Miami Herald, The (FL) - August 23, 1982
Author: ELLEN BARTLETT Herald Staff Writer

The last 50-cent night at the Hi-Way Airport 9 Drive-In. The regulars arrive before 8 p.m., as usual, to cash in on the cheap seats.

Cool Bill Morris and his weight-lifting pal Jimmy Sands lean on a ’65 Comet convertible, waiting for Rocky III, killing thirst with Pabst Blue Ribbon, killing time, killing mosquitos.

Two unemployed women smoke cigarets in a three-tone Vega. Screen No. 7 in front of them is blank but promising: When the sun goes down and Friday the 13th Part III comes up, there will be suspense, deranged killers and death by sharp implements.

The old routine. Same people. Same popcorn.

After Tuesday, the regulars won’t be returning. There won’t be anything to return to.

The Airport 9’s nine grist-mill sized projectors, nine dingy, peeling movie screens, assorted popcorn machines and wiener steamers will belong to Broward County.

After 28 years between the Dania swamps and Federal Highway, the only attraction coming to the Airport 9 is the fast-growing Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

The Airport 9 opened in 1954 with one screen. In 1972 it tripled. It tripled again in 1975.

"It was going to be a 10. They still had Airport 10 on the sign when I started," said Jack Hegarty, the gentle, red-bearded man who has managed the theater for six years and lives in a small apartment above the snack bar.

When the Airport 9’s nine screens were new and drive-ins were in, as many as 1,200 cars would pack the 33-acre theater at 1930 N. Federal Highway, Dania.

There was air conditioning and radio sound. Viewers could
hook wide-mouthed blue hoses to their car windows, turn on their car radios and tune out everything but the drama.

Time, the opening of the Hi-Way Swap Shop three years ago and the theater’s imminent sale to the county took their toll.

The air conditioners that weren’t rubbed out by moviegoers with large cars have been disassembled. Many of the speakers don’t work; the ones that do crackle.

The pavement is cracked, buckled and littered.

But some things haven’t changed.

The mosquitos are still terrible, the sand fleas worse.

Trains trundle south just behind Screen No. 9, drowning out the noise of the traffic on Federal Highway.

Airplanes still scream overhead.

Every 15 minutes or so, jets taking off from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport make conversation, on or off the screen, impossible.

People still honk their horns when something goes wrong.

And they still try to sneak in.

Hegarty can spot a sneak every time, he said. The drivers talk too fast.

Just last week, he caught a middle-aged woman letting her husband out of the trunk of their car. It was 50-cent night. He made them pay the extra four bits.

The sneak-in record was eight in the trunk of a Cadillac.

When the driver opened the trunk, he said, "Everybody popped out all over the place. They were all wrinkled."

They wanted to see if they could, the culprits told him. Just another drive-in tradition.

"You can’t beat a drive-in," Bill Morris said from the back seat of the Comet. "It’s good American entertainment."

"It’s the last holdout," Sands said, waxing nostalgic as he walked to the snack bar to buy insect repellent.

What other theater offers a selection of 18 movies , free mosquito coils at the ticket booth and a biorhythm machine at the snack bar?

Some of the movies are first-run, too, Hegarty said. But first-run films don’t necessarily spell profits in the drive-in business.

Low-grade horror , high adventure, lowbrow humor, high-speed chases.

Movies with blood, gore, Clint Eastwood, cops, cowboys, Burt Reynolds, fast cars. Those sell.

"Play a first-class film here and it wouldn’t do a thing," Hegarty said. "They want action."

Action and a bargain. People who bring their own booze, drive beat-up American cars and bring the kids to bed down in the back seat like the admission price -- about half the admission to an indoor theater.

Tuesday, admission and popcorn will be free, the movie selection nostalgic. The Last Night will feature The Last Picture Show, movies about airports, movies about movies , movies about going away. They were carefully selected.

"It hasn’t hit me yet," Hegarty said.

His parents ran the old Gold Coast Drive-In in Pompano Beach before it was bought out by a shopping center, before Southern Bell replaced the old Federal Drive-In with an office building, before the Arrow was turned into a car lot.

When the Airport 9 is gone, there will be two drive-ins left in Broward, the Thunderbird and the Lake Shore, both owned by Preston Henn, the race car driver who owns the Airport 9.

So far, Henn has been paid $4.25 million for his airport theater. He could receive more. The purchase price hasn’t been settled.

By the time it is settled, the theater will have been long gone.

"I think it’s terrible," said Valerie Bierman, 22, waiting for Friday the 13th Part III.

"We saw Friday the 13th Part I and II here, too," Bierman said. "We like gore."

She and friend Diane Petriella, 23, drive from Hollywood in the three-tone Vega at least once a week.

"Beats sitting home and watching pay TV," said Petriella.

Used to be, they’d roller skate at the Galaxy during the week, meet at the drive-in Sundays. An entire crowd would drive up.

"This was a real social place," Bierman said.

"It was a hangout," Petriella said.

"We used to fill two rows with people from Hollywood. Everybody used to play Frisbee. We had watermelon fights," Bierman said. "We had good times."

Tony Sossong’s mother told him about the drive-in’s demise. He hasn’t missed a cheap night since he got out of the Navy.

He and Sam Hirsch play baseball until the movie starts, or Asteroids at the snack bar where red-haired cashier Lillian Wentzel watches.

"I wouldn’t take a million dollars for what I’ve seen from behind this counter," said Wentzel, who has an especially sharp eye for tourists.

Like Thomas Scott, an ample-girthed, clip-voiced British doctor, who arrived in a rented black Cadillac.

"It’s rather a good idea, actually, the drive-in. I’ve read they’re fast becoming an institution," he said.

"These people from Europe," Wentzel said. "This is something fantastic to them. They don’t have nothin’ with nine screens. ..

"We hate the airport people for taking our place. Where are we going to go now?"

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