My First Drive-In Theater Experience at Showboat (And, A Few Thoughts on “Zootopia”)

An Essay Written By Victor DeBonis

Photo Credit: Victor DeBonis

For the longest time, up until this past week, at over 30 years, I had never been to a drive-in theater before. This is strange to admit, given that I’m a film writer of sorts and have shared nothing less than high enthusiasm for movies, in general. I’d always been fascinated whenever I watched an older movie from the 60’s or 70’s when it would show that familiar scene of lines of cars sitting in front of that massive outdoor screen to watch some romance or campy horror flick. Even in more modern movies, such as last year’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” or a scene in that 1990’s film, “Now and Then” where one of the kids sits on a rooftop to quote a romance movie from the screen of a drive-in from miles away, they show how much drive-in theaters were a big part of American culture for a long time. I always admired the peaceful feeling that was set up in those scenes involving a drive-in theater. The idea of going to a big screen, located out in the open and in the middle of a rustic background, felt so relaxing and distinct from a general theater-going experience that most people are used to.

The main reason that I had never experienced being at a drive-in, up until recently, was that, growing up, my family used to moved around often, due to my father’s job, and, in whatever places that we moved to, there was never a drive-in theater in that town or anywhere close enough to us. Thankfully, there was always a decent number of video rental stores, particularly Blockbuster, so I was able to start indulging in my love for film through areas, such as that. Yet, as far as the drive-in was concerned, that experience was nothing that I could say that I had experienced, even when I had a couple of other friends widen their eyes when they said that I hadn’t even been to one as a kid.

So, it was a special treat when my great friends, Quinn and Emily, and I planned to see a film at the Showboat Drive-In located in one of the more rural parts of the state in Hockley, Texas. We headed there about an hour and a half early before the gates were supposed to happen, so we could get the best parking possible. In fact, we got there early enough to the point that we were almost the only people in front of the gate for several minutes. The first few signals that we weren’t going to a normal theater experience stood right at the front of the trail leading to the gates. A long, electric, bright red-arrow literally points you in the direction that you’re supposed to go, and there’s a plastic sign underneath that arrow with letters telling patrons what movies are playing for that night.

As Quinn drove further down the curving, dusty trail, I noticed a nice painting of a lady in a silk, 1800’s-styled, Southern dress admiring a steamboat from afar on the green grass and the theater’s title presented in bold, red letters above and below the picture. It didn’t matter to me that the painting didn’t have much to do with theater-going. I just loved how it was presented to help give this theater more of its own identity, and the artist in me admired the pleasant, light colors of the water and the grass in the picture. The image gave a pleasant sense of relaxation to admire, too, fitting in with the atmosphere that this drive-in theater itself gave.

After a few minutes of waiting in front of the gates, we noticed that huge lines of cars were trailing from three lanes waiting to be let in. Lines were crawling with people from the bright arrow sign all the way to the front, and it was awesome to see families and other people probably wanting to kick back and unwind from a chaotic time when many indoor theaters were still closed and much of what we seek from entertainment was still essentially at a halt. Plenty of people, including myself, were eager to not only find a brief form of entertainment away from their houses that was safe but were also pumped to see something in a theater again.

As soon as we drove in, I got an instant sense of how laid-back the atmosphere was. Outside, amidst this large, grassy lot, there was little else beyond this giant screen and the small building serving as the snack bar. It was incredibly quiet and felt so far away from the constant motion and honking of cars from the modern world. Everything felt at ease. That tranquil feeling spread to the rest of the people coming in to see the movies, since others were quietly parking their cars or trucks or backing them up, so others could see the screen from the backs of their vehicles. Patrons set up their lawn chairs, lit their cigarettes outside, and enjoyed the fresh air and calmness without feeling much, if any, humidity for that night. On both sides of the screen were swing sets and tetherball courts, where kids ran off to play on before the darker hours of the evening started to approach.

As I headed back to my friend’s car with my root beer and candy in hand, I took my seat on one of the lawn chairs that we brought, and we spent a long time talking about all types of things that were movie-related, including a discussion over what made others adore or scratch their heads in confusion at Tarantino and adding to my friend’s 100 percent true statement that “Batman: The Animated Series” best represented the titular hero from all the media that did so in the past. Naturally, due to the circumstances of the pandemic, I was limiting myself far more often when it came to meeting up with my friends on a face-to-face basis, and I could feel a bit anxious at times by staying more at home as right as it was (and, currently is) for me and others to do. So, that probably played a part in me just talking with a more vigorous nature that night. It had also been a longer time since any newer movies were out in theaters since then, and, without many newer flicks from the box office to discuss in a good or bad way, it felt like a time where so many film lovers, including myself, were starving for something to get a bit of that epic feeling of seeing something on the big screen again. After over three months of not being able to go to a theater to see a film, something that was a personal sanctuary for me, the sheer joy of going to a theater again gave me a greater feeling of joy that evening, and I was happy to finally be experiencing the drive-in after so many years. Mosquitoes were nipping at me hard on the heels, and I was still pumped that I was out here with great company tonight.

A near-full moon hung in the dark sky above as my friend and I searched for just the right signal on the boom box radio that my friend has purposefully bought to hear the sound for the movie tonight. This theater made the wise choice of airing the feature film itself at exactly the time that it said it was going to, as opposed to most theaters that suggest that the time for the film is going to start at a certain point but is, in truth, when the trailers start. The movie for that evening was “Zootopia.” It was a movie that I had seen a few times before, but I had no problem seeing it again.

Admittedly, when this movie first came out a few years ago, I thought that it was fine, and I really enjoyed it. I loved the animation and world-building as well as the message itself about accepting others with their differences and embracing diversity without being prejudicial, but, at that time, I also could predict a little too well how the friendship between the bunny, Judy, and the fox, Nick, was going to turn out, and I felt that the message, while a great one to teach, was one that I thought was almost too obvious in how it was presented in certain parts. Also, similar to so many Disney films from around this time, I was bugged with how the “surprise villain” truly wasn’t one and was almost a dead give-away from almost every scene that you saw her in for much of the film.

Watching the movie again on the big screen, I realized even more how this movie only stood out as something greater and more important since the first time that I watched it. One factor that made it better in my eyes is that the friendship between the bunny and the fox only felt more significant as I saw it again because I could see that, although Judy was the main hero and definitely gained a solid amount of development and insight to her character, I noticed more how the fox’s interactions with her not only helped solve the case but also encouraged him to gradually see how his uniquely cunning nature and street-smart skills made him a real asset and weren’t something to be ashamed of. So, I was all the more proud of him for how far he had come in his path, especially when others could identify with his dilemma of wanting to pursue his own route and identity but was still criticized and judged for what he was on the surface and not who he was inside. Another element that I picked up about the movie upon re-watching it was that I’d go as far as to argue that, in addition to seeing this movie as a good representation about the importance of embracing different cultures or races, one could also potentially see this film as a metaphor for accepting other people who might be mentally or emotionally different from others with a disorder or disability and how people with such unique ways of thinking make for great allies and friends and are wonderful in what they can offer to other people who might miss something that they pick up on.

Yet, what I loved even more than the first time I saw it was how sincere “Zootopia” was with its message. While much of the narrative followed through as I expected that it was going to with its moral, the moral itself stood strong, and, upon re-watching it, I realize that it is done in a different enough framework with the investigation and how the characters involved with it were still quite charming and so forth. It left me realizing that, perhaps, the message wasn’t as obvious as I initially saw it as, especially in current times, and the story itself worked nicer with how it implemented its morals than I might’ve remembered.

Above all else, the message stood even stronger on its own because, after the past few tumultuous years that involved so many racial and prejudicial conflicts and showed how divided people can be, it’s become more important than ever to recognize how essential it is to connect with others different from ourselves and embrace what makes us unique from others instead of being afraid of those qualities. The movie went out of its way to show how simply wanting one group of people or one singular race to be dominant over others was simply wrong, and, if any community or society wanted to thrive more, it needed to learn how to accept others with their unique personas or appearances and see them for what made them strong and shine in the best ways instead of being afraid of what separated them from others on the surface.

The simplicity and genuine nature of the film’s moral, the terrific experience of the movie itself, and the relaxed and joyful experience of the theater all resulted in a wonderful time that I hoped to experience again at some point in the future. As we headed out in the lane away from the theater, I saw those glowing, electric lights from the arrow sign, and I remembered how great it felt to walk away from a theater again, and I didn’t feel the least bit uncomfortable with the atmosphere or the situation of being outside. The experience from Showboat held a tranquil nature from its own location and helped others share the joy of going to the movies in a time when theaters are still trying to find their way back. To anyone who might be in Houston or close enough to the area of Hockley, Texas, and are still looking for a chance to watch a movie in a theater through the safest way possible, I highly recommend the Showboat Drive-In. I know that I’ll be coming back one day.

I’m passionate about movies, animation, and writing, in general, and I only want to learn more.