THE TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE BIDDLE BOYS
Admission was ten cents. The movie lasted about an hour. There were no cartoons or newsreels. The first theater to show an actual movie was the Electric Theater in Los Angeles on April 2, 1902. The Capture of the Biddle Brothers was an adventure melodrama based on actual events.
A few months earlier, condemned prisoners Jack and Ed Biddle escaped from a Pennsylvania jail using tools and weapons supplied to them by the warden’s wife, Kate Soffel. “Our picture, which is a perfect reproduction of the capture, is realistic and exciting,” the producer exclaimed — breathlessly one might imagine. Two sheriff-filled sleighs pursue pursue the Biddles and Soffel through the white and drifting snow. The dastardly trio turns to make a stand, shotguns and revolvers blazing. Ed Biddle is shot, falls to the ground in a snow bank. On one elbow, he continues to fire shot after shot until he collapses. The second Biddle continues to fire, and he too is shot. Mrs. Soffel seeing the hopelessness of their situation, if not the error of her ways, attempts to shoot herself. All three are captured. The brothers both die of their wounds. Mrs. Soffel survives, but a reconciliation with her warden husband is probably unlikely.
The movie itself did not survive, and the names of the actors are lost to history. Oddly enough a remake — well maybe not exactly a remake — was released in 1984. Mrs. Soffel starring Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson once again tells the tale of the terrible, terrible Biddle brothers. But not for a dime.
You oughtta be in pictures
He’s a skinny kid with an obnoxious grin, big eyes, and an even bigger appetite. As a clock relentlessly counts down the minutes, this animated glutton devours a bag of popcorn, a hamburger, a hot dog and ice cream. With three minutes to go, it’s a candy bar. Two minutes, pizza. One minute — not another bag of popcorn! He licks his fingers one at a time, gives us a final grin, and invites us to enjoy the second feature. If that kid brings a tear to your eye, a tiny tug at your heartstrings, then you too lived your salad days during the Age of Popcorn with Real Butter — in the America of the drive-in theater.
What a wedding of technology and environment, the drive-in — John Wayne and Grace Kelly and Rock Hudson up there, larger than life, against a starry backdrop that stretched forever. For me, drive-in theaters provided not only countless evenings of entertainment; one drive-in also gave me my first summer of gainful employment.
They all had names like Star View, Auto View, Park View (or Vu in the spelling fashion of the day) so that you knew right away that it wasn’t a hardtop, a wonderful but not widely-used name for the traditional indoor theater back in the late fifties when the abundance and importance of drive-ins required such distinctions. My drive-in was the Romantic Motor View, and romantic it was — the entire Salt Lake City valley stretching out beyond its screen, Mount Olympus looming behind.
The Motor View was a family affair, owned and operated by the Petersons — in fact, the Petersons lived in their theatre: their home formed the base of the massive wide screen. Old Man Peterson, red-faced and ill-tempered, yelled at people and cooked while his wife and daughters stood behind the counter and worked the hungry crowd. At intermission, a storm cloud of salt and pepper and more salt and pepper rose over the grill as Old Man Peterson, caring not a whit about hypertension or cholesterol, turned out burger after burger. They were the best burgers I ever tasted even though each one took a week off your life. In a nearby room, a brother-in-law ran the projector, and outside, a Peterson son held sway over a two-acre asphalt empire and everything in it, including me.
Upon my arrival each evening, I took up a post near the huge chain-link gate that separated the three-hundred-car auditorium from the nonpaying public. Between the highway and me stood the double-bayed ticket booth that resembled a drive-up bank teller more than a box office, positioned so that up to fifty cars could wait in line without blocking traffic. Patrons received tickets at the booth, then drove to the gate where I would deftly tear their tickets in half. I wondered, of course, why they didn’t place the ticket booth at the gate, dispense half tickets and eliminate an extra step, but I was making thirty-five cents an hour and I wasn’t about to speak up and abolish my own job.
Tearing tickets was mindless activity at best, so I otherwise occupied my mind by trying to guess which car would hit which little kid on his or her way to the playground, access to which required fighting incoming traffic. I also pondered big questions such as why so many teenagers came to drive-ins alone until I began to hear the giggling from the trunk. Perhaps I should have said something, but I found anyone old enough to drive quite intimidating. The playground closed twenty minutes before showtime, freeing the Peterson son from his duties as operator of the four-horse carousel, so he could relieve me at the gate. This in turn allowed me to wander through the rows of cars, squeegee in hand, ready and willing to wash windshields.
During the first movie, I was expected to stay near the exit to somehow prevent anyone who was determined to sneak in without paying from doing so. I was also to watch for signs of clandestine entry over the six-foot fence that ringed the Motor View. Then, as the first movie ended, I would stand at the center of the exit, waving a flashlight, directing outbound traffic, as if a 95-pound kid could control a stampede of Fords and Chevys and Plymouths, each with some kind of special permission to be the first car out.
During the second feature, I continued to keep an eye peeled for signs of illegal entry while roaming the drive-in as kind of a trouble-shooter whose main concern was turning off speakers when cars left. The Petersons believed that leaving them on was wasting sound. Frequently though, I’d just sit down against a speaker post and watch Sayonara for the fifth time or To Catch a Thief for the third. Occasionally, I’d sleep.
I worked there just that summer of ’56, but I became a regular patron of the Motor View and many other Views and Vus. And yes, I would occasionally enter via the trunk of an automobile, but I didn’t like it one bit. I fully expected to die there in the darkness because Psycho had already started and my friends in the front of the car had forgotten me. Or that if the trunk lid did open, I would find myself facing the entire Salt Lake police force, guns drawn, trigger fingers itching.
Summer after summer, the drive-in experience gradually evolved from that of trying not to park next to prying adults who disapproved of what you were doing in the privacy of your own (parent’s) DeSoto to trying not to park next to libidinous teenagers who were doing God knows what (and how) in the back seat of that VW bug. Over the summers, drive-in film fare changed as well: Sayonara and To Catch a Thief gave way to Teenage Cannibals Eat Peoria and Sexual Fantasies of a Swedish Meatball –a death knell to come.
There are few drive-ins left, and they are endangered. The kids prefer cineplexes in malls, and their families watch cable or stream Netflix. No one seems to find stuffing three or four adolescent bodies into the trunk of a car or watching a movie through moving windshield wipers fun anymore. Maybe the drive-in really does belong to another era, those years that marked the height of America’s love affair with the automobile, when gas stations commanded all four corners of busy intersections and no one yielded to pedestrians — they’re mostly gone, like the faithless lover’s kiss that was (to quote the movie I saw six times) written on the wind.
And somewhere that little kid with the obnoxious grin sits, watching TV, stuffing himself with popcorn. He’s fat now, and there’s fake butter on the popcorn.