Blasts from the Past
David Thibodeaux's drive-in theater gives New Orleanians a taste of yesteryear.
FRANK METHE PHOTOGRAPHs
Eddie “Snuff” Twilley and Johnny Nichols are each chompin’ down on a couple of Lotta-Burgers at the Frostop on Clearview Parkway. The two men argue their all-time favorite drive-in movies.
Twilley hasn’t been this all fired up since the Battle of Chosin Reservoir back during his Korean War days.
Twilley gives his nod to I Was a Teenage Werewolf while Nichols’ best is Two Thousand Maniacs.
Frostop owner David Thibodeaux walks by the table and smiles. No doubt his vote goes to Naughty New Orleans, that “ground breaking” nudie flick that featured (cough, cough, hack, hack) “actress” Jean Carroll in a one-piece bathing suit strutting her stuff as a stripper on Bourbon Street.
Naughty New Orleans was an “adults only” flick back in the 1950s and you know Thibodeaux remembers that meant somebody’s big brother had to drive and buy a ticket with a little brother and four of his neighborhood pals stuffed into the trunk.
The parking lot at the iconic restaurant this night is jammed with 1932 Fords, chopped and dropped Chevys and just about every other street rod you can imagine, all pinstriped, flamed, underlit and overprotected with seemingly everybody in the parking lot in a constant state of buffing their street rods with thick, puffy microfiber pads like proud daddies rubbing down the backsides of their newborns.
The sideburned, blue jean-clad rodders are a bit grayer, thinner on top and most are a little paunchier around the middle than they were back in the late 1950s and ’60s when they tooled around Audubon Park in their classy chassis, but what the hell, this is “Cruise Night” at the Frostop and it’s doo wop, sha boom all over again.
Pal Al from WTIX-FM oldies radio is whirling “In the Still of the Night” as a couple of Yats from the past lay down a few dance steps around a picture perfect 1957 Chevy.
To put the cap on the burgeoning darkness, a screen goes up at one end of the lot as a guy who goes by the moniker “The Nutty Professor” works on the keyboard of his computer to bring up the picture.
In an instant, drive-in movies are back in New Orleans: Dancing popcorn boxes, soda cups and candy bars jiggle their way across the screen and sing, “Let’s all go to the lobby! Let’s all go to the lobby!
Let’s all go to the lobby and get ourselves a treat!”
Pal Al tunes down the rock ’n’ roll and it’s 1962 all over again, Nirvana in the suburbs, going home again, no matter what the poets say to the contrary.
Reminiscing smiles cross the weather-beaten faces of men and women sitting next to the shining rods.
The whole scenario isn’t a bad accomplishment for a husband, wife and daughter combo who went from their Uptown workin’ class roots to unemployment to a venture that’s putting pep back into the step of a lot of old rodders.
“I was in the construction business right after Katrina,” Thibodeaux says. “My wife (Nancy) was working for Saia Motor Lines. Things were great for a while. Then construction went rock bottom. Nancy lost her job. You couldn’t find a job.”
“We actually went to a business broker and looked at all kinds of business,” Nancy says. “We looked at coffee shops, dollar stores, many different things. I finally got a job as a party booker at Laser Tag, but we were hardly making ends meet. That lasted about a year and a half.”
Nancy had always had a hankering to own a sandwich shop, so it seemed like a sign when she and her husband ran across a newspaper ad seeking buyers for a “fast food restaurant” in River Ridge.
The restaurant turned out to be a Frostop. They bought the restaurant in a shopping center that turned out to be on a downward turn.
“When the anchor tenant moved out we knew it was time to look elsewhere,” David says. They leased a shuttered Pizza Hut on Clearview Parkway in 2011, turned it into a Frostop and “Everything just fell into place.”
From the outset, the 1950s motif was never in doubt: James Dean era murals inside, pink and blue rolled vinyl seating, black and white checkered floor tiles. Even the occasional Elvis-look alike customer and pre-teen girl in a poodle hoop skirt who happened into the restaurant are nice, if unscripted touches.
When two guys from the River Ridge Hot Rod club brought their idea for “Cruise Night” on Clearview Parkway to David, Nancy and daughter Lauren, it didn’t take a lot of arm-twisting to make it happen.
The drive-in movie idea was a natural. Adding to the time warp was the involvement of WTIX, the longtime New Orleans radio station that went from “… the mighty 690” of a past era to today’s FM outlet specializing in (what else) the oldies.
“This is an absolute blast,” says Doug Reason, a vintage old rock ’n’ roller who’s sitting on a folding chair next to his immaculate 1970 Ford F100. “I got about $15,000 tied up in it (his truck). Got a 302 (cubic inch) engine in it and it hums like a top. No flames, no special rims, just good upkeep on a great truck. I spend so much time with this truck my wife said, ‘Either that truck goes or I go.’ Ya see who I came with tonight, don’t ’cha? What times does the show start tonight?”
So, on the next Friday of the month, if you’re having fond memories of the Airline and Jefferson highways drive-ins or the Twin Screen Do Drive-In on Metairie Road or the Sky Vue on Chef Menteur Highway or the Westgate on Veterans Boulevard and you’d love to hear that reminder to “return the speaker to the ticket office” just one more time, fret not. You still have the opportunity to revive, if not relive, your doo-wop past with your best babe in the back seat of your Chevy. And this time around, you don’t even have to stuff four of your buddies in the trunk.