Six decades later, the Bridgton Drive-In is still making memories by movielight.

BRIDGTON — As the gloom of dusk fell over the Bridgton Twin Drive-in Theatre, it was easy to believe — if only for a moment — that it really was 1957 again.

Row upon row of speaker poles leaned at odd angles, darkened cars and trucks parked neatly between them.

Children in pajamas lost the battle with sleep in back seats while their parents snuggled close and enjoyed the movie.

On the big screen, Jayne Mansfield pranced and preened while men in suits smoked furiously and admired her. Music from The Platters, Fats Domino and Little Richard rocked the night.

And all the while, the aromas of frying food and buttered popcorn tickled the nostrils, just as they would have tickled the noses of movie-goers on the night of June 14, 1957, when the drive-in first opened for business.

There are two screens at the Twin Drive-In, but on

The timeless element of the drive-in was never more apparent than it was on the Bridgton Drive-In’s anniversary last Tuesday night as it celebrated six decades. If one could manage to ignore the make and model of all the cars and minivans, the sense of nostalgia was intense, regardless of whether one’s drive-in memories dated back to the ’50s, the ’70s or the ’80s.

Weirdly, the memories of men and women young and old seem at once completely unique and very much the same.

A long long time ago

“I haven’t been to the drive-in in 40 years,” mused Lloyd Record, an hour before the show began. “My best memory is of going in my uncle’s Model-T pickup truck. We backed it in and put the speaker right up on the side. I don’t remember what the movie was at all.”

Now, four decades later, the 73-year-old West Paris man was at the drive-in with his wife, Linda. Typically, they go for supper and a dance at the American Legion to treat themselves, but on this warm clear Tuesday, they decided to try something different once supper was done.

As the light faded from the sky and fireflies began to glow in the gloom, the couple stood next to their own pickup truck, gazing over the drive-in landscape, taking in what was new and what was the same.

“You used to have that big metal speaker to hang on your window,” Lloyd noted, “and it always seemed like it would break the glass. Now you tune it in on your radio and I’m afraid I’m going to have a dead battery by the time the movie is over.”

Linda Record seemed even more wistful about the experience. How long had it been since she’d been to the drive-in? She didn’t even want to hazard a guess.

“It’s been a long, long time,” she said.

Her father was a farmer, so extravagances like late-night movies were rare.

“It was a treat for us,” Linda said. “It was usually a Disney movie or something like that. A good, wholesome movie.”

Their last drive-in experiences were years ago, but their instincts for how to enjoy the pastime were still sharp. Asked if she planned to visit the snack bar at some point in the night, Linda Record grinned almost guiltily.

She had smuggled in a piece of rhubarb pie from dinner.

No feety pajamas? You’re doing it wrong

Three rows back, there was a buzz of activity around a silvery minivan parked facing the screen. Folks were streaming by the van on their way to the snack bar, but there were also four young girls running around and whooping as they go.

Inside the van were the girls’ parents, Kari and Chaz Reed. They are 38 and 37 respectively, which meant they were old enough to recognize the nostalgia of the drive-in and young enough to vividly recall their own earlier experiences.

“My first movie at a drive-in was ‘Bambi,'” said Chaz. “I came in feety pajamas and everything.”

“My first was ‘E.T.,” said Kari. “We watched it on the roof of my uncle’s Firebird. When E.T. popped out of the field, I actually fell through the moon roof.”

Like so many people, Kari and Chaz went from being children who watched movies from the back seat to being teenagers who came out with friends. Now they’re in a third stage – parents trying to share the drive-in experience with their kids, while also expecting that the children will fall asleep before the second feature.

Like all drive-in lovers, Chaz and Kari had clear memories of the old metal speakers.

“You had to leave your window open a crack to hang them,” Chaz recalled, “and then the bugs would come and get you.”

A view of the old days

Two rows and several leaning speaker poles away, Mike Davis and Autumn Damron were taking their chances with the bugs.

Instead of parking his Jeep facing the screen, Davis backed it in so they could watch the movie from the open hatchback. It was too soon to say how bad the mosquito invasion would be, but the couple liked their chances.

Both Davis and Damron are 19-years-old, but the historical quality of the night was not lost on them.

“It’s a sentimental thing,” said Damron. “It’s a view of the old days.”

For Davis, the historical aspect of the event meant even more – he’s the vice president of the Bridgton Historical Society, after all.

“I’ve always been interested in this kind of history,” he said. “I’ve only seen maybe one or two modern movies here.”

Being from Bridgton, Davis meets kids every summer who are here on vacation from various parts of the country. For many of them, the drive-in is a foreign concept.

“A lot these kids who come up from the cities have never been to a drive-in, and they might not otherwise get to one,” Davis said. “I think it’s a special thing. A lot of us would hate to see it go.”

Making his move

Running from place to place before the movie began, 67-year-old Jeff Steere was reliving his youth.

“Where I grew up, every single town had a drive-in,” he said. “We went all the time. And then, as soon as I was 16 and had my license, I was there every weekend.”

Like most, Steere said he usually went to the drive-in with his buddies. On occasion, though, it was the perfect opportunity for a date. You know, for strategic reasons.

“The second feature was when you’d move your car to the back row,” he said, smiling devilishly at the memory. “If it was a horror movie, she’d get scared and jump right into your arms.”

Of course, that was back in a time when most cars and trucks had bench-style seats.

“These days, you’ve got bucket seats,” Steere said, “so you can’t just slide over and make your movie.”

Now Steere is all grown up, past retirement age and working at the drive-in. It’s a job he loves, and the reasons are obvious.

“People are always pleasant. Rain or shine, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “The kids run around in their pj’s or they throw a ball around until the movie starts. You see a lot of out-of-state plates here, with people my age or older who have never been to the drive-in. After it’s done they’ll say, ‘Wow, we really missed out when we were kids.'”

A sign from God

At the snack bar, engulfed by the familiar aromas of popcorn, hot dogs and French fries, Annmarie Sargent has a unique view of the drive-in experience.

A manager at the Bridgton theater for 13 years, she has seen little kids in pajamas transform into teenagers who come to the drive-in on their own. A young couple who came on a date a few years ago is suddenly a husband-and-wife with children of their own. And so on and so forth as the cycle continues. Whether she’s manning the snack bar counter or working the ticket booth, Sargent sees the evolution of the drive-in audience in real time.

“It’s really neat,” Sargent said, “to watch families grow.”

Sargent grew up with the drive-in, whether it was in nearby North Conway or further south in Connecticut. Likewise, her three boys, now 18, 20 and 27, did not know a life where the drive-in didn’t play a role.

“My children were kind of spoiled by this,” Sargent said. “But they have cousins who had never been to the drive-in. When my kids heard that, they couldn’t believe it.”

Sargent is at least partially responsible for what they were calling the 60th anniversary show at the drive-in: When owner John Tevanian learned that the movies that aired on the Bridgton Twin Drive-In’s opening night in 1957 were available, he was on the fence about bringing them back.

“I felt like, how can you not do it,” Sargent said. “It seemed like a sign from God.”

The way we were

At the start of the show Tuesday night, many of the people huddled in their cars or minivans said they only planned to stay for the first movie. They came for just a small sip of history, not a gulp.

But when Jayne Mansfield scooted off the screen as “The Girl Can’t Help It” ended and “The Last Wagon” with Richard Widmark was being queued up, very few of the movie-goers drove off. Not right away, at any rate.

Lloyd and Linda Record sat shoulder-to-shoulder in their truck, with presumably nothing left of the strawberry rhubarb pie.

Kari and Chaz got out of their minivan and stretched their legs, checking on the kids and mulling the snack bar. Several people stood in small groups, chatting and laughing at the dated intermission commercials on the big screen.

It wasn’t a big stretch to imagine that this is how things went down back in 1957 as well. Some of the small details may have changed, but the experience itself is very much the same.

“You can’t beat the drive-in,” said Steere. “It’s better than your own living room any day.”

The drive-in: Why we love it

There are plenty of folks who will make an argument against going to the drive-in theater. The drive is too long, they’ll say. The bugs are too fierce, the seats too uncomfortable and the kids will never sit still for that long a stretch.

So there.

The drive-in has to compete in an age where most people can stream movies right to their home televisions or to their hand-held devices. Yet week after week, cars fill the spaces at the approximately 350 drive-in theaters still operating in the U.S. The people who keep drive-in theaters in business today offer up their own insights, tips and cool memories.

Joline Lacoste, Greene: “Drive-in theaters were great, especially the Lewiston Drive-in on Sabattus Street. (I) remember being there the night the Old Orchard Pier burned, they ran a notice of the fire across the screen. . . . I was with a girl friend and we both called our parents saying we were spending the night at each other’s house, and went to see the fire.”

Kimberly Young, Lewiston: “It’s great when you do it right! We go in a mini-van with the rear seats removed, inflate an air mattress and hang out with the back doors flung open, with snacks, drinks and lots of goodies. We tried going in a car once and it wasn’t the same at all. If we have to take a car, we bring camp chairs and lots of blankets so we can be outside enjoying the summer night.”

Laureen Christensen, Auburn: “I hate the fact we have to use our own car radio station to get the sound. Someone is bound to have a dead battery at the end of the night. What happened to speakers? Other than that, glad they are back.”

Joseph Carro, Portland: “It’s fun. Low-cost for what you get (two movies) and on top of that, you are in the comfort of your own car, where you can regulate heat, check your phone (if you’re into that), talk to your passengers and you can even bring a bunch of fast food and snacks with you to munch on while the movie’s playing.”

Wendy Lee Hutchins, Andover: “Good fun back in the day. Buck-a-carload sometimes. Other times, sneaking people in via the trunk of the car. Half asleep at the end and accidentally driving away with the speaker still attached to the window. Oops!”

Rich Dillon, Auburn: “Loved it as a child and still love like it as an adult. Take the family, bring some snacks and enjoy the experience.”

Jeanna Thayer, now living in Westfield, Mass.: “Bridgton was my favorite drive-in. I’d spend time swimming at the lake and cooking on a fire first in Norway. I would have a cooler full of drinks and some snacks left by the time the mosquito swarm rolled in at the smell of all the steamy flesh inside of cars.”

Meaghan Rynne Woodford, Portland: “It’s the best option for movies with kids who can’t handle sitting still or the volume levels at the traditional theaters.”

Films at Bridgton Twin Drive-In Theatre

This weekend:

Finding Dory at 8:50 p.m.
 
Central Intelligence at 8:50 p.m.
 
The Conjuring 2 at 10:55 p.m.
 
 

The anniversary movies:

On the night of the anniversary celebration, there were – as always – movies on two screens at the Bridgton Twin Drive-In. “The Conjuring 2” was a big draw on screen two. Screen one was where the nostalgia was at: The same films were being shown that appeared at the drive-in on opening night in 1957.

“The Girl Can’t Help It,” starring Jayne Mansfield, Tom Ewell, Edmond O’Brien, Henry Jones and Julie London. It was a vehicle for sex symbol Mansfield while also appealing to the youth of the day through the inclusion of teenagers and rock ‘n roll music. The success of the film reached Liverpool, England, leading some to suggest that it may have at least a subtle effect on the musicians who would one day make up The Beatles.

“The Last Wagon,” starring a presumably snarling Richard Widmark as Comanche Todd, a white man who has lived most of his life among the Indians. When Comanche is brought in to be tried for the murder of three men, drama ensues. For some, part of the joy of the movie is in trying to catch mistakes – “The Last Wagon” apparently features a number of “jarring continuity errors.”

More on the Bridgton Twin Drive-In Theatre’s Facebook page. 


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