days, and double features—two movies for half a buck.
Not to be outdone, the Skyline—of course only operating in our so-called warmer months with movies starting only after sundown—would at times feature dusk-to-dawn movie marathons. What is more, there were special nights when entire carloads of humans would be admitted for one price—a buck comes to mind. And often on regular nights kids (kids with access to cars, with drivers 15 years old and up) would load a few peers in the trunk in an attempt to sneak them in. Gate attendants were seldom fooled.
You’d think that chaos would reign with such a concentration of youth and newfound freedom, and it did at times, if malt beverages became involved, but usually things settled down once the movie was projected and the audience would get on with the business at hand—watching, necking, drinking, rebuking noisy small children, and munching on popcorn and candy and ice cream secured in the projection building, where there were also bathrooms, thank heaven.
One time I drove my father’s car, kindly loaned to me, across a picket line when theater union projectionists were on strike, and got my father—a long-time member and officer of another union—in hot water with organized labor powers when the picketing projectionists took down the license number. He laughed it off, apparently agreeing that any prelude to the procreation of the human race was more important than a local labor dispute. Emphasize prelude.
For the record, the Skyline was located on the property now occupied by the Bullyan Recreation Center, on a slight curve of Highway 53. Because of that curve, people in passing cars could see the images flickering on the screen (no sound, of course), which was always interesting if you liked movies. The last one I recall was a scene from “Lolita” in the 1960s. You wondered if the actors looking down from the screen could have been shocked by the behavior of the audience.