One evening at the drive-in with my buds, Mark and Bob, way back in 1974 gives meaning to the oft-used expression, “You can’t make this stuff up.” Just days after the end of my fourth year of teaching, we three are feeling June-bug free, and a night at the drive-in seems like the perfect option. In a few more weeks, we will head to the IUP campus for the main summer session to take graduate classes for our state-mandated permanent certification and, eventually, to earn our master’s degrees. The Greater Pittsburgh Drive-In, located off Route 30 in North Versailles Township, just a mile east of the Westinghouse Bridge, is one of the most popular destinations for outdoor movie buffs, boasting not just one, but four giant screens.
That night Mark drives us in his new, French-dressing orange VW Fastback, a forerunner of the VW Jetta of today. He loves driving the standard transmission with four-on-the-floor. Mark, along with Nippy (my dad), had taught me to drive a standard transmission four or five years earlier when Mark and I both drove well-traveled VW Beetles from our homes in McKeesport to student teaching assignments in Latrobe and Greensburg, respectively. But tonight, having picked up Bob in Penn Hills, we are out to have fun. Shortly after spanning the Westinghouse Bridge, heading east on Route 30, we spot the sign on the driver-side embankment, “Greater Pittsburgh Drive-In, Next Left.”
Mark drives slowly up the lengthy access roadway to avoid some of the stone-chip dust churned up by his tires. Mark washes and waxes his car to a brilliant sheen every Saturday.
Because of the four screens, drivers must pay attention as they navigate the maze of access roads. As near as my research tells me, we must have decided to see the murder mystery, They Only Kill Their Masters, starring James Garner and Katharine Ross, plus an extensive supporting cast. This was the last film shot on MGM’s backlot, so quite a few MGM stars had been willing to take supporting roles in that landmark film. Mark drives past the exits for Blazing Saddles, Magnum Force, and The Way We Were, as the three of us had already seen those movies in previous months.
As the traffic slows near the summit of the grade, we find ourselves bumper-to-bumper in a line of vehicles—each driver maneuvering to desired parking spots for movie watching encampment. Each parking position contours into an inclined parking perch, facing the massive outdoor screen so that passengers have clear sight lines out of their windshields. I am relieved to set my eyes on the drive-in screen, as I know that Mark will soon be turning off the car cassette player, which has been blasting the Greatest Hits of Blood, Sweat, and Tears, one of his treasured albums. In the back seat I am thinking that if I never again have to listen to the harsh, brassy notes and gravelly voice of lead singer, David Clayton-Thomas, on “Spinning Wheel,” it will be too soon.
By this time Bob’s insatiable “snack-e-tite” kicks in and he says,
“Let’s find a spot close to the refreshment building. I need some pretzels to munch on.”
Mark, seizing an opportunity, fires back, “You must have a tapeworm. You always need something to munch on.” I’m cackling and agreeing from the back seat.
Then Mark adds, “Bob eats one meal a day—all day.”
Of course, Bob doesn’t have to twist the arms of his buds to satisfy the request for munchies. Mark pulls into a spot about five cars away from the refreshment building to our right. Then he reaches for the speaker, hanging on the post, and hooks it over his driver-side window in time for the slam-bang opening music for Looney Tunes. The “three musketeers” exit the VW and high-step over to the cinder-block, flat roofed house of refreshments and join the other drive-in patrons who are zig-zagging their way, step by step, along the railings that lead to the counter where we can see the line-up of Cracker Jacks, pretzels, and containers of popcorn, along with the hotdogs that will fly off the grill, landing bun-wrapped in paper boats.
All the familiar types are present and accounted for. The high school girls are ogling at the giddily-handsome blonde boy filling up paper cups with Coke and other sodas. The girls screech-giggle louder when he looks up at them, smiling a wink, as he snaps plastic lids into place on the beverage cups. Ahead of the girls, almost to the coveted snacks on the counter, a lanky guy in bell-bottomed jeans has pulled his curvaceous girlfriend close to him, peering down at her. He gently brushes aside her straight, clipped bangs, giving her a peck on her forehead. I wonder how much of the movie they will actually watch tonight.
As we emerge from the tacky pink palace of refreshments, Bob notes that the movie has already begun. He hops to the car at a more urgent pace, Mark and I following close behind.
June Allyson, veteran marquee actress whose career reached back to the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” has a supporting role as the wife of a doctor played by Hal Holbrook. The three of us know her better as a star that our parents have talked about more than one whom we ourselves have watched in movies.
Positioned in our seats with cold drinks and snick-snacks—Mark and Bob in the front seats, I in the back—the first scene I can recall paying much attention to shows a close up of the supporting actress’s milky face. Between chomps of my buttered popcorn, I pipe up, “Hey, is that June Allyson?” Almost immediately, before either Mark or Bob can open their mouths, the actress herself, in response to an unrelated question from her male counterpart, declares, “Yes, it’s me!”
The accidental timing of my question and June Allyson’s pert reply could not have been better synchronized if we had done twenty grueling takes of that scene, coached by a demanding director. The three of us, struck by a contagious funny bug, guffaw and howl for what might have been a full 15 minutes. Every time I regain some composure, an outburst from Bob launches me back to another spasm of pee-your-pants hilarity. It is as though someone has injected bursts of laughing gas into the car. As I continue to lose the battle to control my teary-eyed spasms, at least half of my buttered popcorn has spilled onto the pristine black vinyl interior of Mark’s VW.
We convulsed ourselves into stomach-cramped goofiness that night at the Greater Pittsburgh Drive-in. We laughed each time we recalled the incident for years afterward. June Allyson’s “’Yes, it’s me’” lives on as the epitome of many laughing-gas moments.