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My short-lived starring role at a drive-in

Drive-in theater on Sunrise Highway in Valley Stream

Drive-in theater on Sunrise Highway in Valley Stream in 1972 Credit: Newsday/George Argeroplos

It’s amazing to think of how many places you can watch a movie these days — on your TV, computer, smartphone or tablet — but not at a virus-shuttered movie theater. That might change, however, if we revisit the old drive-in theater. A few are still around, and more may pop up as social distancing becomes part of the “new normal.”

Popular in the 1950s and ’60s, drive-ins numbered in the thousands across America. Mom and Dad would sit in the front seat and enjoy the movie, beginning after sunset, while their young kids in the back would fall asleep. It also afforded the era’s young men and women some much-needed privacy, earning the nickname “the passion pit.”

Drive-ins have all but disappeared this millennium, but I still remember my drive-in experiences as a young teenager. It was the summer of 1945, and a year earlier I had moved from Hollis, a small Queens neighborhood, to another, Rosedale. World War II would be ending in the next few months with Japan’s surrender. I recall when my seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Clarke, tried, unsuccessfully, to control our class, she would say the now-politically incorrect: “That is purely Japanese conduct!” After the war ended, she substituted “Communist” for “Japanese.”

Right next door, in Valley Stream, was the Sunrise Drive-In theater. The movie screen was 50 feet high and 100 feet wide, with 750 bulky-looking, post-mounted speakers placed on car windows. The sound? It was adequate. The drive-in was so close, less than half a mile away, that kids like me would just walk there. There were no walls, and we could easily sneak in, sit on the ground close to a speaker and watch whatever movie was playing. My buddies and I preferred action movies, not romance, and two of our favorites were John Wayne’s “Back to Bataan” and “Flying Tigers.” 

There was a concession stand, and young teens were hired by the theater to walk around selling candy directly to folks who didn’t want to leave their cars. I thought that maybe I could do that, earn some money while still watching a movie. Pay was strictly on commission. And then, as in today’s theaters, the price was much more than you’d pay at the local candy store. I got the job, but the commission was only pennies per bar. After a few nights, I decided to go into “partnership” with the theater (although the concessionaire wasn’t aware of the deal).

I bought some candy bars (Mars, Baby Ruth, Milky Way) at Pete’s candy store for five cents each and sold them for the same 15 cents as the concession price. Maintaining my secret partnership required me to keep selling the concession’s candy as well. It worked! The drive-in made money (although not as much as before) and so did I (a little more than before). That is, until one night when I returned with a nearly empty tray for a refill from the concession stand. The boss noticed that one of the remaining candy bars, unfortunately for me, wasn’t a brand sold at the drive-in. “Hey, kid,” he said, “Where did you get that candy bar?” So much for the partnership.

It wasn’t all bad, though. The next night, I was sitting on the ground again with my buddies, watching a movie. 

Reader Bill Domjan lives in Melville.

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