We’d traveled many hours west and played a show in town that night and afterwards we’d all congregated in one of our cabins for a nightcap. The caravan park was mostly asleep, crickets and a distant muffled radio. Checking in earlier we’d noticed that right across the road, on a few fenced-in acres, lay an abandoned Drive-In movie theatre.
“I think we need to go and check this out” I implored the others, “it’s important.”
A small group of us assembled, rugged up and alcohol warmed, and set out. We needed to find a way in. An impenetrable fortress of yucca plants, with their skin-piercing thorns and tall Dr Suess-tree flowers, lined the fence and proved a perfect barrier to intruders. They only broke rank at the padlocked entrance gate. Ignoring the long-faded ‘Dogs Patrol this Area’ sign we found a few strands of barbed wire already cut above the mesh wall and hoisted each other over.
Inside the air felt different even though it was only wire separating us from the rest of the world. The giant peeling screen, lord of the lot, looked down at us disapprovingly. Aided by moonlight you could just make out the slight undulations of the aisles where cars would line up, angled toward the movie. Speaker poles sprouted evenly spaced as far as you could see, like they’d been planted and grew that way.
The characterless orange-brick projection booth sat away in the middle of all this, like a malevolent 70s toilet block.
Someone said “We probably should just go back” and the rest of us answered by walking toward it.
Of course it was unlocked.
Cobwebs and Dust. Our eyes adjusted by degrees. Someone used the glow of their mobile phone so we could inspect closer. Old movie posters lay decaying on the floor in tatters, a cupboard door ajar sprouted unspooled film ends like lolling tongues, piles of broken plastic speakers, wires and fuses. Over against the front wall two rugged hulking shapes stood side by side like stabled horses. We lifted the covers to discover the original projectors looking almost as new.
To the side another older industrial looking mechanism we worked out to be a slide machine used to project ads between the movies. Piles of the tiny glass slides lay here and there, some on the ground had been cracked underfoot. Most of them had painted miniature scenes for coming movies and local businesses…‘For all your beauty needs, come on down to Complexion Perfexion.’
I went and stood on my own in the cafeteria under a wall of movie star decoupage. This whole place felt haunted. But not by human spirits. The air was heavy with the ghosts of nostalgia. There was an empty space left by the blasts of weekend activity this patch of ground had once known. And since the last car taillight faded out the EXIT gate and the last corn was popped, sometime in the 1980’s: this silence.
That night back in the caravan I lay awake thinking of the Real Estate placards tied to the perimeter fence and knowing how these things go had nightmares of the place being sold and bulldozed flat to make way for an industrial estate or even worse, a housing estate. Yuck!
In the morning a couple of us got straight up and risked the fence climb in daylight so I could go salvage what I could for posterity. I took a ripped film poster (Man From Snowy River), a glass slide (The Howling 2), a flier advertising this weeks coming feature (The Poseidon Adventure), and a short 16m smoking commercial. We had to be quick as by this time the band were waiting for us at the gate in the van ready to leave.
What we didn’t know was that a fan from out of town who’d been at our show last night (and was incidentally miffed I hadn’t played the song Brooklyn Bridge, which he’d been calling out for) had coincidentally turned up at that same time to nostalgically look at the old Drive-In, where he was once taken as a child. He recognised the band and struck up conversation.
He was well dressed and my manager Matt quickly convinced him to act as security and trick us into thinking we were busted.
As we neared the boundary I spotted this stranger straight away, leaning on the chain wire gate, staring at us.
‘So what’s going on here?’ he said when we were within earshot. I was startled by the officiousness of his tone. I knew then we were in trouble.
All I could come up with was “Um… nothing.”
“You do realise you’re trespassing don’t you?” he was perfect for the role, “Do you know how much the fine is for this? $3000 a piece.”
I could feel my mouth going dry and a fist tightening in my stomach. My partner in crime spoke up, “We were only taking photos!” but I felt the weight of the evidence in my hand which would disprove this statement, growing heavier.
‘So how are gonna play this? What do you think we should do?’ he continued.
I still couldn’t find the words. He eyeballed me and pointed his finger and said ‘Maybe if you sang a little bit of Brooklyn Bridge?’
The others erupted into laughter, shook hands and back-slapped the guy , thanking him for a job well done.
After the tour I took my keepsakes home not even really sure what I’d do with them. They ended up in a bag under the bed. ‘What does it matter?’ I reasoned ‘At least I saved them from the relentless wrecking ball of progress.’ But as the weeks stretched I felt their presence grow underneath me like Aesop’s pea.
I remembered an article I’d read that told of the park ranger at Uluru receiving weekly packages of rocks and soil overzealous tourists had collected as mementos of their holidays. Sometimes completely unmarked envelopes of pebbles would show up on his desk like a Christmas card from the earth itself. Other times these samples where accompanied by guilty letters confessing lives had taken turns for the worst resulting in divorces, sickness, unemployment and the death of loved ones, since the stones had been pilfered. Please return where found.
Whether or not it was superstitions at play I began to understand. I knew I’d taken something I shouldn’t have. I’d desecrated a sacred site; upset the natural order of things. And that place certainly felt holy to me. Who was I to decide the fate of these unwanted inanimate objects, defenseless as they are? I have to tell you, it just felt wrong.
But fate did eventually come into play with the Drive-in. I realise now it was calling to me but I wasn’t listening properly. In the short amount of time since the night of that break-in a series of events occurred, some triggered by the others, that led me to a way of preserving this place without taking anything away.
Last weekend we returned, this time to an unlocked gate, to make a music video. We were told no one had been allowed in since about 1984. I was happy to be back. The first thing I did when I got there was carry a bag across the field to put every last piece I’d taken back to where it was found and where it was meant to stay.
PART 2 COMING SOON