In 1978, My Local Drive-in Was Mecca

The Hillcrest Drive-In in my hometown of Cedar Falls, Iowa, was exactly 2.6 miles from the house I grew up in. But to me, a small child in the late 70s, it might as well have felt as far away as the moon.

My life, then, was so different from what my seven-year-old’s is today. It was a time of less immediacy and certainly less solvency, especially for our little family of two: me and my mom. Special occasions were special; they were cherished, infrequent events that, in hindsight, are the numbered pinpoints in the happy, pastoral, connect-the-dots of my childhood. My mom was a kid back then herself, having had me at just 18. She worked full time and put herself through college while I was in grade school. We lived in a tiny little house where our “home entertainment center” consisted of a 12” black and white TV (complete with foiled rabbit ear antennae and a clunking, hard-to-turn dial), and a turntable upon which The Beatle’s Abbey Road and Neil Young’s Harvest Moon were the weathered, scratchy standbys.

Going to the movies — in a regular theater — was a big deal. I can count my Big Screen experiences, from those days, on two popcorn-sticky hands.

And going to the drive-in — well that was off the charts. We’d load up on candy and pop on a humid summer night, grab a relative or two (Grandma was often keen), and amble down the road to the edge of town where the farmland began. There, as if sprung from rows of soy beans, was a giant movie screen; the excitement was enough to put me on the edge of our car’s bench seat. We’d cruise into the lot, pay our few bucks, secure a decent spot and affix the little silver speakers to the car door’s windows. Then, for a little while, we’d use the car’s warm hood and the windshield as our reclining chair — settling in for half an hour of previews and cartoons until, finally, the main event.

The Hillcrest was where I saw MeatballsThe Muppet MovieSmokey and the Bandit, both I and II. Inappropriately, perhaps, The Jerk. And most memorably for me, Superman, with Christopher Reeve. My mom took me to this one twice, and by the second viewing — she claims to this day — I could (and did) recite all the entire script by heart.

We left Iowa in 1984 for Los Angeles, where I was soon seeing Purple Rain and Rocky IV at the grand Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, with throngs of moviegoers at my elbows, epic lines for sodas, and viewers scrambling to get in fast enough to find anything better than a front row seat. And that was good, too, for the ‘tween and teenage me.

A search online just now tells me that the Hillcrest is long gone. In its place is an apartment building, the edge of town a bit further out than it was all those years ago. I am there at this moment, warm hood beneath me, yet undeniably at my desk and a touch melancholy, too — not for the memory itself, but for not having revisited it sooner. Well, as Lex Luthor once said, “We all have our little faults. Mine’s in California.”

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5 Responses

  1. Susan_Linney

    I was lucky enough to go to a drive-in once in my life — during college in Ohio. I think they were showing the movie “Freaks” from the 40s or something crazy like that. Made me really wish I had been to more, especially when I was a kid.

    Great piece, Jenna. Thanks for letting me live vicariously through your own childhood drive-in experience!


  2. Stacy McCauslin

    I remember seeing Splash! there 🙂 and one of the Jaws…

  3. Jenna Briand
    Jenna B

    Susan_Linney  Thanks Susan!

  4. Karen Gerwin

    I remember my parents taking us to the drive-in in New Jersey. There was a double feature, and they brought sleeping bags for my sister and me so we could fall asleep in the way back of the station wagon (natch) during the second movie, since it would be past our bedtime. I don’t even remember what the first movie was — which was likely kid-appropriate — but I’ll never forget that the second one was Night Shift. You know, the movie where Shelly Long is a prostitute and Michael Keaton is her neighbor, who convinces his friend Henry Winkler to use the morgue where he works the night shift as a brothel so they can be her pimps? Yeah. My sister and I were captivated!


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