The Umbilo Drive-In - an adventure in social constructivism

By GM Enerson ------ 29 February 2012
Main entertainment page

My mind drifts back...

Growing up, where people spoke the same language, shared most values and understood with a reasonable amount of certainty the divides of the matrix we inhabited, was an adventure in social construct. We all needed each other. It was a time to make mistakes, taking the fragile learning’s with us into later life. We were blessed with being able to roam with such freedom, safe in the knowledge that the line between fun and crime, a fine one, was never to be overstepped. Poked at, prodded and pushed at, sure, but never crossed. Never allowing it to take a hold of you, a kind of amateur juvenile delinquent if you like, into vengeful mischief and enjoying the thrill of it.

But you had to cultivate a reputation. A scallywag, a scoundrel, even a reprobate. There is power in the way you were perceived especially when others think you have it figured out. Sometimes we were like sceptics in the great come-back tent of reprobates. The faith on offer was sometimes too simple and drippy, the answers too easy. All we had to concern ourselves with was being home on time to eat, do homework and sleep. Many had some type of wounding early on, either a death in the family or a breakup of the family and it sent them off on some journey where they’d find themselves kneeling at the alter of an empty ideology praying to the Lizard King.

The importance of adolescence was rarely considered; the things that happened then (being furtive, inquisitive, reckless, aimless), the way you perceive them in later life have a very big effect on what you do later on. Most were somewhat rudderless. There was a time when I thought that these howling vagaries could only be resolved by a great cleansing wind of change. There was so much potential but very little resource and planning. Frustratingly what we didn’t have was the ability to look over the hill and see what was coming. This meant that it was going to take a whole lot of time and a whole lot more retakes.

And so the characters of middle-class suburbia Umbilo were forged on the cold anvils of where we found ourselves, beaten into shape by the hit-and-miss rush of life.

I could never fathom out why we were so drawn to the idea of hanging around outside the Umbilo Drive-In, with absolutely no chance of getting our fill, movie wise. How can you star gaze on a cloudy night? Well, that’s exactly what we did. Went to the Drive-In Friday nights (every night during the holidays), took up a good position on the side of the fence along Oliver Lea Drive, under the street light on the sharp bend in the road over looking the fence or right under the screen which necessitated you having to lie flat on your back, up against the front section of the creosote fence, rank and file. We could sometimes even get to hear some of what was going on. Good spots were at a premium, depending on what was showing and how many times you had seen it, as was getting up-close and personal.

I can liken it to being the Pinball Wizard himself. Remember him, the rock opera character from Tommy, penned by the famous British rock band, The Who, played by Roger Daltrey himself; “that deaf, dumb, blind kid sure plays a mean pinball...” frightfully impaired with the requisite skills, to boot. Because that’s exactly what prevailed; you could not hear, were entertained by mutes and didn’t have a ghost of a chance to see what was going on because of the other more important goings on around you... sex, drugs and rock ’n roll?? Can’t recall now...

Mandatory was a packet of Lucky Strike, soon to become Texan plain, around 15 cents a packet of 20’s!!

These were always carefully stashed in your under-rods together with a box of Lion matches that made a racket when you ran. Running was a thing we always did. Not so clever when they were kept there for hour’s on end at the height of a Durban summer. They were never fresh after marinating in there!

Creased, bent and with a sweat stain to add to the toxins. Not sure why we persisted. I suppose it was doing the ‘big boy’ thing; like getting a nip and tuck when you don’t need one!

What we did need was a lot of pluck baby, to endure the hard ground, the cold nights, the repetition of some real cheesy movies, the odd ‘knobhead’ who always kept turning up, seeing your favourite squeeze - the one who you were to embarrassed to chat up, hanging out with someone else. To think that it took ages for me to realise that no matter who you are or what you look like, chicks just love it when you hit on them, always. While we are on the subject, don’t forget, Otis Redding said it perfectly; “try a little tenderness”. Moving on, a few drags on a soggy, brightly glowing Texan plain, a swig of finely backwashed Rock n’ Roll brandy wine, its bouquet the same as octane, 25 cents a half-jack, soon to become Paarl Perle. With money too tight to mention, the alternative was too ghastly to contemplate, cleaning products!

The Umbilo Drive-In was introduced around the same time as the municipal grounds, adjacent to the Drive-In site, were turned from the Wickton Football Club’s training ground into Brettonwood High school, shortly after the completion of the laying of the first crude oil pipeline link between Durban and Johannesburg. Mr Harvey was the manager at the time that had the job of dealing with us if caught sneaking into the place after it became fashionable to test your wits against the night watchman. I turned out to be the decoy runner as whenever we sneaked in and were spotted I was the one who ran off in a different direction to be the only one the night watchman would chase. Thanks guys.

Got away a few times and got caught a few times, my ‘sneaking in report card’ showing a breakeven status. Getting caught meant spending a few hours locked in Mr Harvey’s office being threatened with the police, lying about who you were and where you lived. Of course the others were safely seated in the auditorium, long having forgotten about the plight of the decoy runner, smoking and doing spade work. Old Spice hid any hint that you had just spent the last 15 minutes acting like a fox with the hounds on your trail.

Neville Fisher, a long standing buddy of mine shares a few Umbilo Drive-In moments of his own with us. Says Neville, “A certain friend of mine used to take us to the Drive-In in his Anglia; we used to get into “no under 21” movies by getting his girlfriend to place a pillow under her dress to make her look pregnant whilst I lay under the blanket behind the front seats (not to mention the two other friends in the boot). He was a great actor and used to come out with important catch phrases like, “Please pass me the wallet my Darling” or “Are you feeling OK my Love” at the crucial moment.

One night 19 of us decided on “the mother of all let’s sneak into the Drive-In” missions. We gathered in the park and virtually demolished the high fence with little or no finesse to gain entry. I remember one or two skirmishes breaking out with security guards who were quickly overcome but seem to remember seeing one sprinting after someone. I made it to the auditorium and within minutes it went from being half empty to full. There were still the occasional sounds of raised voices and scuffles emanating from the outer darkness and before long the movie came to a stop and the lights went on, much to the disgust of all the motorists who started hooting and shouting abuse at the owner. He was by that time trying to round us all up with his “knob Kerrie” and a few hired hands, one of whom was complaining that he’d been hit on the head with a brick. I couldn’t imagine who would have done such a thing, certainly no one I knew. The police arrived and escorted us all out and back to the edge of the park where they tried to arrest one or two of the main instigators. Unfortunately for them, as they tried to get someone into the back of the van everyone tried to get in insisting we were all to blame, and when they tried to get us out we all got out. After the “hanna hanna” which went on for quite some time they managed to get a few guys to the station for questioning but everyone was soon released”.

Prior to that, all we had was the radio to stretch the imagination. A fine stretching exercise indeed, riveting stuff leaving your young mind rather agile. I’m glad we got to go through the formative years on a healthy diet of radio. We had to call on all our senses to build the picture, dragging our emotions along behind us; a non-visual, magical experience that inspired us to supply our own accompanying images. In our mind these images are even more intoxicating and extravagant making for a liberating experience. Springbok radio provided most of this in the form of; Jet Jungle, Kid Grayson Rides the Range, No place to Hide, Squad Cars, Taxi, Test the Team, Pick-a-Box, Consider your Verdict, Mark Saxon and Serge, Inspector Karr and the list goes on. Then as we moved on in the circle of life LM radio, the LM Hit Parade, with David Davies, John Berks, David Gresham and others massaged our fledging persona.

Hanging around the Umbilo Drive-In didn’t always mean that we were stuck outside. Sometimes we got to pay and sit in the auditorium or even get an invite from someone’s parents and got to motor in, only to find an excuse to get out of the car and make for the auditorium to hook up with the crew. The news reel ran for about an hour. African Mirror brought us the news of the world. The Vietnam War, the first living-room war was just starting to get real ugly. I always wondered why we saw so much of it and then of course conscription caught up with us later as the US, after having gone through such heartache, realised that 58,000 dead sons was about all it could take. We then had our own ‘war’ to contend with. Warner Brothers offered a measure of relief with a ‘violent’ Tom & Gerry, Road Runner or Daffy Duck cartoon. Then things really got sophisticated, the Pink Panther arrived. Smooth cat that. If we stayed for the second show which we invariably did, we got to see that all again. Excruciating if you were just there for the movie!

The exit sign played its part in all this. It was a clock in itself; a red neon brute. It signalled the end of a night of fun. It was fired up about five minutes before the end of the movie, time to pack up and head on home. Come to think of it, it masqueraded as a muted parent of sorts, bellowing out in a neon sort of way that you had better get moving. No matter what show we were at, first, second, the midnight, the exit sign always had the last say.

The Umbilo Drive-In offered up a change, a place where we could go to hide, to escape the authority and conformity that parents demanded, parents who were struggling to understanding that the galloping mare (nightmare in their case) of social change had hit its stride. The radio kept us at home. The world had been delivered to us in a very accessible way and what we saw and heard had a marked impact on us. It was a rejection of the values and tastes of our parents. Consumerism was raising its head! A barrage of advertising and fads was to come. The locus of control was beginning to be seriously eroded.

We had the opportunity of mixing with like age, bringing similar ideas to bear, pushing each other and shaking off the humdrum of innocent suburbia days, in some cases wanting to skip growing up and jump all the way to forty. I say forty because there was still a lot of growing up to do for a rudderless adolescent; remaining in a state of suspended adolescence? But that’s a subject for the head-mechanics; a personal expression of cultural trauma of the postmodern age? So hanging around the Umbilo Drive-In was much, much more than watching a movie. It was the watering hole of a changing social world and those who had to face up to the rising waters of these space-bound changes, drank deeply from it.

On reflection, I now understand why the Umbilo Drive-In was such a focal-point in our lives. It makes a heap of sense. Don’t know about you but I prefer life with the rinds, and the seeds and the pulp left in. That said; I know that I am an alumnus of the ‘Academy of the Umbilo Drive-In’ when it comes to my social construct. What about you?

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