NEW CASTLE —
Sometimes, customers at the Skyline Drive-In were hard to spot.
Not that the former watch-from-your-car theater in Parkstown didn’t draw scores of filmgoers. It’s just that they weren’t always in plain sight.
The Skyline was owned by John and Elma Warren from 1949-77, and the Warrens fashioned their staff from family members and close friends. Nellie Warren, who married their son John, spent time in both the ticket booth and the concession stand.
“That was the fun part, the ticket booth,” she said. “One person would come in, and you looked in the back seat and there’s little picnic baskets full of food. Now you know darn well, but I wouldn’t say anything, because I thought he probably has a couple of kids back there. Let ’em go.”
Once the movies started, patrons could be similarly out of sight behind steamed-up car windows, a drive-in tradition from which, Nellie agreed, the Skyline was no exception. Participants, though, were left alone, she said.
Well, except maybe for one.
“My worst thing at the drive-in was I’d go and take a date there, and I’d have these little cousins that used to hang out there,” laughed John Warren, John and Elma’s grandson who also worked tickets and concessions, as well as the rides and playground in front of the screen.
“I could never make out. I’d just get the windows frosted up a little bit and I’d hear, ‘Big John, Big John’ – I was the oldest grandson so they called me Big John – and I’d be ‘What? Leave me alone? I’m busy here.’ ”
John, a Vietnam veteran, admits he was not above a little mischief during his younger days at the drive-in. He recalls getting yelled at by projectionist Andy Kovach for making hand silhouettes in front of the projector and “playing with all the buttons” in his grandfather’s Cadillac until he’d hear “John! Put the seat back where it was!”
But the most fun, he and his aunt agreed, came from working at the Skyline and meeting all the people who visited virtually every time the movies changed.
“You’d see the same faces, and you got to be friends with these people,” John said. “You’d see them out on the street, and they’d say, ‘Hey, you’re from the drive-in.’ It was like family.
“Every week, you change movies and every week those same people are always there. And you knew right where they parked, too. They always park in the same, identical place.
“They were like bingo players,” Nellie added. “You’d better not take their parking place.”
Working in the concession stand bred even more familiarity.
“Someone could come, and I could look at him and say ‘This one’s going to ask for a cup of coffee and a meatball sandwich,” she recalled. “I can still see him. He was from Sheep Hill.”
The fact that John and Elma were gracious hosts undoubtedly was one reason why folks returned over and over again to the single-screen, 400-car facility.
“I don’t know how many people he let in to watch movies for nothing, and how many people he gave popcorn to and pop who didn’t have anything,” John said. They were great. They treated everybody well.”
Nellie recalled one night when her mother-in-law spotted a small boy staring forlornly at the popcorn machine. His mother explained that the boy would love to have some of the crunch treat, but he was unable to have salt.
“ ‘Well, that’s no problem,’ my mother-in-law said, ‘we’ll take that machine out, take it in the back, wipe all the salt out, and we’ll make a pot of popcorn without salt.’ The mother said, ‘That wouldn’t be right, what are you going to do with the rest of it?’ And she said, ‘We’ll just throw it in with the rest of it and mix it up.’
“They were so happy. We got these big trays and we filled that popcorn box full of popcorn, and we always had little Dixie cups that we could use to give free drinks. We gave him a little drink and the popcorn, and that was the happiest little boy you ever saw.”
Of course, working at a drive-in theater had its challenges and frustrations as well.
For starters, the original screen – “made of wood, hollow on the inside and it moaned and groaned,” John recalled – blew over around 1959 and had to be rebuilt.
Frequently, John added, patrons would forget to take the speaker out of their window before pulling away, while others, Nellie noted, were more deliberate in separating the speakers from their posts.
“A lot of the kids would cut them off and put them in their cars,” she said.
At intermission, Nellie recalled, the concession stand would descend into chaos, and John explained that fancy cash registers that did the math for you were years in the future.
“All it was was a cash box in your mind,” he said. “People would come up and they’d have popcorn and this and that, and you learned at an early age to add it all up and make the change in your head.”
The longest nights came when the Skyline, like many drive-ins of the time, would show dusk-to-dawn movies. Although the concession stand closed after the second film, someone had to stay until the sun rose the next morning.
“I can remember my grandfather telling me that he had to wake people up to get them to go home,” John said, switching to a low, gravelly voice to mimic his grandfather’s rant, ‘Dumb sons of (expletive), sleeping in the car, the sun’s up, it’s 8 o’clock in the morning.’ ”
Despite some of the speed bump, the experience that ended when the Warrens sold the facility in 1977 (it closed for good a few years later) is one John wouldn’t have wanted to miss.
“People were great,” he said. “I don’t remember anyone ever getting into a fight. The worst thing was the blowing of the horns at dusk, because that’s when the movies supposed to start, but if you start it too early, you can’t see it on the screen.
“My grandfather had his place where he parked his car every night,” he went on. “After that was gone, I can’t tell you the number of times I drove in that theater and parked where he parked and just sat there, just thinking about it all.”