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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Remembering Tulsa's late Admiral Twin Drive-In: The not-always-happy daze and eerily liberating nights of an Oklahoma outsider

Yesterday one of my generation's favorite spooky-sexy-kitschy childhood haunts, made famous in Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 film The Outsiders, sadly went up in flames ... hours before showing The Final Exorcism. (Hello!)

But though Tulsa's (and Route 66's) historic Admiral Twin Drive-In has died at age 60--generous donations may rebuild the eight-story edifice by next May--its celluloid-worthy memory remains emblazoned on the minds and hearts of generations who grew up marveling at the larger-than-life images projected on its majestic screens.

For me and apparently many others--check out the 'Save the Admiral Twin" Facebook page--the now-charred landmark remains a beloved portal to our wide-eyed youth spent watching movies and making memories under the moon.

Drive-ins, of course, became a national rage in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Kids of the 1970s (like me) learned this by watching Happy Days. Kids of the 1980s (still like me) learned this by watching The Outsiders. (More on this cultural phenom in a moment.) The true power of the outdoor theater first hit home for me, though, at the cross-section of these latter decades, during the late spring 1980 release of the Seventies-schlock-worthy film Friday the 13th.

Yes, the original original--not the remake of the original. The pre-Jason-slaying version. Before he went 3-D and before the time it was personal. (Wait, I'm thinking of a WTF-Michael-Caine-ain't-no-Roy Scheider Jaws. Carry on.)

Anywho, my parents took my sister and me to a double feature at the Admiral Twin that fateful, turn-of-the-decade late spring/early summer. I can't remember the first movie we saw that night. It was probably such family fare as an encore presentation of The Deer Hunter, which my dad, good old Irv, took us to see in 1977. As if that weren't good enough on my psyche, the second, lesser-known Twin feature began with a woman getting hacked to death in the woods. Kill-kill-kill-ma-ma-ma-innocence-innocence-innocence.

My 16-year-old sister and her nerdy 8-year-old brother sat with our mandibles dropped to our family Suburban's backseat floorboards while one nubile teen after another dropped like flies on the billboard-sized screens before us. My mom spent approximately 90 minutes saying things like, "I can't believe we're watching this $#!+!" and "Oh, my God, don't look, Chris! Irv, let's get the hell out of here!" I think that was the one moment in the 1980s that I appreciated my father. Because I wanted to see the creepily turtlenecked Betsy Palmer's eight-story carnage, and he was all, "Har-har-har ... the car won't start!"

Imagine seeing this on an eight-story outdoor screen as a squirrely eight-year-old kid.

And then Mrs. Vorhees lost her head. In super-slow motion. On a giant screen. The lot full of Camero-hood-necking, faceless teens surrounding us screamed, "Wooooohooooo! Noooo waaaaay! Kill her, bitch!"

Mayberry it wasn't. But to me, it's as good as a black-and-white Floyd the Barber going crazy and cutting a lip-giving Aunt Bee. The Eighties had arrived. And so had I.

Check out my two-part interview with the chick who made Jason's mom lose her head.

When The Outsiders put Tulsa on the map (a year after another of author S.E. Hinton's Matt Dillon-starring teen flicks, Tex, did the same), I'd hit the throes of adolescence. Actually, the throw-ups of adolescence is more apt. I was a true outsider's outsider. If I'd been alive in Tulsa in the Sixties, I'd have been the kid who was ostracized by the poor kids who lived on the wrong side of the tracks. In fact, an additional set of tracks would be installed just to keep me on the other side of the other side. If I ended up on the right side of the wrong side of the tracks, I'd have to give up my hair gel at knife point so C. Thomas Howell could feel good about himself.

(I was apparently such an outsider in Tulsa that S.E. herself [yes, that one] acted put out when I interviewed her in person in 1990 for a story I was writing for The University of Tulsa's student newspaper, The Collegian. Here I was a college freshman asking her about the famous Tulsa-based films based on her best-selling books for a story extolling her coronation as one of her alma mater's "distinguished alumni" for TU's Homecoming. Ms. Hinton was clearly annoyed by my aww-shucks excitement and, well, was downright rude and hostile. Seemingly, she'd waited a quarter century to find someone who was more awkward than she was as a teenager to project all of her outsider frustration [or whatever] onto. Why couldn't I have been sitting two feet away from someone more hospitable to a naive, enthusiastic teenager ... like Mrs. Vorhees?)

The Outsiders Admiral Twin Drive In Theater

scopio sting film | MySpace Video

That said, I watched in wonder as the cool kids at my junior high school--in a modest suburb of Tulsa called Catoosa--impersonated the poor kids in The Outsiders. It was surreal and mildly uncomfortable (Hey, I'm the outsider, dammit!), but in a weird way I connected because we were all proud that our metropolitan stomping grounds, namely the Admiral Twin Drive-In, now had national street cred. The outsiders of Catoosa were now insiders. Except for me, of course. I was from the wrong side of the tracks in Catoosa. You can't get any more outside than that.

Unless, of course, you were actually outside ... at the drive-in theater. And then you were strangely inside, because you were in the dark and invisible--this time, in a good way ... like everyone else.

At the Admiral Twin Drive-In I felt connected to the outside world both literally and figuratively. I'd always wanted to move to Hollywood and write about and for the industry that had entertained and informed my youth. Gassing up the car and driving in to the Twin with my friends helped me get through high school and college and enjoy an occasional, plenty-good escape as I planned my great escape. (Thank you, S.E., for further strengthening my resolve : ).

Whether it was a slasher film, a coming-of-age feature or (the last movie I saw at the Twin) The Fugitive that brought me to this cherished, soon-to-rise-again Tulsa relic, nothing was more liberating than experiencing a night as an Admiral Twin outsider watching the stars under the stars.


Anonymous said...

It's heartening to see people rally around this landmark after this catastrophe. At least it didn't go the way of so many great drive-ins and become sad swap meet lot. Great piece! This brought back a lot of memories!

Heather Willis said...

Great story Chris! One of my stand out memories of the admiral twin is when we went to see a nightmare on elm street movie after your car got stolen. I am so glad that it is going to be rebuilt.

CHRIS MANN said...

Thanks, guys, for your feedback. Glad you liked the piece! @goodiesfan ... hahaha ... there are a lot of sad swap meets in Calif.! Thank God the folks in Tulsa have rallied so loudly.

@Heather ... I forgot about "Nightmare!" (What a perfect movie to see, though, after having your car stolen AT GOODWILL!). Speaking of nightmares ... had I told you about the S.E. Hinton experience when we met in '91? What a profound disappointment she was. Thank God for (outwardly) grateful icons like John Ritter and, yes, even Suzanne Somers (whom I also interviewed for the Collegian in 1990 ... she quickly made up for S.E.'s cold, put-out attitude).

Martha J. said...

Wow, what was up with SE Hinton's chip on her shoulder? Was she pissed that she hadn't had much success since the early 80's?

Lesli Rider said...

What a great article, Chris! My brother texted me on Friday to tell me about the fire, and he and I reminisced about my fanatic obsession with "The Outsiders" way back when. Ironically, this all came up just a couple of weeks after I watched that movie for the first time in probably twenty years. Now I see it as a sad, rather depressing story. I'm not sure what drew me to it back in the day. I am glad to see that the drive-in will be rebuilt and I'm sure that "The Outsiders" will be part of a celebration of its re-opening.

CHRIS MANN said...

Thanks, Lesli! I appreciate your thoughts. If I recall correctly, Matt Dillon and C. Thomas Howell were the "big names" 27 years ago when the movie hit ... nearly every girl in my grade was gaga over at least one of them. That, coupled with the Tulsa connection, made it pop culture gold, I guess! I recall "Tex" more vividly--particularly the scene where he'd been shot and was using the payphone in front of the Camelot hotel. It was as if Tulsa has suddenly gone legit! So funny.

Faruk said...

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