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.

October 1992By Comments

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 before dark so they could find a good spot and a decent speaker. One good location was about the fourth row in the middle, which provided the right viewing angle, a short walk to the toilets, and fewer distractions from late arrivals looking for spaces. A little playground in the area below the screen kept most family cars in the first couple of rows, so the kids who got in fights or fell out of the swings or off the teeter-totter didn’t have far to howl.

Some of these early arrivals were able to participate in a truly great moment in Cactus drive-in history. Bordering the theater on the east was a little stockyard, and one evening at about dusk a bull broke through the plank fence that separated it from the theater grounds. Some shouting cowboys managed to spook ol’ Ferdinand, who charged into the parking lot and created twenty minutes of pandemonium, which I watched with delight from the projection building’s roof.  

While parents frantically ran around snatching up children, the bull rampaged in circles, breaking off posts and festooning its horns with speakers. Then it went after the cars that were bounding across the washboard of ramps in a primitive version of motocross. About this time, the manager came running into the lot waving his jacket, which sure enough caught the bull’s attention. For a moment our dude looked like a goner, but his rapid retreat through the playground led the bull into a swing set that joined its collection of speakers and posts and slowed it down enough to be roped.

Thanks to that stockyard on one side and Jimmy Shawn’s daddy’s old machine shop on the other, the Cactus provided an early experiment in Smell-O-Vision. A west wind enhanced viewer appreciation of a movie about auto racing or oil fields, while an east wind added realism to a western. Neither wind did much for a Carmen Miranda musical.

If the drive-in was great for families, it was a teenager’s dream come true. At 50 cents a person, the admission price for any carload of high schoolers could be calculated using the formula $ = .5 d + .5 (pt), where d represented the driver, p the number of passengers, and t the capacity of the trunk.

So, a school-age ticket taker quickly developed the instincts of a customs inspector—a corrupt customs inspector. If a line of incoming cars included one that barely cleared the ground, you gave its teenage driver a ticket stub and a “you owe me one” look, knowing that the suspect vehicle would soon disgorge fourteen clowns and a donkey. If nobody else was waiting to buy tickets, you could lean in the window like a Southern deputy sheriff, shine a flashlight around, and ask if the driver had anything to declare. For good measure, you might even walk around the car and give the trunk lid a good thump, remarking that he oughta have them springs and shocks looked at.

Drive-in movies didn’t lead teenagers into sex, as adults mistakenly imagined. Any kid who could get there was already there, so the drive-in was convenient if you weren’t there yet. A girl who might resent a trip straight to some notorious necking spot could accept an invitation to the Cactus at face value. Once there, her carefully tuned mental computer could start processing data: Was the movie something anybody would actually be expected to watch? Was her escort Mr. Right, Mr. Wrong, or Mr. Maybe? And did he park near the concession stand or on the last row? (The back rows meant his intentions were bad—which might be good if he was Mr. Right—but the very last row meant he was also Mr. Stupid, because anyone circling the lot could see in the back window.)

By comparison, the young man’s brain was a hand-cranked adding machine used mainly to tote up the distance between his parking space and any carload of friends whose presence might keep his date on her best behavior. Beyond that, he just had to feel his way in the dark, so to speak.

It was widely reported and widely believed that lots of illicit sexual activity went on in the back rows of the drive-in, but since my friends were notorious liars, the only time you could believe them was when they stopped talking. I figured this out early on and kept my mouth shut, hoping my silence would be correctly misinterpreted.

Meanwhile, I worked on my own lines under the manager’s unintentional mentorship. This took place at the ticket booth, to which I had been assigned after spilling a few coolers of orangeade. Following the first-show rush, I usually had little to do but study the extremely complex neon mural, trying to decide on the one spot where—in that great spaghetti-work of tubing—one rock would put the most lights out.

A welcome break from this purely intellectual exercise was eavesdropping on the manager’s flirtation with the ticket girl. Today’s female ticket person would probably file a sexual harassment suit, but at that time flirting was an accepted occupational hazard.

The idea of the manager ever getting it on with my ticket girl did not sit well at all. On the other hand, I never had the foggiest idea of what to say on dates and needed all the help I could get. What I learned was how a smart woman can politely say no to a suitor 150 different ways and afterward giggle at the poor fool’s efforts, which didn’t do much for my own self-confidence.

So I quit. Actually, I was sort of let go. You might even say I was fired. When reassigned to concessions in the newly constructed building behind the projector, I had amused myself with little jokes—like burying perfectly clean and harmless june bugs in the snow-cone ice so that I could scoop one up for special customers. I also kept a pet rhinoceros beetle under one of the cone-shaped cups, which consequently moved slowly and mysteriously around on the shelf next to the cash register. These pranks must have come to the attention of the manager, who was probably out of sorts over his failures with the ticket girl—or maybe annoyed that I had told everybody about them.

 Following my retirement, I remained a regular nonpaying customer, still wondering what to say to girls, especially to one in particular, with whom I had fallen madly in love. She was far too beautiful and intelligent and talented to have any real interest in a jerk who didn’t play football or anything, so we’d sit there on the eighth or ninth row, holding hands, watching romantic double features about Frankenstein and Dracula while she smiled and gave me sketches she had drawn of my old Plymouth. A couple of times she mentioned that some friends of ours had started going steady, to which I said something like, “Oh.”

Betty, if you read this, please forgive my unyielding stupidity, and know that while I might have some everlasting regrets, there are several good women out there who would probably tell you it all worked out for the best.

After a few profitable years, the Cactus sailed gloriously into the age of television—and sank like a rock. By the mid-fifties it was showing reruns and “made for drive-in” movies. Eventually it resorted to running porno flicks and using its parking lot as a flea market. Nothing worked, and the last time I saw it, sometime in the seventies, it looked like the wreck of the Titanic.

Jimmy Shawn’s daddy helped build the Cactus, and in 1978 he helped tear it down—to make way for a Wal-Mart that moved away and other stores that failed. Today the only thing that’s left to mark the Cactus drive-in’s grave is a moribund shopping center.

Texan William J. Helmer is a Playboy editor and freelance writer who lives in Chicago.

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