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Communing With Community At the Movies, Today's Version of the Drive-In Theater

  David waiting for the movie to begin at the Des Moines Art Center.

David waiting for the movie to begin at the Des Moines Art Center.

I was disappointed a couple of summers ago when The Des Moines Art Center announced they’d stop hosting ‘movies under the stars’ on their lawn. It was an event we looked forward to each summer, an amenity that made our home in Des Moines, just a mile from the Art Center, a bit more lovely as a place to live.

Each spring I’d peruse the list of films slated for that summer and we’d plan for those special nights which fell between late July through August. On the appointed evening, David and I would gather up goodies and blankets early and set up in the perfect spot on the east lawn of the Art Center. We’d proceed to people-watch as we sipped cool beverages and snacked on cheese and crackers. As dusk settled and the crowd expanded, we’d listen to the music on the speakers over the hum of the food truck’s generators, and pop the cork on a bottle of Champaign.  

Temps would cool as the sun went down, and we’d wait to hear the short announcements (the latest news from the Art Center, and a few interesting details about the night’s flick). Then with all of us gathered and the sun finally bidding farewell, we communed with movie magic as the screen lit up and the credits began.

Most nights in the late summer there would be a depreciable drop in the temps once darkness came, except for the one year when we watched, ironically enough, “Some Like It Hot” when the thermostat never fell below 90 degrees. And yet there we all were—families, older couples, young people—all of us lounging in the steam sauna of a summer night watching the classic comedy together.

We gravitated to these events as an opportunity to be among the community, albiet in this gentle way. I appreciated the energy of the people, of being in this space near the museum that is filled with beautiful art, an inspiration itself. I embraced the experience of us strewn across our blankets, motionless as the drama unfolds on the screen…living extensions of the sculptures scattered about the museum grounds.

A MENTION OF DRIVE-IN THEATERS

Movie viewing outside isn’t a new thing of course. I probably developed a preference for it years ago when I went with my family to local drive-in theaters. I was born in 1962 when drive-ins were still near their zenith. In the article, “The History of Drive-In Movie Theaters (and Where They Are Now)” from the New York Film Academy, dives into the phenomenom  of the drive-in theatre, reaching it’s height in the mid-50s and starting to decline in the ‘60s. By the mid ‘70s, drive-Ins were disappearing in DesMoines, and offered three and four features to attract an audience. By the 1980s the public had access to movies on video, and drive-ins were closing in droves. Today there are only about 300 nation-wide.

But during my childhood, I remember them fondly, in particular for the ambiance associated with them. It was all the little bits that made it an experience—from driving around to find the best spot to anchoring the speaker box to the side window by its attached hook. I still recall the marvel of the sound which emanated from that speaker box, surprisingly big with a reverberating rich base that filled the car.

There was also the familiar smell from the snack bar housed in a building usually located somewhere behind where we parked. Movie food remained a mystery for years because we always brought our own  snacks in. I was certain, however, that the popcorn, hot dogs, and soda were super tasty, because the colorful ads with whimsical illustrations, splashy fonts and deep voiced announcer said so. The snack bar evoked a sense that all is well, we have everything here that you could need in this bubble of Americana. Because we were mostly confined to our cars, the people watching wasn’t nearly so rich as it was at the Des Moines Art Center, years later. I do remember seeing the silhouettes of children swinging on playground equipment near the front under the screen; and I deeply admired the families who staked out in their station wagons – facing backward – so they could sprawl out for an evening of movie viewing.

I wasn’t as discerning in my movie taste as a kid, so I thought it was great fun to watch the bonus features after my parents fell asleep. I hoped they wouldn’t wake up until I got to see a second or third movie, which usually was a monster flick or some teenage swimsuit movie such as Dr. Goldfoot and His Bikini Machine.

THE SHARED EXPERIENCE OF WATCHING MOVIES

Maybe it was those times at the drive-ins which ignited my pleasure for watching movies outdoors, but more than anything I appreciate viewing movies with an audience, inside or out. Of course today at home we have a bevy of options for movies, but I still like to go to the theater for that community experience. Our favorite local movie theater is The Fleur Café and Cinema, which regularly features the latest independent movie releases.

When the movie is new to The Fleur, we can expect big crowds, which means we’ll sit in a theater with a large audience. It’s exciting to hear the gasps and the laughter of others in the auditorium as the story unfolds; the collective “ahhhs,” even some tears. Moment’s shared with a crowd enhance the impact of the movie, even if it sometimes this means dealing with the loud talker who invariably sits right behind me.

It’s the summer of 2019 as I write this post, another year with no movies under the stars on the lawns of The Des Moines Art Center. It has been exceptionally rainy this summer though, so some of the nights  would likely hae been canceled, but I do miss the event. Of course, there are plenty of other ways to get my fix of enjoying art with an audience such as concerts or live theater, but it's not quite the same. Still the nostalgia of those evenings watching movie classics remains and that is a good thing.

Do you have any movies under the stars stories to share?

Alexandra and Sherry, 2016

Alexandra and Sherry, 2016

Sherry is the founder of Storied Gifts a personal publishing service of family and company histories. She and her team help clients curate and craft their stories into books. When not writing or interviewing, Sherry spends loads of time with her grandchildren and lives in Des Moines, Iowa.

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