The Starlite Theatre Marquee by
(11 Stories)

Prompted By Drive-Ins

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My job, among others, was changing the names of the movies.

“Marquee” is such a fancy word for a drive-in. At the Starlite Theatre we just called it “the big sign.” The original 1947 marquee was on the street side of the screen, but by the time I worked there in 1972 the big sign was the free-standing, curbside sign on the street itself- Harbor Blvd. in Belmont, California. It was probably 20 feet high by 20 feet wide, with a bare metal ladder and platform. My job, among others, was changing the names of the movies, about once a week, late at night, rain, or wind or otherwise.

The letters for the big sign were stored inside the movie screen itself, a 40- foot edifice with an office underneath and probably a healthy community of rats. The letters were 12” heavy red plastic with metal clips to attach to the parallel runners of the sign, and were stored in cubicles, alphabetically. Before climbing the dark stairs into the musty attic of the screen, I had to write out the layout for the words, so I knew how the feature film would be centered on the big sign, and then grab all the letters, hoping there were enough of the right kind. I was grateful for “Deliverance” or “Cabaret;” not so much for “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask,” which I probably had to abbreviate.

Then I had to make the trek out to the big sign on the street, climb the ladder, and hope I wasn’t blown off or drop a letter. Sometimes a friend would come by to watch – though rarely help. I would climb down, stand back, and admire my work when done. I was an excellent speller, thank goodness.

In those days, we would announce the snack bar menu and upcoming movies on the public-address system right before intermission. All kinds of high jinx ensued. Sometimes we’d sing the menu a Capella, or purposely mispronounce movie stars’ names. And since much of the “fresh” food on the menu -hot dogs, hamburgers, and pizza- were made in a hand steamer, we might just under or over cook an item. I can still remember the bell and big keys of the National cash register at the candy counter.

The Starlite Theatre closed in 1974, was demolished, and became a Pepsi Cola factory. I always wondered if it had anything to do with our shenanigans?

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Characterizations: right on!


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Thanks for this insider’s story of the last gasp for the old drive-in. Cool that you worked there. I started to wheeze, just thinking of you going into the musty room to get the letters each week, being allergic to dust myself. Your vivid description did not make me want to run right out and purchase a hot dog from the concession stand! A throw-back to a forgotten era. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Patricia says:

    Every so often I’d see someone on a high ladder changing those letters and think, that doesn’t look like fun. And many times you’d see the lack of an “e” or a deliberate misspelling and know that they’d run out of some letter! The end of an era, and your shenanigans.

  3. John Zussman says:

    I love these stories when we learn what was happening behind the scenes of the venerable institutions we all patronized. I especially sympathize with hoping you have enough letters to spell the movie titles. How many times did you have to use a 5 in place of an S, or an upside-down 7 in place of an L?

    But what I’d really like to witness is you singing the menu a cappella. A great image!

  4. Susan says:

    Oh my, you 20′ up on a ladder with the bay breezes threatening to whisk you away! And 12 inch letters – I guess they had to be that big to be seen from the freeway. I had forgotten about the public-address system that the drive-ins had. My hometown was a less cultured environment, obviously…no a capella singers wooing us in to purchase those fresh hot dogs. Hilarious all around, thanks so much for sharing.

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