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Once upon a time, when it got dark in Shirley, people piled into cars, cruised down the road and spent the night parked in front of a 68-foot screen.
From 1953 to 1988, the Shirley Drive-In reigned on a large stretch of fenced property along Montauk Highway, surrounded by more woods than stores. Movies were projected from inside the stand where boxes of hot popcorn, cold drinks and assorted candies and snacks were sold. Metal speakers hung inside the rolled-down windows of each car.
Even those without vehicles could enjoy the latest movies — teens sprawled across blankets on the gravelly ground, kids watched from afar in tree forts, and some had good views from their homes.
On weekends, the drive-in showed double features. There was a playground behind the snack bar for use before the movie and intermission.
“We’d be on the swings and they’d have these clown-centric countdowns on the screen, letting us know that the movie was about to start soon,” says Steven Pirozzi, 52, who grew up in Mastic and was a regular at the drive-in throughout his youth in the 1970s and up until its final days.
“It was just a feeling there that kids don’t have today. Talking with friends at school, it was, ‘Hey what are ya doin’ tonight?’ ‘Oh, my parents wanna go to the drive-in,’ ‘Oh, my parents won’t go,’ ‘That’s OK, just hop in our car, my mother will pay.’
“Everybody here knew everybody,” Pirozzi says. “There was nothing else to really do, but they turned out to be fabulous memories.”
Pirozzi, who admits he did his fair share of sneaking into the drive-in with his friends — jumping over and crawling under the fence — fondly remembers seeing huge blockbusters: “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “Back to the Future.”
But his favorite memories are of outings with his mother, Patricia, now 74. Halfway through a showing of “Arthur,” the raunchy, Dudley Moore-led comedy classic, his mother turned to him and said, “Maybe this is a little too adult for you.” He says responded, “No, no, this is funny!” A few years earlier, in 1977, the two had pulled up to “The Goodbye Girl” after missing the first movie. It’s a film they still watch and quote together today.
The drive-in similarly bonded him with his brothers, with whom he saw one of the last films screened there in the late ’80s.
“[I]t was the first night in a long time we were all brothers in the car,” he says. “I just said, ‘Hey, let’s all go to the drive-in.’”
Of course, Long Islanders can’t do that anymore. Like other drive-ins that once dotted the region, Shirley’s movie haven has been scrapped. In its place stands South Port Shopping Center, with a Kohl’s, Michael’s and Stop & Shop.
But Pirozzi’s lifelong fondness for the landmark led to its resurrection — in a Facebook group he created in June 2012 that boasts more than 65,900 followers.
Members of “The Shirley Drive-In” have flocked to the page, sharing decades of memories, stories and personal photographs. Countless comments range from nostalgic (“What was your first movie there? Ours was ‘King Kong Escapes’ … Do you remember the red, green and blue floodlights that lit up the marquee?”) to bittersweet (“Those were the days I wish would never end. I miss them”).
When he established the Facebook group, Pirozzi thought just a few people he grew up with would join to reminisce; he had a few photos of the drive-in from childhood, as well as those he found online, that he posted to start discussions. He found old newspaper clippings of movie ads and even that clown countdown on YouTube.
Much to his surprise, the group picked up steam quickly, gaining hundreds then thousands of followers in a couple months.
A new purpose
Then in fall 2012, superstorm Sandy hit. Pirozzi, seeing firsthand the devastation in Mastic Beach, used the page to share information from the Mastic Fire Department about food and supplies. Other fire departments and organizations reached out, asking him to promote clothes drives and power supply options.
Seemingly overnight, 2,000 followers became 9,000.
“It became the epicenter for the neighborhood all of a sudden,” he says. With the unexpected traffic, he made a meme — “Who made noise in the tunnel at Smith Point Beach during the summer?” over a picture of that Shirley underpass — that exploded and was passed around by locals on Facebook, bringing more people to the page.
“Shirley Drive-In” has since evolved into a general news and memory-sharing hub for the community, linking past and present. The page’s content includes everything from historical pictures of Skippy’s, the popular “hamburger drive-in” that once stood across the street from the drive-in serving 15-cent burgers and 25-cent shakes, to local, national and international news stories, sports updates and weather forecasts.
Pirozzi gets emails from people, saying, “I start my day off with you … you’re my morning newspaper.” He posts on a daily basis, in the mornings before work as an assistant at a shipping warehouse, during breaks throughout the day, and at night, between dinner and quality time with his wife.
The drive-in remains the page’s main attraction.
“I’m trying to hold onto our history as best I can,” he says. “The next generation will have no recollection of a drive-in ever being here. I just want to help make people smile and bring back the memories of the old neighborhood that used to be.”
Walk down memory lane
Across Facebook, the yesteryears of Long Island — and its towns and villages — are preserved in dozens upon dozens of groups, public and private, that aim to reconnect people to their past and one another. In particular, many sites aim to be politics-free — and with the social distancing imposed by the coronavirus, they are increasingly a refuge for connection.
Some are more specific, like “You know you’re from Bellmore when …” Others encompass long-lost places and cultures of the entire region, like “Hey Long Island…Do U Remember….?,” a page that’s accumulated more than 103,000 members since its creation in 2008.
Posts in “Hey Long Island…” — a mix of historical and personal photos, news clippings and well-worded reminiscences — focus strictly on the past and Long Island. Among the many places discussed and documented are Nunley’s, the carousel and amusement park in Baldwin that operated from 1940 to 1995 (its former location is a Pep Boys, and the carousel itself is now situated on Museum Row in Garden City), TSS (Times Square Stores), and the various roller rinks and video arcades that once dotted Suffolk and Nassau.
“I think part of the draw is that people like to talk about when life was maybe a little simpler,” says Oceanside resident and attorney Stacy Mandel Kaplan, 49, the group’s administrator. Kaplan created the page with her brother and a childhood friend. The three were chatting about the places in and around Oceanside that no longer existed when they decided to put their memories online.
“There’s a longing for something that they had while growing up. And now, maybe there’s not really another thing or place like it,” she says. “The irony is that we’re talking about it on social media, reminiscing about days when the phone was attached to the wall.”
In the past week, Kaplan says, requests to join the page have tripled. “I think people are really clinging to things that are happy and that are safe. Now, they're clinging to memories not only of their childhood and their teenage years, but of just being able to go places.”
As a moderator, Kaplan strives to keep her page free from politics, arguments and inappropriate posts — conditions sometimes hard to come by on social media. She also tries to guide members to keep the posts fresh and engaging, and, most important, related to Long Island nostalgia.
“Through all the craziness that goes into administering a Facebook page, I often stop and think about all the good that has come out of it,” Kaplan says. “All the thank you’s we get from people who are reconnecting with a particular time in their lives that meant something to them.”
Scrolling through “Hey Long Island… ,” you can see 8-mm home movies of Nunley’s from the ’50s, a photo of Sunken Meadow State Park circa 1968, pictures of Southern State Parkway when it had toll booths, mom-and-pop stores that are long gone, and posts debating what the best old pizza parlors were. Group members hail from all over — the United States, Germany, England, Australia and South America, most of them Long Islanders who have relocated.
In such groups, it’s common for former classmates and co-workers to reconnect; in Kaplan’s, it’s often through school photos or specified posts like “I worked at Pergament Home Centers … Did anyone else?” She’s seen adopted members attempt to find information on their birth families through her page.
“I love anything that brings back memories from growing up in the ’60s and ’70s on Long Island,” says Joyce Sorrese, 69, a “Hey Long Island...” member and a volunteer at the Lake Ronkonkoma Historical Society. “What clubs you went to, places that you remember that are no longer there … they come back to life for you.”
Michael White, 50, who lives in New Jersey but grew up in Baldwin, is a professional artist whose nostalgia for Nunley’s, where he went as a kid and worked as a teenager, inspired a collection of watercolors of the beloved establishment. He began posting his work, including vibrant captures of the park’s carousel horses, to Nassau nostalgia pages. He eventually found his way to “Hey Long Island…” And, he says, people have written to him that his paintings have made them cry with nostalgia.
“Sadly, people don’t congregate in places like Nunley’s too much anymore,” White says. “A lot of that shared communal experience has been transported to social media. Pages like that are a way of sharing these cultural memories on a wide scale. Long Islanders deserve and need that.”
Todd Berkun, 53, who runs “Long Island and NYC Places that are no more,” a popular Facebook group and blog formed in 2009, zeros in on old go-to locales, pulling archival photos from the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress and secondary databases. Favorite places he’s researched and written about include Roosevelt Raceway (the Westbury horse track he and his father went to together), The Malibu nightclub in Lido Beach, the drive-ins in Commack, Patchogue and Bay Shore, and Big Barry’s restaurant in Stony Brook.
He also worked to save the La Grange Inn, which has stood in West Islip since the 1700s and was in danger of being demolished and redeveloped. He wrote at length of its history and the importance of preserving structures from bygone eras. The posts connected him with members of the West Islip Historical Society, which has since restored the landmark as its history center.
“I’ve enjoyed trying to make social media something good,” Berkun says of his page. “I think the best thing we can do is give people that group community feeling with modern technology. There’s a collective consciousness because we all lived through similar events and experiences.”
Connecting to youth
Just ask Howard Johannssen, 77, who belongs to 18 different Facebook groups, including one called “Long Island History.” He was born in Huntington Hospital to members of the Norwegian Resistance during World War II and grew up in Greenlawn. He spent summers boating on Northport Harbor and Huntington Bay, and graduated from Harborfields High School. Johannssen later served as a radar repairman at Montauk Point while in the Air Force, married his wife from Deer Park, and lived in Northport. Although — or maybe, because — he now lives in Maryland, he’s rekindled friendships with more than 75 people online.
“It’s just a warming feeling for me to be able to renew those memories and then get actual information about what happened to everybody as we all got older and split apart,” Johannssen says. “It’s helped me recall so much."
Places to 'visit' online
The Shirley Drive-In: facebook.com/The-Shirley-Drive-In-374646805928356/
Hey Long Island … Do U Remember ….?: facebook.com/groups/HeyLongIslandDoURemember/
Long Island and NYC Places that are no more: facebook.com/Placesnomore/
Long Island History: facebook.com/groups/1143717708991194/