Monday, October 2, 2023

The Last Picture Show: Saying goodbye to the drive-in


I knew I was close when I could smell the diesel fumes.

The prosaically named 88 Drive In is the last existing drive-in movie theater in the Denver metropolitan area. It sits at 88th and Rosemary Streets, northeast of the city, lodged in an industrial pocket called Irondale, part of Commerce City. Its distance from the hum of gentrification in the region spared it for decades from decease.

Now, at last, with the explosion of growth in the city, even condemned and inconveniently placed parcels of land are being sold, for ridiculous prices, to the highest bidder. And the Kochevar family, which owns the drive-in, finally felt it was justifiable to sell the land. It has become economically unfeasible for them to run the business, which would also require substantial capital improvements in the off-season.

Relics at the concession stand.

So they sold. By this time next year, the theater’s lot will be crowded with warehouses.

So, this is the end of the line for the 88, and I just had to go one last time.

Fun facts: the theater opened in 1971, and was distinctly unprofitable. Therefore, the next season it started to show X-rated movies. This did not go over well with the neighbors, and they had to build a fence on top of a nearby school so that students couldn’t clamber up at night and watch porno.

On February 11,1973, someone set off a bomb in the concession stand. The city and the neighbors crusaded against the theater. Finally, it was sold to another party and the X-rated films stopped. After a few changes of owners, Bill Holshue, who also managed my beloved Lake Shore Drive In in Edgewater, bought the place – his daughter Susan still runs the 88.

The screen -- fighting light pollution.

The Kochevars have run it since 1976, which is when I finally got my driver’s license and started going with gangs of friends or on dates. I have kissed many girls at the 88 over the years. (Note to my wife: OK, really not that many.) Back then, cars were a passport to freedom, and drive-ins were among the very few places where we teenagers could go and do what wanted, without dreaded parental or institutional supervision. God knows how many children were conceived there.

I chose to go on the night of a triple horror feature, the best possible way to say goodbye to the old place. These movies weren’t completely current – the evening started with the kid-frienddly animation Monster House (2006), then drifted into the Marvel misfire Morbius (2022), and concluding in cheesy greatness with The Nun II (2023).

The entrance was still somewhat obscure to locate, but soon I found myself at the cinderblock hut that held the ticket-taker. He gave me a handy snack-bar menu and list of rules and instructions. “Park by any blue-striped pole,” he informed me, and off I went.

Unfortunately, I can’t see that well at night and I’m color blind. The main body of the lot is row upon row of hummocked spaces, dotted by posts that used to hold the theater’s speakers (now, you run your car’s battery down listening to the movie on 93.7 FM). You pick at post, you park next to it. I finally gave up and stayed in the back, among the trucks and SUVs.

Now, the visuals of the 88 have always been somewhat compromised. The backdrop of the screen is the well-lighted facades of warehouses, which tends to wash out the image in front of it. If a scene is exceptionally dark, and since this was horror there was, it becomes incredibly difficult to track it. Ironically, this leaves the viewer riveted to the action in front of them, if only to keep track of what the hell was going on.

There is a major highway and rail route next to the theater, so the rumble of vehicles and the bray of horns routinely punctures the night. You get used to it. But you can see how the site is aesthetically challenged.

I cruised the concession stand one last time. (The long trough in the urinal was still there.) The family was grouped behind the counter, prepping food, making sales. I checked out the offerings, but since I pride myself on being cheap, I didn’t get anything. Then I broke down and got a commemorative T-shirt.

Having done my part to contribute to the welfare of the Kochevar family, I returned to my vehicle. Things were not going well onscreen. Monster House was surprisingly good, though definitely family fare. Morbius? He takes serum that cures his life-long physical disabilities, but also turns him into a vampire. Darn it.

I think that’s what it was. The action was getting darker and darker, and Jared Leto was bashing the hell out of Matt Smith (English, unnaturally large head, former Doctor Who). He kills him, I think. But his girlfriend gets killed, too. So he flies off all perturbed, surrounded by bats.

But oh! Dear Reader! The Nun II! Like The Nun (which I’ve not seen), only nunnier! It’s a classic B-movie, run-of-the-mill horror just the way you like it with jump scares and music that tips you off when to pay attention. It’s Saints versus Demons in a somewhat-scary showdown. This movie was made for the drive-in – simple enough to follow, blatantly entertaining, and easy to summarize for your parents so they won’t think you spent all your time there making out.

Demons defeated, the good restored to stability. I made it to the end. The full moon had arced long up into the sky. It was 1 a.m., time to go.

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