by Tim Gilmore, 6/26/2020
Marty Hamrick understands. He began working in film labs and theaters around Jacksonville when he was in high school in the late 1970s. The medium was the message. He became the wizard behind the curtain at Playtime in 1985. He was the last man standing in 2008.
What Mark Eldredge didn’t understand when he told his congregants they could “make this land holy” just before Halloween of 2008 was this:
The “crossdresser” who left the drive-in with a different guy every time didn’t have the power to profane “sacred ground.” Neither did the projectors that beamed the light of The Devil in Miss Jones (certainly not to be confused with the 1941 movie The Devil and Miss Jones) a hundred yards through the night air onto the big white screens in the pines in 1973.
These 13 acres were always holy land and neither church services nor pornography could profane it.
At least that’s what the pine trees and the dandelions and the mosquitoes and the giant Pileated Woodpecker told me when I walked across the empty field six years ago, when I first wrote and published this story on March 4, 2014. Each of them took little notice of pornography and church.
The fire that decimated what was left of the concession and projection building in March 2018, four years to the day from this story’s first version, neither sanctified or profaned this ground. Nor did the earlier exorcism.
Before this holy land was the Christ Church Anglican and before it was the Playtime Drive-In, it was the Playboy Drive-In Theater, and before that the Twin Hills Drive-In, 6300 Blanding Boulevard on Jacksonville’s Westside. Twin Hills was the mostly rural suburban platting designation for the area, so the name of the theater bore no pun toward the drive-in’s future function.
When I wrote the earlier version of this story, Christians walked the Stations of the Cross Friday nights where stoned adolescents once watched movies called Cry Rape and Linda Lovelace for President outdoors in this field walled by trees.
Late that early March night, 2018, two fire department Twitter accounts seemed to argue with each other. One said, “Crews on scene of a church. Heavy fire,” while the other reported, “Fire located” in old theater, “Ladder pipes going up now.” The next tweet said, “The structure is not a church. The property is a old vacant drive in theatre.” [sic] All accounts were true.
In 1952, the Twin Hills Drive-In showed mainstream American movies in a time when drive-in theaters proliferated across North America. Right after World War Two, everything new was centered on the automobile—suburban housing developments and concomitant governmental lending policies, motor hotels or motels, drive-through restaurants, drive-in movie theaters.
Urban drive-ins dealt with complaints of “noise pollution,” but theaters like Twin Hills sent most of their noise into trees and surrounding trailer parks.
One of more than 4,000 drive-ins built across the continent in the 1950s and 1960s, Twin Hills operated for 15 years before Ray Accord and Fuhrman Burchfield bought it in 1967.
By that time, drive-ins were losing profitability, taking desperate measures against rising real estate costs and new ways to watch movies at home. All over the country, drive-ins became porno theaters and flea markets.
So the Twin Hills became the Playboy Drive-In Theater.
In 1971, HMH Publishing Company—meaning Hugh Hefner, publisher of Playboy magazine—sued Jacksonville’s Playboy Drive-In for infringement.
So the Playboy became the Playtime.
The Playtime showed hardcore pornographic XXX films until the City of Jacksonville made their public broadcast illegal in 1981. Then Playtime showed X-rated and R-rated softcore pornography until 1989, when Burchfield assumed the whole enterprise himself.
In the spring of 2014, I wrote of clover blooming across the concrete slabs where moviegoers parked their cars for decades, saying, “Most young people in Jacksonville have never been to a drive-in movie theater.” I added, “Nor do most people know the difference between XXX and X-rated movies.”
In 1968, as the Twin Hills became the Playtime, the Motion Picture Association of America formed to apply ratings to American movies. The MPAA applied an X-rating to movies it deemed unsuitable for minors. Some truly wonderful films, undeniable works of art, were rated X, like Last Tango in Paris and Midnight Cowboy. Since the United Kingdom had rating standards in practice before the United States, Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim was rated X in England in 1962 but had its rating changed to PG, for Parental Guidance, in 1991.
Across the 1970s, pornographic filmmakers found the X-rating a titillating tag for their movies, the kind of attention they wanted. So they advertised movies even more obscene as XX, and finally as XXX.
XXX was never a real rating. It was the porn industry’s marketing gimmick. And it ruined X-rated movies. In the age of XXX, many people assumed X-rated films like A Clockwork Orange and The Evil Dead were pornos and didn’t bother seeing them.
Often enough, moviegoers were disappointed and felt misled by a rating, so the MPAA stopped rating movies X. Anybody who bought tickets to A Clockwork Orange, hoping to see as much sex and as little plot as possible, must have been baffled watching literary dystopia and surreal social commentary with its own invented language both very British and very sci-fi called Nadsat.
(Then again, maybe they, like Alex, the protagonist of Stanley Kubrick’s film and Anthony Burgess’s novel, would say, “Then, brothers, it came. Oh, bliss, bliss and heaven. I lay all nagoy to the ceiling, my gulliver on my rookers on the pillow, glazzies closed, rot open in bliss, slooshying the sluice of lovely sounds. Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh.”)
And Burchfield abandoned X-ratings no less than did the MPAA.
When the projector went dark for the last time on May 31, 2008, Playtime’s recent listings included Indiana Jones movies, Nightmare on Elm Street and Alvin and the Chipmunks.
This field, this ground, on which remain these few wooden buildings and one barely surviving screen, walled about by tall trees, had long doubled as a flea market.
Amongst the wreckage of tables piled high with old clothes and stacks of weather-warped 1950s’ Readers’ Digest Condensed Books and Atari video game cartridges for Space Invaders and Pac-Man and once-mass-produced posters of bullfighters and flamenco dancers, I too moved incognito, investigating, free-afloat in the Southern Gothic landscape.
With merchants and buyers on Northeast Florida’s social fringes I walked through the present that’s always the past in such places.
Such peripatetics are inherently ecstatic.
So I stood in the center of Christ Church Anglican and imagined when pornographic movie stars walked amidst parked cars and signed autographs.
Christ Church Anglican bought these drive-in fields after longtime theater owner Fuhrman Burchfield was shot in a 2007 burglary. The theater had shown movies for almost 60 years. Burchfield lost a leg. The pastor of the church who bought the drive-in said, “God has given us this property.” He didn’t say whether Burchfield’s leg were part of the deal.
Pastor Mark Eldredge was no less astonished than he was theatrical when church volunteers, combing their new property, found several dozen rusted film canisters in the projection house. New church owners said some of the porn reels were hidden in the upstairs walls.
When they found more than a hundred movies with titles like Kinky Business and Private Teacher, they decided to burn the reels in celebratory bonfire. The church went full pagan. The fire would purge the Devil from the land (if not from Miss Jones), not that the pines absorbed one event less than another.
Non-congregants who wandered through the drive-in fields soon afterward found remnants of burnt reels of movies like Pet Semetary.
The thousands of stories enacted on big white screens in this space will never act themselves out again here. Six years ago, four years before the last fire, I wrote, “But as I walk toward the screens, across dollar weeds and grass feebly reaching over old concrete slabs, I get that sense I’ve had since I was a little boy that everything that’s happened in a place persists.”
Indeed what adds this land to its résumé, its curriculum vitae, since my last visit? What started the fire on March 4, 2018 that nearly destroyed the concrete block building that served as projection house and concession stand? Today, empty windows and doorless frames look through from toxic barren fields to a sky preparing to storm. You can see straight through. Were rumors of a meth lab explosion true?
The church vacated this property just after I wrote my story. Block letters still attached to a sagging wooden building behind the old disappeared drive-in entrance say, “Bible Study Every Wed From 1200 to 1230 Plus Healing Prayers.” Over two bolted rotting doors around the corner arcs the word “Chapel.”
Still that childhood sensation haunts me. Joyously. Some metaphors:
Dendrochronology, or the measuring of a tree’s age by its growth rings. Layers of sedimentary rock. (Everything that’s happened is preserved.)
Palimpsest. The parts per million (ppm) of all the substances in the water or the air. (The substance of the past infuses the present.)
National Public Radio began its October 2008 story about the church / drive-in theater / flea market, “There was an unusual religious service yesterday in Jacksonville, Florida.” Just about any day of the year, you could begin a true story with that sentence. How many days of the year is an exorcism not performed somewhere in this strange town?
But I love this field within these pines for the oppositions of life it’s experienced.
It was holy ground when Christ Church Anglican owned it. And it was holy ground already, as I could tell by the trees into which the sounds of Iron Man broadcast in 2008 and Anita Swedish Nymphet in 1973. The pines don’t care. Nor the carpenter ants, both before the last fire and after, in the two-story projection house.
Pornography and religion are only people’s problems. So’s a meth lab and its self-incineration. By the time Playtime “went dark,” people had been lamenting the demise of drive-in theaters for a quarter century. By 2020, one drug epidemic has spiraled into another and into another. The ground rarely cares who owns it. I mourn every human tragedy, but this ground offers no acknowledgement.
Marty Hamrick, who ran the projector at Playtime for more than two decades, has two radically different visions of this land and provides me with Super-8 film stills and photos of these polarities.
In the end, Hamrick found himself managing one of 400—of the original 4,000—drive-ins left in the country.
He remembers a “crossdresser” he describes as looking like Corporal Klinger from the early 1970s TV series MASH.
“You’d never mistake this guy for a chick. When I worked there,” Hamrick tells me, “they’d outlawed the hardcore stuff, and since they were only showing the same stuff you saw on Cable TV, the crowds were nothing like they’d been in the 1970s.”
Though the 1980s’ softcore audiences paled before ’70s’ decadence, Hamrick remembers “the crossdresser who would leave with a different guy every time. There were gay couples that liked to park near the men’s room, couples that wanted to make out parked on the opposite sides of the field from the screens, where it was darker beneath the trees, and the pervs who were really into the movies parked close to the screen.”
But during Marty’s latter years, when his cat Frances guarded the projector for the third screen and theater managers lived in the second-floor apartment in the concession and projection building, he remembers the drive-in emerging from its desperate past to show 3-D movies and conventional comedies to carloads of families for $7 each.
These were years of low maintenance and family moviegoing.
“When we were running 3D movies, like Shark Boy and Lava Girl, my daughter said that being outdoors with the elements, where you felt air and wind, added to the realism of the movie,” Marty says. “It’s a social experience where you’d see people bring lawn chairs and blankets and dogs.”
Before the movie started, kids bought hot dogs at the concession, chased each other around parked cars, and tossed Frisbees to sheepdogs. Those moments were lost in themselves and good.
Even today, after fire after fire after fire, fields grown up in broom sedge, two screens gone, the other filled with holes, somebody shouting angrily in the bathroom building far behind the stalls when nobody’s supposed to be here, including me, I see dogs catching Frisbees. Because I know that right here they once did. And this ground is holy because of all its human history and because even (or especially) outside history, the experience of this land includes everything.