Goodbye old friend. It’s terribly painful to see you go away. I will always miss you.
The old friend that I’m referring to? My hometown’s local drive-in movie theater, the legendary Hilltop.
I can’t begin to express to you how many of my favorite childhood memories are deeply connected to this place.
My first experience was going with my parents as a baby in the mid 70’s. Next, watching it evolve as a child throughout the 80’s. Eventually growing up and taking my own family in the 90’s. Sadly watching it struggle to stay open and relevant in the early 2000’s. Witnessing a small resurgence under new ownership, before ultimately seeing it go out of business for good. The rapid growth in popularity of digital media as well as mismanagement helped to seal it’s doomed fate.
Seeing those doors closed and watching the property deteriorate over time broke my heart even back then. Now seeing it completely destroyed by misfortune breaks my heart in a seriously more profound way. Now I know it’s truly over.
The city I grew up in wasn’t always nice. The family I grew up in wasn’t always happy. But, some of my most positive memories of fun and joy are directly tied into this location. This where my love of the movie going experience began. It’s also a bridge to my personal memories of a period in time long forgotten. A place where people would socially gather outdoors to enjoy a movie. It might be very difficult for modern people to fully understand how eventful this activity truly was without having been there during that specific time. We didn’t have a lot of money and we couldn’t really travel, so the drive-in represented the type of excitement a child would feel when visting their favorite amusement park. The drive-in was literally like my Disneyland.
Just preparing to go was an event all unto itself. Looking through the newspaper to find out what was playing? And at what time? Getting dressed in the appropriate clothing based on the current season. The long drive there. Well, what I thought was the long drive there, since everything seems more grand when you’re a child.
I can remember everything about this place in vivid detail!
From the swings, slide, and merry-go-round that sat right underneath the screen for the children. Hell, even the mosquitoes! The strong smell of OFF bug repellent in the air. To the way the light from the projector would shine across the night sky with the stars sparkling in the distance. Each and every time was exciting for me. From getting there early sometimes to beat the traffic. To playing with random children before the sun set, letting you know it was time to head back to your car. To showing up at night while the lights from the marquee would glow, illuminating the surrounding pavement. The display of bold red letters, arranged by hand, describing what’s “Now Showing”.
The long line of cars with their headlights shining, waiting to pull up to the brightly lit ticket booth. The friendly individual happily greeting you while handing you your tickets. Driving around until you find the perfect spot. Or maybe being too late and having to park further away from the screen towards the back. Rolling down the window, hanging the speaker inside. Followed by turning on the radio, trying to tune the dial to find the right station for a clear audio signal. Watching the intermission cartoons sing and dance, instructing you to be courteous to the others, while also recommending which snacks to purchase. To one of my favorite moments of all, walking to the concessions building.
Our drive-in had a large concessions building, much bigger than the average stand. When I was a child the building itself was painted bright orange and white. During operating hours the front and back doors would be wide open. The light from inside would pour out onto the gravel. People would be maneuvering in and out, balancing a variety of snacks in their hands. And the best part, the overwhelming smell of hot, freshly popped, buttered popcorn!
I’m an old-school movie goer and a diehard movie theater popcorn lover. I’ve been to tons of theaters, carnivals, fairs, plus popped my own corn at home for years. But, nothing can compare to the way the popcorn smelled at the Hilltop! It stands out as one the most instantly identifiable memories of my entire experience there.
The smell grabbed you instantly! It grew stronger as you moved closer to the inside, making you hungrier with every step. And although there was plenty of other wonderful food being prepared, the popcorn was the star attraction. The aroma was truly undeniable.
The inside was a child’s paradise! The assortment of candies neatly lined up behind the glass counter. All of a child’s favorite junk food items being prepared right before your eyes. The cheesy Tombstone pizzas. The flavorful ice cream sandwiches. The delicious nachos. The iconic Chicago style hot dogs. The old style lemonade & fruit punch fountains, with the colorful liquid dancing around inside the glass containers. Oh, and some of the absolute best hamburgers I’ve ever had!
I even loved just wandering around on the inside. The food, the games, the people, the decor. All of it made me happy to be there. Getting somewhat of a behind the scenes look at the huge projectors transporting our movies outdoors through a beam of light. I thought it was both fascinating and magical!
Over time watching the mostly mechanical 1970’s pinball machines evolve into the 1980’s electronic video arcade games. Seeing the large crowd of people gathered around the new technology of Space Invaders, then Pac-Man & Donkey Kong. I can’t count how much money I wasted in those machines, but it was worth every penny!
Running into both friends and family randomly was always another exciting surprise. Living in a small town means you’re more than likely to run into someone you know quite frequently. Especially in those places where large crowds gather seeking to enjoy themselves.
Honestly, walking back to your car with your food was even an adventure. Trying to find your way in the dark while not spilling or dropping anything…classic.
Let me just reminisce a little deeper for a moment…
I’m thinking about how we’d always go no matter what. Despite all of the completely different Midwestern weather conditions. The heat. Being rained out. The cold winds. It didn’t really matter. We always seemed to have a good time, even when the movies were no good. Sometimes we’d sit on the hood of the car, or my Dad would park in reverse so we could sit on the trunk. Taking blankets and pillows for extra comfort. Meeting new, friendly, people. For instance, very often someone with a truck would allow us to sit in the back of the flatbed, providing another playful viewing position. Even my earliest memories of being a small child and sitting on the roof of my Father’s car. Can you imagine how much fun that was?
We use to bring our own foldable chairs to sit outside, and sometimes we brought our own cooler. We even barbecued many times on site before and during the movie. You can’t do that inside a regular theater!
I mean, where else could you have the choice to see two brand new movies, two awful horror movies, or two goofy B-movies for the price of one? It was seriously a better value when directly compared to my other love, the standard sit-in movie theater. Not to mention the freedom and privacy it provided you with. It was great! And it was definitely an extra special treat to go on a random school night!
Being able to go back to school and tell your friends all about what you saw. Especially if it was R-rated or nudity involved! Or sometimes simply falling asleep in the backseat before the movie ended. Only to wake up with just enough time to ask, “what’d I miss?”
It was always bitter sweet staring out the window as the credits rolled. Slowly drifting along as my parents tried to beat the traffic to the exit. Not wanting it to be over, but looking forward to the next trip.
Then becoming a young man, driving your own car, going on dates. The many make out sessions with any young lady you were trying to impress at the moment. Finally, maturing and taking your own children in hopes that they’d have an appreciation for your nostalgia. Being able to bond over this retro form of entertainment in a modern setting. Man, what an awesome experience!!!
In light of our recent COVID crisis, there has been an unlikely rebirth of drive-in movie theaters worldwide. A whole new audience is now being introduced to their parents or grandparents “old fashioned” way of viewing films. For this very reason, I had high hopes that the Hilltop would somehow be revived. For years I would tell anyone who would listen that the Hilltop is and should be a historic landmark for our city! It should never be disregarded or torn down! Now the worst has happened…Weakened by years of neglect and abuse, this seemingly indestructible brick construction is abruptly destroyed by a powerful summer storm?! I’m stunned!!!
For the official news report click the link below:
Selfishly, I never wanted this special place to go away. Specifically in such a disgraceful fashion. I often hoped that someone with the money and the proper vision would see the value in renovating the property for the future. I thought that maybe some local saviour would come along, willing to invest into the community, but it never materialized. Such a shame because, I always looked forward to riding by to catch a glance, or stopping by to take a few pictures whenever I would visit. It was always one of the highlights of my trip. Even when it was strangely converted into a makeshift soccer field. Even throughout the years when it was abandoned and vandalized. I hated seeing it that way, but I could always count on physically seeing the buildings and taking a moment to reminisce.
I don’t know what the owner of the property or the city is planning to do with the land? Maybe they’ll rebuild it? Although I highly doubt it. Maybe they’ll clear it all out? Effectively erasing the entire history of this once thriving landscape. No matter what they choose to do, I know that whenever I visit my only option will be to recollect on what use to be. Even if they totally rebuild the site exactly the way it once was, I’ll always know that the original, this important symbol of my childhood, is now gone forever!
So, goodbye my dear friend! Thank you for the countless thrills, excitement, and memories. I will forever reflect upon you with happiness and great fondness. I will continue to tell your story, and I will absolutely never forget you! You will forever represent a much simpler time in my life, as well as the world in general. You were quirky. You were unique. You were romantic. You were the best!