Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Our Drive-In Adventure (Part 3)

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

You might be wondering, "How did they get here?" Check out parts 1 and 2 for a little background.

On Friday morning, we woke up in slightly damp sleeping bags. We'd tried to put our tent on one of the higher spots available, but we hadn't noticed the rivulets -- maybe they were springs? running under the tent. And it was quite hot and humid. It was totally possibly the dampness had something to do with the sweaty people sleeping in the tent. We had to leave the drive-in for the day while they set up for the main events of the Jamboree, so we decided to visit the local laundromat to deal with a few days worth of dirty clothes We thought maybe the sleeping bags would dry out in the hot tent, so we zipped it up and headed to town.

The first stop was Walmart. Mindy wanted coffee (campfires, quite reasonably, weren't allowed at the drive-in), and the in-store Subway had it. Fruit and bread were all we needed for breakfast, and we also bought a couple of camping chairs, figuring they'd be a big improvement over the picnic blanket we'd spread in a puddle to watch the show the night before. 

The laundromat was a delight. We're big fans of clean and dry, and they even had a bathroom for convenient tooth-brushing and clothes-changing. 

Refreshed, we drove down the street for lunch at the Boulevard Drive-In Diner, a pleasant place that was obviously locally popular. There were plenty of out-of-towners who'd come for the Jamboree -- they were wearing t-shirts featuring Jason from the Friday the 13th films or Freddie from the Nightmare on Elm Street films or Joe Bob and Darcy. I wasn’t wearing such a shirt, so it was up to me to let them know we were in the same camp, leading to pleasant greetings and short conversations.

The local library was nearby, so we went there to enjoy their free Wi-Fi (How we loved libraries and their free Wi-Fi on our year-long visit to all the states in 2016. Possibly even more than we loved Walmart's $1 loaves of French bread). We wrote about our visit to the George Romero Dead sites in Pittsburgh and posted it to our Movie Churches blog, then headed back to the drive-in. The tent -- and our sleeping bags -- seemed to be dry, but we left our clean clothes and brand-new pillows in the car just in case. 

We'd noticed the event tents set up on one side of the grounds the night before, and now there were canopies and a couple of food trucks as well. The vendors were primarily selling horror-related products: posters, jewelry, toys, new DVDs, and old VHS tapes.

The event tents were set up for lectures and screenings. Makers of films such as Castle Freak (the 2020 remake) and the sequel to Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Subhumanoid Meltdown offered tips for aspiring filmmakers to be able to work economically. There was talk about researching tax breaks in the United States and finding unfilmed places in Eastern Europe. I particularly enjoyed this piece of advice: “It doesn’t cost anything to ask. Or to ask again. Keep asking until you get a firm ‘No,’ and then say, ‘Alright. But if another project comes up in a year, I’ll be asking again.’ And sometimes when you ask again in a year, they say ‘Yes.’ But if they say ‘No’ again, it still didn’t cost you anything.”

We also watched some short films made by attendees. In the months prior to the Jamboree, independent filmmakers submitted their low-cost (and zero-cost) films for appraisal. Two feature films were chosen for the Friday night program to be followed by ten short films. Some of the films that were judged worthy, but not Friday night worthy, were shown in the tents that afternoon.

As Mindy and I were watching one of those films, Mindy noticed the wind changing, and we started to hear raindrops on the tarp overhead. She volunteered to go back and check the tent. I, as a bad husband, let her go off to do this alone (she wasn't particularly interested in the films, to be fair).

After a few moments, everyone in the tent heard more than a little precipitation on the roof. There was a sudden deluge. Water pounded on the tent making it difficult to hear the film, and I knew I had to go back to help Mindy. As I left the big tent, I saw wind begin to carry off vendors' canopies. I ran to help recover one that had blown away and tried to assist in pinning it back in the ground.

By the time I got to our tent, Mindy and I were both soaking wet. She was holding down our tent, making sure it wouldn’t blow away, and laughing. She'd done her best to fasten the rainfly and to weigh the tent down so the pegs (which we hadn't hammered in very well) wouldn't pull out.

The rain downgraded from monsoon to shower and then to a drizzle, so we decided to wade to the food truck to get our barbecue for dinner.

This is the first of a very few places where I'm going to complain about the event not living up to the advertising. VIM (Very Important Mutant) ticket holders were given tickets for barbeque dinners Thursday and Friday, and the information on our tickets sounded like we would be eating with the cast and crew of The Last Drive-In. This wasn’t the case, and I can understand why: the cast and crew needed that time for rest and prep. Considering everything, (especially with Friday’s meteorological conditions) it would have been foolish for the cast and crew to eat with the Mutant Family (as we were called), but the information we were given ahead of time was misleading. 

We carried our new camp chairs and our food to the same place where we'd laid our blanket the night before close to the Mahoning big screen.  The ground was pretty soggy; the area directly in front of the stage was ankle-deep in muddy water.  We enjoyed our dinner and waited for the evening show. We chatted with the folks around us and wondered whether the lightning would lead to more rain. Then the rain started coming down again, and we went to our rental car and sat inside, hoping the rain would stop before the evening’s show. It didn’t.

Here was the plan for the evening's entertainment: Joe Bob in his best suit and Darcy in a red evening gown would present the awards to the winning feature films and shorts from the stage next to the giant screen. But the rain kept pouring, and thunder and lightning continued to threaten. The stage wasn't a safe place to be, but at least the films could still be shown. 

For decades Joe Bob has been awarding the “Hubbies.” These awards are engraved on authentic Chevy hubcaps, and in the past, these awards went to exploitation films released to drive-ins. Winners included such films as Brain Dead or Invasion U.S.A. Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the few actors to actually show up to collect his Hubbie (for the first Terminator film). But this night was going to be something different. These Hubbies were going to films that hadn’t gotten a distributor, films made on microscopic budgets, and these awards might give their makers a break in the business (at least a showing on Shudder down the road).

But the rain continued. After several attempts, Down Jersey, an eighteen-minute film about the Jersey Devil's visit to an East Coast diner, got started. Both funny and frightening, it was a worthy winner, but the awards ceremony had to take place in the projection booth, out of sight of the crowds. All the awards that night would be given out with much less of a red carpet touch.

And we in our car were having technical difficulties of our own. We had brought a portable radio that we couldn’t get to work. We used the car radio but it kept shutting off every ten minutes or so. I tried to find directions in the owner's manual without much success. Worst of all, while trying to work with the car I twice committed the greatest of drive-in faux-pas of turning on the headlights, which shone directly on the screen. We also had a problem with the front window fogging up (and not for the fun reasons one normally associates with the drive-in).

Mindy and I watched the Grand Prize Winner, Tennessee Gothic and a second short film, Stalked. But she fell asleep in the back seat during the second feature, Loss Prevention, and after that film ended, I was tired of fighting the window fog and the sound system, so I went to sleep as well. It was an uncomfortable night in the car for both of us. We agreed that our minivan had been a more spacious place to sleep. Throughout the night, winning shorts were playing on the screen.

The sun woke us in the morning. The skies had cleared.

I wasn't the only one who'd been anticipating "Darcy's Toon Tent" ever since I'd first read about it in the promotional material. Darcy had planned to host a good old-fashioned Saturday morning cartoon watch accompanied by the finest of sugared cereals, but because the vendors had lost their tents, (along with the dry ground under them), Darcy had donated her tent for their use. We got cereal and milk (and they were much appreciated), but the morning wasn't what we'd expected. 

We hurried with our breakfast, though, because we needed to leave. When tickets went on sale in April, we'd only been able to sign up for Friday and Sunday night. Saturday night had sold out already (Thursday night was added in June). We needed to get off the lot, wet tent and all. 

The problem was, the car wouldn't start.  

Monday, August 30, 2021

Our Drive-In Adventure (Part 2)

We All Need Saving

Part 1 of our adventure is an attempt to explain traveling from Seattle to Pennsylvania to watch a few movies (and see Mindy's dad). You might want to read it first.

By the time we got to the drive-in, we knew it would be closing. Not that night. We had no reason to think the Joe Bob Jamboree was canceled, but from what we could learn, the Mahoning Drive-in would be gone before long.

We learned about this drive-in long before we made plans to go to the Jamboree. A year or so earlier, we'd stumbled on the 2017 documentary At the Drive-In, which told the story of the Mahoning, and we were fascinated. 

When most theaters (outdoor and indoor) had made the transition to digital projection, the Mahoning was unable to raise the money for the new equipment, so a group of film fans decided to try to keep the place alive anyway. by showing 35 mm films (meaning only old films would be used, no new releases) with volunteer labor. 

Before we left Pittsburgh on Thursday morning, we started seeing #SaveTheMahoning on social media, We did a little research and learned that the property's owner (not the partners who own and manage the drive-in) had arranged to sell the property to a solar energy company for use as a solar farm. This would mean the end of the Mahoning Drive-In.

When we got to the drive-in on Thursday afternoon, cars were lined up along the road outside the entrance waiting to get in. No tickets were sold at the gate, so we all needed to show our phones or a ticket printout along with I.D.s in order to get in. Before long, we were given wristbands and followed the instructions of an organized series of volunteers to move through the maze of cars. The Mahoning is on a large field with graveled parking/driving lanes in the midst of a lot of grassy areas. There aren't any stanchions with speakers (people need to tune in to the FM signal), but The Mahoning still has the graduated bumps typical in drive-ins. We were directed to the back of the field to park with the other campers. All of us would be in tents along the back of the field.

We parked our rental car (a Nissan Rogue) in line with the others, with a volunteer making sure cars were parked tightly together. Several cars had signs reading, “Save the Mahoning!” We set up our tent behind the cars in the flattest grassy spot we could find (avoiding a few swampy spots), then wandered the property, admiring items available in the Mighty Mahoning Merch Tent, checking out a couple of photo op setups, and looking around the snack bar. 

While in the snack bar, we could peek inside the projection room. We asked the young guy in the room whether we could come in and look around. He introduced himself as Robert and invited us in. I worked in a number of theaters back in the day and so the projector and the cans holding the films were happily familiar. The walls were decorated with movie memorabilia. Back in the day, in theaters where I worked, a truck would drop off films on Thursday for Friday start dates. But since the playbill in constant flux at the Mahoning, films are always coming in and out. Robert said sometimes films are sent to his home when there won't be anyone to pick them up at the theater.

Eventually we noticed a line forming near the snack bar. As in the days of the Soviet Union, at events like this people learn to join lines, then ask what it’s for. This turned out to be an autograph line for Joe Bob Briggs, so we stayed in our spot. 

And we chatted with the people in front of us about horror movies, cons, and Joe Bob. Looking ahead in the line (we were a long way back), it seemed like almost everyone was in conversation. People talked about favorite filmgoing experiences, scary books, and saving the drive-in. We met George, who made the publicity poster for the Mahoning for the weekend. He wanted Joe Bob to sign his copy and give Joe Bob a copy to keep. His friends were vendors who would be selling their merchandise at the next day's event.

None of us were complaining about the line being (incredibly) slow. It was obvious that Joe Bob was taking time with every person who came his way, listening to their stories, answering their questions, and telling his own stories. Joe Bob didn’t even have any “people” to rush fans along. Mindy left the line for awhile to set up our blanket in front of the screen for the night's program, then came back. As we got closer, there was great excitement in the crowd as Joe Bob was joined by Darcy the Mail Girl (who had been posting her travel woes on social media over the past day or so). 

Joe Bob has always had a mail girl. Back when he hosted Monstervision on TNT, an attractive, scantily clad woman brought him letters and postcards that had arrived via the U.S. Postal service, and Joe Bob read and responded to them on air. But times change. 

On Joe Bob’s current Shudder show, Darcy brings emails and other correspondence while also posting on Twitter and other social media. Darcy also argues with Joe Bob about movies and frequently bests him in the movie trivia department. She has a community of friends and followers through social media and is, like Joe Bob, beloved by those in attendance at the Jamboree (and yes, she is usually scantily clad). 

Darcy is also a fan of cosplay, and in honor of that night's screening of what Joe Bob calls “the greatest film ever made” (Smokey and the Bandit), Darcy was dressed as Burt in the film, complete with a mustache.

As the dinner hour approached, a member of Joe Bob’s crew came out to say that Joe Bob and Darcy would be taking a break, but that people wouldn’t lose their place in line. We were given numbers to hold our spots, and we were number 4. So we headed off to get our plates of food.

We got our plates of barbecue from the food truck, and headed to our blanket in front of the huge Mahoning drive-in screen. At dusk we were delighted to watch the fireflies, quite the treat for west-coasters like ourselves. The ground was a bit damp and mushy but we didn’t think that was any big deal. In the distance, there was a little lightning and thunder, but it looked like we would be okay. (For you literary theory fans, this is a little something we call foreshadowing.)

This night was a kind of pre-event for The Jamboree -- a lecture entitled, “How Rednecks Saved Hollywood.” Joe Bob has given this lecture for years throughout the country, often at movie theaters, but this was the first time he had given the lecture at a drive-in. He had been uncertain about whether he could use his laser pointer on the big Mahoning screen, and he was especially concerned he wouldn’t be able to see the audience and their reaction. Happily, we were in the front row and he could certainly see us.

One of the first questions that Joe Bob asked as he began the presentation was “Are there any Presbyterians in the audience?” 

Mindy and I raised our hands. (Mindy is an official Presbyterian church member while I’m just a Presbyterian attendee, but I held up my hand nonetheless.) Joe Bob assured us that we would be offended that night.

Before telling about Hollywood, Joe Bob gave a history of one group of Presbyterians who went from Scotland to Ireland to America, where to become what we know as Rednecks. He went on to tell about how Rednecks were portrayed in films from the silent screen through the days of exploitations, Al Capp's Li'l Abner to Ma & Pa Kettle to child brides to moonshine to the kid picking the banjo in Deliverance. The final point of the lecture was the fact that God Love Rednecks  -- as illustrated by a clip from one of my favorite films, Tender Mercies.

After a mesmerizing nearly three hour presentation, we watched Smokey and the Bandit in a 35 mm print on the big screen. I’ll admit it's never been one of my favorite movies, but these were perhaps the best conditions in the world to watch the film and it was fun.

It was 2:30 am when the film ended, and Joe Bob and Darcy went straight to the autograph table. We took our place in line and didn’t have to wait long. We introduced ourselves as the Presbyterians from the front row, and Joe Bob is either very good at seeming interested in what fans have to say or is, in fact, interested. It's impressive either way. We appreciated, too, having the chance to thank Darcy for the work she does fostering a sense of community among fans.

But there were other people waiting, and we didn't want to take more than our share of time. Even if that night had been the whole reason for our trip, we felt it would have been worthwhile, but we were tired and headed for our tent and the sleeping bags we'd purchased at the Monroeville mall that morning. We learned later that Joe Bob and Darcy continued chatting for a couple of hours more, almost until sunrise.

The next morning, we learned that the Rednecks weren’t the only ones who saved something. The Mutants had saved the Mahoning Theater. 

It seems that the solar energy company wanted to buy the land because they'd assumed that the drive-in was dead. The response they received from thousands of fans showed this was not the case. The solar company pulled out of the deal, and the Mahoning partners were given the option of buying the land from their long-time landlord.

So the first day already had a happy ending. The plot complications came on the second day of the Jamboree.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Our Drive--In Adventure (Part 1)

“You’re Going Where?”

Mindy and I have grown used to puzzled looks when we announce our travel plans.

Us: “We’re going to the Fun Spot in New Hampshire, the largest arcade in the world!” 
Puzzled-face friend: “You’re taking the kids?” 
Us: “No.”

Us: “We’re going to Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home in Savannah!” 
Befuddled person: “Who’s that?” 
Us: “Have you read Wise Blood?” 
Person: “No.” 
Us: “The Violent Bear It Away?” 
Befuddled: “No.” 
Us: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find?” 
BP: “I think I had to read that in high school.” 
Us: “Well, there then.”

Us: “We’re going to visit churches throughout California used in movies!” 
A face with some genuine interest: “Oh really, what films?” 
Us: “The churches in High Noon, The Graduate, and Sister Act!” 
Continued interest: “Oh, really!” 
Us: “As well as Robin Williams’ License to Wed and I'm in Love with a Church Girl!” 
The confusion returns.

Admittedly, when we told people we planned to go to a church and a bar in every state there was some genuine excitement. We even got a shouted “F*%@ yeah!” from a restaurant hostess in San Francisco. We also had a friend tell us, “I have no idea what you’re doing or why you’re doing it.”

But the usual confusion turned to utter bewilderment when we told people we would be going to Joe Bob Briggs’ Drive-In Jamboree in Lehighton, Pennsylvania. 

It was difficult to know where to start to explain the event. Start with Joe Bob himself? A fictional persona of writer John Bloom, Joe Bob is the self-proclaimed nation’s foremost drive-in movie critic. I’ve been reading Joe Bob since the early 1980s as he exalted the work of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme. I watched his show on The Movie Channel back in the day, when it featured exploitation films. Now he hosts a show on Shudder, a horror streaming service.
That's another place where I could begin the explanation: the Jamboree was a gathering of people who love horror films -- everything from the eerie Universal Monster films of the 1930s to the blood and guts of 1980s slasher films to current twisted psychological thrillers. I’ve liked horror films since I was a kid, but if you ask Mindy how she feels about horror films she'll tell you, “They scare me and I don’t like being scared. I have nightmares.” But she says she was all for this trip because “It sounded like dumb fun.”

Perhaps the best place to start in explaining why we wanted to do this trip is to say that when we wrote about bars and churches we were really writing about community, and this trip was certainly about community. Most of those who ventured to camp out at the Mahoning Drive-In for the Jamboree consider themselves part of the Mutant Family, a diverse collection of horror fans who have found each other online and wanted to meet in person.

Sometimes, though, we chose to avoid explaining the trip at all; we said we were flying to Indiana to visit Mindy's family (and not mentioning the side trip to Pennsylvania). It was sort of true. We were looking forward to spending time with her dad and her sister and brother-in-law and some Indiana friends. As it turned out, that part of the trip was abbreviated -- and quite different than we'd planned.

Mindy had made our flight plans to Indiana and arranged for a rental car which we planned to use to drive to Pennsylvania. (This is how we usually plan trips, and I greatly appreciate her taking care of it. This time, though...) Our flight left on the afternoon of July 13th, with a planned arrival in Indianapolis shortly after midnight. And she made arrangements to pick up a rental car on July 13th, at 12:30 AM. 

Some of you seasoned travelers see the problem here. 

We donned our masks for the trip (reminding ourselves that it's possible to stretch a bag of pretzels and a cup of Coke for a very long time when the mask got irksome), and eventually found ourselves in Naptown (sorry, Indy) at the rental car desk. Where they told us they didn't have a reservation for us -- Mindy had made the reservation for the 13th and it was now the 14th. We asked if they had anything else available, they said no, maybe tomorrow, so we Ubered our way to Motel 6 (where the reservation was for the correct night).

In the morning we began checking rental car agencies. None were available in a thirty-mile area from the airport. Mindy talked to a national rental agent who said that in other years, an agent would get around 150 calls on a busy day in the height of the summer vacation season. He told her that since March 2021, rental agents with his agency were averaging 200 - 300 calls a day.

We'd planned to drive to Pittsburgh that night after spending the day with Mindy's dad and meeting her sister and brother-in-law for dinner, but no car meant our plans would have to change. We found we could rent a car at the airport in Pittsburgh, so we booked a flight to arrive there that evening.  We were able to book a rental car in Pittsburgh, so we booked a flight there that afternoon. The only one of our plans we were able to accomplish was lunch with her dad (which was delightful), then a quick Uber to the airport. 

We donned our masks again, and Southwest Airlines took us to Baltimore (because where else would you stop between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh? We recommend Zona Cocina for TexMex at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport), then another late-night arrival -- this time in Pittsburgh. And this time we could drive our rental car to a hotel.

In the morning we were able to pay homage to the great horror director George Romero by visiting the cemetery from Night of the Living Dead and the mall from Dawn of the Dead on the way to the drive-in. (Don't worry, I see that puzzled look on your face).