By Marc S. Sanders

I have a confession to make.  As much of a movie lover that I am, I have never seen a movie at a drive-in theater.  I should know better.  Fortunately, I had the honor of learning about this well-established culture of Americana while getting a private screening of a new documentary film called Back To The Drive-in, written and directed by April Wright.

Back To The Drive-in covers the resiliency of eleven different drive-in theaters spanning from Massachusetts, down to Texas, across to the state of Nebraska, and California beyond.  All of these institutions have likely been around longer than three times the age of most of their teenage and twentysomething employees.  They may be located in different areas of the greater United States, but many of these outdoor movie palaces have no choice but to contend with the same ailments that accompany a new age of living during the time of the Covid pandemic.  That’s the common theme April Wright covers as she turns on her cameras allowing the owners, their families and staff to discuss experiences, frustrations, worries and uncompromised passion for the drive-in.

The craft of Wright’s film is beautiful.  There are vast overhead shots of each drive-in that transition perfectly into the intimacy of a lived-in office or a concession stand down below.  As her film moves from one drive-in to the next, the chapters open like picture perfect post cards of an American institution that has survived for over 60 years.  My only familiarity with drive-in movies likely stem from episodes of the sitcom Happy Days, where Richie and Potsie would make out with their girlfriends in the front seat during the monster movie.  This insightful documentary, however, showcases how drive-ins operate in an age of new technology or lack thereof.  It also presents problems that have been ongoing since long before Covid arrived. 

The unpredictability of weather abounds for many of these owners. The most interesting story for me comes from the Wellfleet drive-in located near Cape Cod, Ma.  The owner, John Vincent, is a friendly enough gentleman, who tells of his history working for the drive-in first in the ticket booth while he was a teenager back in 1987, all the way up to now being a proud and concerned owner.  Warts and all, he loves the drive-in.  The offensive f-word for him, though, is fog.  With his business located near the ocean, it is hard to tell if the large outdoor screen will offer up a good enough picture for the Saturday night film.  Each time April Wright’s documentary returns to footage from Wellfleet, I was in suspense.  Mr. Vincent talks about how on a good night he’d have 300 cars parked ahead of the feature presentation.  On this night, with imminent fog, it’s lucky he has 117 cars.  Every time Wellfleet appeared in the film, the fog only looked thicker and thicker.  Fog has become an all too real fear.

A common problem for all of the drive-ins is the weather.  Another location is concerned about lightning in the area.  It goes with the territory that the managers and operators regularly monitor the weather apps.  I want to know what they did in the ‘60s to prepare for this uncertainty. 

Supply shortages, inflation, worker shortages.  All of these drive-ins face the same threats.  Wellfleet also contends with out-of-date technology where the speakers are burned out and the underground wiring needs repair.  Yet, that means digging up concrete at a huge expense.

As the time period focuses on the drive-in attractions in response to Covid, it seems to present a small favor for these businesses.  At the start of the pandemic, when new Hollywood pictures were being released in limited supply, there was at least the escapism of the drive-in for consumers who were exhausted over quarantining.  People could at least catch a classic flick like Back To The Future, and maintain social distancing within their own cars.  Still, Brian Smith who owns Coyote out of Fort Worth, Texas has to protect his teenage staff from angry, foul-mouthed patrons unwilling to cooperate with mask mandates while visiting the concession stand.  He talks about how he looks out for the kids who work for him, but even depression and the challenge to keep up with school is overwhelming. 

Now that vaccinations have provided relief from isolation, the struggle is all the more real for these business owners.  Ben and Nora Harroun who operate Galaxy Drive-in Ennis, Texas mention competing with streaming services for new film releases.

Other drive-ins attempt to reinvent what they have.  Field Of Dreams located in Ohio is offering up live concert entertainment.  Quasar in Nebraska was an I-70 drive-in refurbished by Rod and Donna Saunders with the latest technology and architectural designs.  Their friends said they were crazy to invest in this, but for the Saunders it is crazy to let an institution fade away.  Their retirement was meant to sustain the atmosphere accompanied with a drive-in movie.

There’s a culture to this industry.  These owners talk with one another and share their love for this uncertain and struggling industry.  Drive-ins seem outdated in an age of comfortable multiplexes and the convenience and safety of at home streaming.  They share each other’s pain while also appreciating the value a film like F9 (Fast & Furious) can draw on a Saturday night.  They take pride in the specialty food crafts they sell at the counter from funnel cakes to a delectable pulled pork sandwich for seven dollars.   To many of us, selling a box of Nerds candy or not selling chocolate products to avoid the risk of melting, might seem like a mundane awareness, easily taken for granted.  To these folks, it means the difference of the outcome of their current season in the age of Covid.  April Wright captures a young girl describing how she burned a scar into her finger on a popcorn machine.  These are proud war wounds, accepted within the ongoing challenge of keeping a business afloat and a decades long tradition alive.

April Wright’s documentary is breathtaking.  As her camera soars above the wide-open spaces of worn-out grass and cratered concrete with large movie screens at the edge, you absorb the history of places within the United States urging us to rediscover again.  Our eyes only opened a little during a desperate time in 2020, but these preservationists wonder if they will be able to hold on.  I won’t spoil the outcomes some of these businesses face during a footnote of coverage featured in the end credits, but perhaps a follow up piece is on the horizon from Ms. Wright.  These drive-in locales live with unstable fluidity.  Doubt, accompanied with hope, is what I walked away with following my viewing of the picture.  What will the American drive-in theater look like in a year from now?


By Marc S. Sanders

Stacey Souther’s short documentary, Valerie, explores the colorful life of Valerie Perrine. 

I must confess, up until I saw the film, the most I knew about Ms. Perrine was as “MISS TESCHMACHER!!!!!,” the adorable sidekick dame of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor from the first two Superman films.  Yet, in just 36 minutes, Souther offers a wealth of knowledge about the famed star that only motivates me to uncover her other accomplishments and films.  I already have her Oscar nominated turn in Bob Fosse’s Lenny, with Dustin Hoffman, cued up on my Roku.

Having watched Valerie twice, it stands to reason that this life could be covered quite well in a full-length biographical film adaptation.  I petition Souther to direct if that ever comes to light.  He provides a large selection of pictures and video footage that cover Perrine from childhood through her late teens and early twenties as a Vegas showgirl, on through her prime of adulthood in Hollywood films and then finally reaching her most recent years as she bravely lives with Parkinson’s disease.

On top of the photos, testimonials are weaved into the movie from co-stars like Jeff Bridges (The Last American Hero), directors like Richard Donner (Superman) and George Roy Hill (Slaughterhouse-Five), friends like David Arquette, Loni Anderson, Angie Dickenson, George Hamilton and Howard Hessman.  All have nothing but celebratory words of their experiences with her.  The comments are provided over film footage and photos of smiles and non-stop energy.  Souther makes it seem as if you could never be in a bad mood if you are standing next to Valerie.  Just watch her own the stage on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  She belts out a scream of absolute fire that Johnny and Ed can’t help but applaud and cheer for. 

How fortunate that Stacey Souther was able to recover old interview footage and glimpses of times where Valerie offered up a comment on her philosophy of life.  In one televised interview, Valerie answers a question with “I have no worry about tomorrow…the fact that I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, I’ve grown up with (it).”  Once the film concluded, this observation stayed with me.  Souther depicts Valerie in the past and her present time, as only being concerned with the now and never focusing on the unpredictability of what’s to come.  It takes real strength to approach each day you awaken with a purpose.  One time in her younger years, she’s captured answering a question with “It’s karma…look at the good things in life…”  Things like that are said to us all the time in fortune cookies or greeting cards, maybe.  When Valerie said it, I believed her.

Tragedy has also crossed paths in her lifetime having lost two boyfriends to violent and unexpected deaths.  Jay Sebring was one of the victims of the infamous murders committed by Charles Manson’s followers, which also included actress Sharon Tate and her unborn child.  According to the film, Valerie was actually meant to be at that gathering.  Yet was called away at the last minute for work.  These incidents are hard for her to recall, but it also opened a transitional door for Valerie to move on from Vegas and go to Hollywood for acting.  She may not have had any formal training, but that didn’t stop her from trying, and she succeeded.

Valerie is quite debilitated by the year 2014.  Her Parkinson’s wants to upstage her life and dominate her with uncontrollable shaking.  Still, she puts on her makeup and Souther inquires about her daily routine.  By this point it takes her a good forty-five minutes before she can finish applying.  It’s involuntary to notice her shaking before anything else, yet that doesn’t ever stop Valerie from maintaining a proper appearance. 

We see her eating a salad and her fork shakes in her hand as she brings it to her mouth.  Valerie comments on how this is not so easy when trying to eat soup.  Her delivery offers a sense of humor to this annoyance.  For my own attempt at empathy, I found it annoying for Valerie.  For the camera, Valerie will never admit it is annoying.  It’s just what she is living with today.

Valerie is described and admits to never having any inhibitions when she was a Las Vegas Showgirl, wearing revealing outfits or appearing topless.  She was also comfortable with the well-known Playboy shoot she did.  From this film, I learned that’s a skill of hers.  Because she does not carry insecurities, she is able to offer up the unglamourous life she endures today as a woman with Parkinson’s.  Souther captures moments where health professionals are getting her comfortable in bed and she may not be completely dressed.  There are times where she is lifted in a harness and it looks anything but graceful.  Often, she is responding to interview questions and her voice is raspy and shakes.  The film shows that Valerie Perrine does not carry one bit of bashfulness.  She has never been shy.  So, whether she’s breathtakingly beautiful or physically unhealthy, she does not perform for the camera.  She only shows herself. 

I have to praise Stacey Souther for an especially telling moment in his short film.  Valerie goes in for surgery in an attempt to alleviate the shaking and tremors she’s experiencing.  Like always, she welcomes Souther’s camera in the hospital room just before she’s to go under.  Soon after the procedure is completed, we learn that Valerie is suffering from a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA).  Blood was not flowing properly to her brain and thus she was dealing with neurological issues like poor vision, confusion and frequent unconsciousness.  To get an idea of this moment, Souther fades his film in and out of blackness.  At one moment, Valerie is tasked with simply saying her name and counting to three, but she just can’t do it.  As best as a film medium can provide, we get a sense of how lost Valerie must be during this period.  It’s a frightening moment, but again I went back to how she was described best; lacking any inhibitions.  Other subjects would have insisted that sequences like this be removed from the final cut of the film.  For Valerie Perrine, if a film is going to cover her life of ups and downs, then it’s going to cover everything.  This is quite brave of both Valerie and her director, Stacey, to cover.

Valerie’s younger brother, Dr. Ken Perrine, recollects memories of a vivacious childhood, as well as accompanying her to the Oscars, and then witnessing the health challenges she’s been facing since before 2014.  He’s as forthright as his sister.  A hard moment to watch is when he describes what it’s like to leave her home on any given day.  He wonders will this be the last time he ever sees her.  The film explores the beginnings of her illness in 2014 and goes through 2018.  Now, in 2022, Valerie is still with us and this feeling has likely never escaped Ken’s subconsciousness.  Illness of any kind is hard on the victim, but it’s also so trying on the loved ones as well.

I found out about this film from Valerie’s Facebook page.  I was only following her because she was a member of the Superman cast.  When she posted about the completion and upcoming release date for this picture, I jumped at the chance for an advance screening so that I could offer up a review.  The fact that Valerie still connects with her fans by means of social media with pictures and anecdotes inform me that she still lives life to the fullest.  The Parkinson’s never pushed her into hiding.  She stays out front with her makeup applied, adorable headpieces to wear and with her friend Stacey by her side, a camera pointing right at her.  Valerie Perrine is nothing less than an exceptionally triumphant woman.

Valerie is available now to stream on Amazon, iTunes, Appletv, google play and Youtube.