Screen Gem

Bigger than life, drive-in movies defined America’s giddy age of hula hoops, poodle skirts, and blue suede shoes. Even in its later years, the Cactus accommodated family values and teenage lust.

WHEN DRIVE-IN THEATERS CAME TO South Texas in the late forties, most residents were unclear on the concept. Watching a movie from inside your car had not been tried before, and I think the idea caused the kind of vague apprehension felt the first time someone proposed firing a rifle from the new Wright brothers aeroplane: The thing might flip over. But as a born risk taker, I saw the drive-in movie as an exciting new technology that scientists had been rushing to complete in time for my first driver’s license.

I was annoyed when I later learned that drive-ins were old news up north, but they were new to the Rio Grande Valley, and the colossus among them was the Cactus. It rose like a monument to neon lighting on U.S. 83 on the outskirts of the pleasantly comatose town of Pharr, to the annoyance of its more progressive neighbor, McAllen.

The Cactus must have been one hundred feet wide, nearly as high, with rooms inside the base of the structure and a parking lot that held at least three hundred cars. It supposedly had the largest motion picture screen ever built, but that was not the amazing part. What staggered the community was the neon panorama of a cactus-filled desert with a hacienda and a campesino snoozing under a sombrero next to a road where a donkey cart jerked its way toward a distant mountain range. Newspapers called it the largest and most expensive neon sign in the world, costing millions of dollars. Maybe the figure was half a million, or a quarter million, but the word “million” was in there someplace, and maybe “the world” did not include territory farther away than San Antonio. But it was our Mount Rushmore.

To apply for a job there would never have crossed my mind. But when the job came to me, I swallowed hard and did not turn it down. I was in the right place at the right time—thumbing for a ride on U.S. 83 when a big Lincoln Continental surprised me by stopping. A ride in a luxury automobile was a treat that I collected like rare coins of the hitchhiking experience, so I was especially polite to the driver. He was a tall, tanned, sporty-looking fellow who, from my own movie experience, resembled a riverboat gambler. After we reached my destination and I thanked him for the ride, he said, “Not so fast, son. I’ve been looking you over, and I think you’re the kind of bright, ambitious, personable, nice-looking, conscientious, energetic young fellow I’d like to have working for me at the Cactus drive-in theater. Here’s my card. Give me a call if you’re interested. We’re looking for a few good men.”

Hell, I have no idea what he said, except that he was the manager of the Cactus and he was hiring some kids. Luckily, my parents were believers in the generic admonition, “Well, just be careful.” Had I announced that I was sailing to Africa to locate the source of the Nile, they would have said, “Well, just be careful.” So, within 24 hours, I was standing in the manager’s office inside the base of the giant movie screen, being sworn in as a member of the Cactus drive-in team.

The ceremony was brief. After writing my name and phone number on a pad of paper, I received a pair of white coveralls so embarrassingly large that I had to roll up the pants legs and sleeves. I had just crested puberty, and I recall thinking that this getup was not likely to impress girls who liked men in uniform.

Besides the manager, the Cactus team consisted of a kid assistant just out of high school, a ticket taker of about twelve who smoked cigarettes and rode a Cushman motor scooter, and an incredibly luscious ticket girl in her late twenties (the puberty thing was really working). The physical plant included a bunkerlike projection building constructed half underground in the parking area, an enclosed ticket booth, and a portable concession stand.

I was the portable part.

As I said, the Cactus was not a fully developed concept at the time it came to life. What would one day be a great, squat concrete building packed with candy counters, a soda fountain, a popcorn machine, and bins of snow-cone ice started out as a Radio Flyer wagon on which I had to balance a little glass candy bar case and a large galvanized watercooler filled with something like orange Kool-Aid. Plus paper cups. I was the one-hundred-pound kid who had to pull this top-heavy assembly up and down five or six ramps to a little L-shaped wooden counter at the projection building, and the sight was not a pretty one. Nor was the work greatly rewarding. Five hours a night, six nights a week, earned me a little brown envelope containing a five-dollar bill, four ones, a quarter, a dime, a nickel, and three pennies—$9.43. Oh, and free admission on my night off.

If first-timers were uncertain about drive-in movie protocol, one or two visits put them at ease. Most people sat in their cars, but some brought lawn chairs or backed their pickups into a space and created the kicker equivalent of a box seat. About the only hassles were over speaker misappropriation. Exposed to heat, rain, and abuse, some of the cheap, metal-cased speakers soon uttered little more than unintelligible squawks. So, if no car was in the adjoining space, you just swapped speakers. People arriving after dark usually didn’t discover the switcheroo; they’d just throw the faulty speaker on the ground and look for another space. About the only other problem was honking. Kids would honk the horn when Mom and Dad left them unattended to visit the rest rooms. And everyone would honk if someone reached up into the projector beam and threw huge shadow animals on the screen.

People who went only to see the movie tried to arrive

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