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The Awl on our “suitably out-there Ballroom Marfa sort of drive-in”

3 Jul 2013

Anthony Paletta has a lovely essay in The Awl about the history of drive-in movie theaters that starts out with straightforward nostalgia and heartwarming stories about drive-ins using Kickstarter campaigns to stay afloat. And then because it’s The Awl it takes a turn down a more interesting path, looking at the role of drive-ins as “charnel houses for heavy petting,” their openness to imaginative programming, ties to church experiences and as sites of on-screen catharsis.

Robert Schuller, preacher behind Richard Neutra’s Crystal Cathedral and assorted other preacherly activities, held earlier services at a drive-in, advertising “The Orange Church meets in the Orange Drive-In Theater where even the handicapped, hard of hearing, aged and infirm can see and hear the entire service without leaving their family car.”

The cultural imaging of drive-ins on screen has therefore been a bit complicated. James Cagney hides out from the police in the Sun-Val drive in (watching a Gary Cooper movie on the development of aircraft carriers). John Travolta sets up playground equipment in Grease. The central romantic conflict in Coppola’s The Outsiders starts at the drive-in. In Back to the Future III, Marty McFly sets off at the Pohatchee Drive-in (where a marquee hilariously proclaims a program of “Francis in the Navy, Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki, and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.” Dead-End-Drive In, a superb Ozploitation film, imagines a dystopian future where distaff youth are confined in a drive-in and subjected to a constant barrage of trash cinema. Imagine putting up an electric fence around Burning Man and you’re partway to a screenshot. These youths, too, understood a thing or two about the drive in.

In the course of charting this history — a sort of companion timeline to the one offered by Lonn Taylor in his recent assessment of Ballroom’s own Drive-In in the Big Bend Sentinel — Paletta also connects the multifaceted drive-in experience of times past with the vision that informs our project out at Vizcaino Park.

Drive-ins were engaged in a constant battle of invention to attract customers before dusk and most importantly, to keep them eating. According to Segrave, nearly 90% of drive-ins had a playground by 1956. Dances would be held prior to screenings. Other carnivalesque enticements flourished; fireworks, petting zoos, and pony rides with the ultimate aim to extract as much concession revenue as possible from the narrow hours of marketable darkness.

Most programming is family-friendly, but frequently more varied than you’d think. Full Moon Drive-In in San Diego is also a spot to catch Driving Miss Daisy, Rebel Without a Cause, and American Psycho. The Admiral Twin in Tulsa reports banner attendance at its Outsiders and Rumble Fish screenings. Marfa, Texas, is getting in on the act with a suitably out-there Ballroom Marfa sort of drive-in.

Keep reading Paletta’s suitably imaginative essay in The Awl. Find out more about the Ballroom Drive-In by visiting the project space adjacent to the gallery here in Marfa, or visit the Drive-In website. Also stay tuned to David Beebe’s Twitter for updates on his own DIY drive-in, next door to the Boyz2Men taco trailer at Airstreamland.

Lonn Taylor on Noisy Children, Empty Churches and the Ballroom Drive-In

15 Mar 2013

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Ballroom Marfa Drive-In and Vizcaino Park Master Plan

In last week’s edition of our local paper, the Big Bend Sentinel, Fort Davis-based columnist and historian Lonn Taylor asked questions about the ongoing Ballroom Marfa Drive-In project, shedding light on the history of drive-in movie theaters in the process.

“The popularity of drive-ins was a function of the baby boom that followed World War II, when many young families had noisy children,” he writes. “Drive-in owners added playgrounds for the children and concession stands, some of them serving full meals, for adults. Even Marfa, with a population of 3,600, had a drive-in, which opened in 1953 just west of the cemetery and closed six years later.”

He goes on to wonder about the lessons learned from other developers who have tried to launch projects in our Far West Texas town, specifically the failure of the Brite family to establish a Disciples of Christ community in the World War II-era, an exercise that included enticing believers with the work of architect Leighton Green Knipe, who, as Taylor writes, “gave them a magnificent building whose sanctuary will seat five hundred people.” A building which, after the thriving congregation failed to materialize, “now stands empty on the west side of the courthouse square.”

Taylor also considers the more well-known story of Donald Judd’s arrival in the early ’70s and the 40 years in between that turned, in Taylor’s words, “a drought-blighted cattle town into an international art center.”

Ballroom’s Director of External Affairs & Drive-In Project Manager Melissa McDonnell responded with a letter clarifying that the Drive-In project — encompassing a rehabilitation of the entire 21-acre site at Vizcaino Park — goes beyond the historical models discussed by Taylor …

“The Drive-In project also includes a master plan for Vizcaino Park, which has come out of discussions with Presidio County and community members. The master plan looks at the entire park and identifies needed improvements for existing park structures, such as the baseball field bleachers and locates new recreational spaces such as a soccer field and possibly a skate park. Other organizations such as Big Bend Soccer Association and El Cosmico have expressed interest in participating in the development of these new spaces.

“The Drive-In theater space is for all community organizations to use and program,” she continues. “While Ballroom Marfa will have programming that includes film screenings, concerts and operas, the facility will be available for local organizations to host movie screenings, high school graduations, music concerts, plays, etc.”

Further discussion and exploration of this ongoing project is encouraged from all members of our community. Vistors are welcome to stop by the Drive-In Project space at the Ballroom offices, next door to Marfa Studio Arts at 106 San Antonio. Melissa is also available for comments and questions about the Drive-In project at drivein@www.ballroommarfa.org or 432-729-3600. You can also find out more at the Drive-In section of the Ballroom website.

Click here for the full text of Taylor’s column. Click here for Melissa’s response, which we’ve included in full after the jump …