Sundown at the Playtime
On Friday, May 30th, I did a fairly routine thing in preparation for the weekend and called the Playtime Drive-In to get the movie schedule. It was then that I got the, not entirely unexpected, but completely disappointing news that the following night would be their last performance. I had just been there the weekend before, when it seemed to be business as usual, and I had seen all three films showing, but I quickly rearranged my schedule so that I could spend the final night at Jacksonville’s last drive-in theater.
One of my fondest memories as a child is of a Volkswagen camper van my parents owned for a short period of time. Back in the ’70’s it seemed that half the houses on our block had these trendy vehicles that supposedly gave suburban families more travel options. On one trip in the van we came to the beaches of Jacksonville and I got to see an outdoor double feature of The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant and Frankenstein Conquers the World at one of several local drive-in theaters that existed at that time.
About fifteen years later when I moved to Jacksonville on a more or less permanent basis, I immediately noted that there was still one drive-in operating in the town but it only showed badly edited porno movies! At this time the theater was known as the Playtime Adult Drive-In and only had one screen. I have to confess that I did check it out in this incarnation just for the novelty.
In the early 1990’s, I had graduated from college and was living only a few miles from the Playtime on the Westside of Jacksonville. I noticed in the newspaper one day that they were now the Playtime Family Drive-In and had added two additional screens. I didn’t waste much time making the revamped cinema one of my regular hang outs from that point forward until the last weekend of May this year. My friend Byron and I even got to enjoy a special Halloween “dusk till dawn” movie marathon there one year when they showed five horror movies back to back. The selection wasn’t great but getting to see Humanoids from the Deep and Hell Hole on the big screen was worth staying up half the night to me!
The weekend prior to the theater’s closing, something I would have never expected happened. My friends and I often go to movies together and it wasn’t unusual when one sent out an E-mail to the group asking if we wanted to go see Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull which was premiering that weekend. Not only did I want to see the film but I had already made plans with my wife Cindy to go see it at the Playtime on Sunday night. When I responded to the group about my plans I though for sure that was the last I would hear from them and they would find a “regular” theater to go to. To my surprise though, everyone was on the program and thought this would be a great opportunity for them to revisit the drive-in! That Sunday night as we all sat outside in lawn chairs where we had parked together, we swapped stories of going to drive-in theaters while we were all growing up in different parts of the country. The weather was unseasonably cool and absolutely perfect for our visit. At the conclusion of the film, as we were stowing our gear and preparing to exit, the theater showed a five minute montage of vintage snack bar commercials and count down strips that I thought was worth the $5.00 admission by itself. I also finally did something I had been swearing to do for years and brought my camera to add a few shots of the operational drive-in to my collection.
I would have never guessed that one week after our fun outing that everyone was keen to repeat, I would be sending out an alert that the next evening would be our last opportunity. The 60-year-old theater was put up for sale last year after the owner, Furman Birchfield, was shot in the box office during a robbery. Even though the crowds have been good, Birchfield’s declining health since the incident forced him to sell. The property has been sold to a church and no announcement has been made as to what will be done with it. The theater’s manager, Marty Hamrick, has plans to open another drive-in theater in Jacksonville but no location or timetable has been announced.
Even though the box office officially opens at 8PM, Cindy and I arrived around 7:15 since we anticipated a crowd. The theater’s closing was front page news in the local paper and cars were already lined up back to the street. Management made a wise decision and opened the gates early, only a few minutes after we joined the line. We had opted to see Iron Man again and were the first vehicle to pull into that lot. We were not lonely for long though as car after car streamed into the theater.
While it was still light outside I decided to make the rounds and take a few more photos. I was surprised by how many other people were doing the exact same thing. One woman even stopped me and said “you must be a big fan of this theater, just like me”. We swapped stories for a few minutes and lamented the demise of this type of entertainment. I had not gone far when I ran into a couple of members of our group from the previous week, Linda Hienscher and Dan Marlowe. They had brought Dan’s two daughters, Hannah and Madison, for what will probably be their only drive-in movie experience. Cindy and I joined them for a few minutes in the Indiana Jones lot and it struck me that this was more like tailgating than going to a movie! People sat in lawn chairs, ate KFC, drank beer, and walked among the crowd cheerfully visiting with strangers as they went. Some people admitted they had never been to a drive-in theater before or at least not this one. They knew it was there but had almost procrastinated themselves out of the experience.
Cindy and I returned to our truck as the sun began to set and prepared for our feature to start. I enjoyed Iron Man even more the second time but the film was tinged with the knowledge that this was probably the last time I would ever see a drive-in movie in Jacksonville. With the ticket prices for indoor theaters on a steady increase ($10 in many places and no matinees) and their concessions grossly overpriced and personally unappealing to me, this had been an extremely viable alternative. After the film we sat for a few minutes and watched the other cars come and go (including at least two instances involving jumper cables) before we joined the somber exit line out of the Playtime Drive-In for the final time.
Drive-In Notes: According to drive-ins.com, there were originally no less than sixteen drive-in theaters in Jacksonville,Florida. There are now a total of six drive-in theaters still in operation in the entire state of Florida, including the Fun-Lan in Tampa and the Silver Moon in Lakeland