DRIVE-IN GETS BY -- BARELY by Casey Frank

DRIVE-IN GETS BY -- BARELY
Miami Herald, The (FL) - May 22, 1983
Author: CASEY FRANK Herald Staff Writer


When it opened for business on Dec. 4, 1949 -- with the Walt Disney blockbuster Bambi -- the Breezeway Drive-in north of Homestead was an overnight smash, a box office bonanza.

"We had over 500 people that night," said Charlie Frank Bethune, ticket taker on opening night. "The highways were clogged. They were backed up in every direction."

At the Breezeway today, traffic tie-ups aren't a problem; movies like Bambi are a thing of the past; and the workers wonder how much longer they'll have their jobs.

The dilapidated drive-in , the last outdoor movie theater south of Bird Road, has switched from family films to skin flicks -- and cut back its operations from seven days a week to four.

Last weekend's double feature -- 1,001 Erotic Nights and China Girls -- drew fewer than 70 customers a night at $3 a head.

This weekend's combo, Ladies' Night and Afternoon Tease, isn't faring much better at the box office.

There are persistent published rumors -- denied by a representative of the theater company -- that the Breezeway's acreage is about to be bought by Winn-Dixie Stores Inc. and converted into a supermarket.

Winn-Dixie officials wouldn't respond to questions about the rumored sale.

Should it be sold, the Breezeway wouldn't be the first Dade drive-in to die in the name of commerce. In most cases, other closings were attributed to sinking ticket revenues, rising land costs and soaring property taxes.

Changing tastes

Steve Weinstock, a spokesman for Holiday Theaters Inc., which owns the Breezeway, attributes its troubles -- and the doldrums of drive-in theaters in general -- to the changing tastes of American moviegoers.

Holiday owns five indoor theaters in South Dade in addition to the drive-in .

"There has been a drastic decline in drive-in movie theaters," said Weinstock. "They're just not as popular as they used to be, what with cable-TV and home television. People are just not willing to sit in a car like they used to and watch a movie."

The theater manager, a man in his 20s who grew up across
from another now defunct drive-in , believes that outdoor theaters remain a viable business. He blames inadequate maintenance and the ceaseless string of low-budget sex films for the Breezeway's decline.

"What I think is that these sex movies have worn the people out. You see only so much of that and it gets boring," said the manager, who does not want his name used because his parents and friends aren't aware of his X-rated moonlighting.

"Too many people don't dig these X-rated pictures," said backup projectionist George Butler, with a golf hat perched on his head and an unlit cigar stub clamped between his teeth.

Butler has worked at the Breezeway -- or its sister operation, the Homestead Theater -- for 25 years.

Halloweed Lester Jr., the main projectionist, thinks the Breezeway could still be popular if it returned to booking first-run family films.

"If a new movie came out, and we got it here, we could still get a crowd," said Lester, 25, a projectionist for 11 years.

Looking back

In the 1950s and '60s, the Breezeway, at Old Dixie Highway and SW 304th Street, was a thriving attraction for families from the Redland to the Keys. It was a popular hangout for teenagers, too.

"That used to be our Saturday night entertainment," recalled William Dickinson, a Homestead councilman and longtime resident. "I had a 1942 Chevrolet four-door. I would bring the kids, my three daughters, and they would sit on the hood of the car. They would look at the movies and eat popcorn and thoroughly enjoy it. It was a family-type thing that everybody enjoyed."

"The upper echelon used to come to the Breezeway," Bethune recalled.

"Back in those days," she added, "I would go back there and watch an occasional movie myself. They had good movies. Liz Taylor movies. They had the Ten Commandments out there

and> Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

Community mirror

In ways both good and bad, the movie theater was a mirror of the surrounding community.

"One evening, we had three girls who came in on a horse -- three girls on one horse," Bethune recalled.

They hitched the horse to a speaker post and viewed the movie from the animal's back.

Horses were allowed in the movie theater. But until the '60s, blacks were not.

"We had color discrimination. Not only couldn't blacks come here, but neither could Mexicans if their skin was a certain shade of darkness," said Bethune, whose job was to discern the difference.

In those days, the theater owners lived in a two-story house with a large crystal chandelier. The house was built right underneath the screen, so the owners could keep a close eye on the theater operation. The bottom floor is subdivided into storefronts now. The second floor flat is rented out.

By the late 1960s, family-type films were being phased out at the Breezeway. On Dec. 4, 1969, 20 years to the day after showing Bambi, the theater celebrated its anniversary by booking Russ Meyer's spicy sex film, Vixen.

Now that it has switched entirely to skin flicks, the Breezeway is starting to show signs of decay. Weeds shoot through cracks in the undulating asphalt. An unused jungle gym, nearly engulfed by vines, is a rusty reminder that children once frequented the theater.

The shrubbery around the theater's perimeter is strewn with bottles, boxes, gum wrappers and gym shoes. The base of the movie screen has been defaced with graffiti. Several rows of speakers either don't work or have been stripped from their posts.

Concession sales have diminshed considerably, thanks to the ban on children. Adult customers don't buy as many snacks. "They bring in a lot of food from the Burger King now -- where they sell food cheaper than they sell it here," said the manager.

Neighbors complain

As a site barrier, the tall Australian pines surrounding the theater leave something to be desired. Parents living north of the theater have complained there is still a clear view of sex on the screen. They have passed around petitions to close the show down.

Though they are saddened by the condition of the theater, the present manager and ticket taker are bothered most about the
sexually explicit films.

"The ones they are showing now are not fit to be seen," said the ticket taker, a deeply religious widow, who worries what her parishioners might say if her name were used. She watches television on a 12-inch black-and-white set in the ticket booth between cars and never peeks at the movie images that loom overhead. She hangs onto her job because the theater owners "depend on me so much and because I don't want to stay home."

The manager can remember when drive-ins were clean, wholesome family fun. In the '50s and '60s, he lived in the shadow of the Dixie Drive-in at SW 146th Street and U.S. 1.

As a boy, he would would slip into his pajamas, pile into the family car and ride over to the drive-in with his parents to take in the show.

Like the rest of the Dixie's immediate neighbors, the family was issued a free pass to the drive-in as a courtesy -- for tolerating the nightly onslaught of noise.

The Dixie died in 1981. Its unmarked tombstone is a Publix Super Market.

The GoldenGlades Twin Theaters Drive-in , 3401 NW 167th St., was another recent casualty of the disappearing drive-in syndrome. It closed in August 1981 to make way for offices and warehouse space.

To stay alive in an era of of diminishing ticket sales, the Breezeway is increasingly dependent on its Sunday morning flea markets. The weekly swap meets feature a mind-boggling array of merchandise: sinks, stoves, snakes, plastic covered baseball cards, beach balls, bongo drums, tools, tires, drums, jewelry, junk jewelry and junk.

"The flea market is definitely keeping our jobs," said the manager, who brings his "records on wheels" business -- he sells used records out of his car -- to the swap meets.

Breezeway owners have tried boosting cinema attendance with gimmicks and giveaways. The practice of occasionally charging by the car -- rather than by the passenger -- was tried and discarded.

The manager has tried his own mini-promotions, such as handing out gift coupons from his pals in the Eternally Elvis Club, a group of Elvis Presley fans.

"It's just a gesture out of my heart," he said.

It hasn't had much effect.

Economic pressures and changing lifestyles are not the Breezeway's only foes. The Rev. Robert Vollmar, president of the influential Greater Homestead Ministerial Alliance, has made no secret of his desire to see the Breezeway go under.

"Our hands have been basically tied," he said ruefully, "because the theater land is in unincorporated Dade County rather than in Homestead where we have some influence."

The manager, a groundskeeper by day, agrees with the ticket taker and with Vollmar. The movies at the Breezeway, he said, are "disgusting." The manager said he has pleaded with the theater owners to try spy movies or Westerns.

"We've tried it," said Weinstock. "It hasn't done any good."

The manager wonders if the drive-in can survive the summer; whether he'll continue to have a job.

"They can barely afford to pay our salaries," he said.

Vollmar, pointing to the demise of the Dixie, Golden Glades and other drive-ins, predicts a similar fate for the Breezeway.

'It's a dinosaur. I expect it to die a slow death. A gasping death. It can't go to anyplace except dust. It can't go any other way.

"If that happens," added the Baptist preacher, "I would like to take an ad in the newspaper and say 'Hallelujah.' "

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