In '95, my folks took me to my first drive-in in the small town of Bridgton, Maine. We caught a double feature: Operation Dumbo Drop followed by Conspiracy Theory (starring a frantic Mel Gibson, before everyone realized he wasn't just acting crazy). It was a surreal evening. I was hooked.
Flash forward to a drunken spring afternoon last year when my roommates and I had the kind of insight that left us feeling like George Washington Carver tasting the world's first peanut butter. Sitting on my back porch, we realized that the otherwise soulless 10-by-20-foot cinder-block wall in our back yard was about the size and shape of a movie screen. Eureka.
A week later, we scavenged from our shed four old buckets of white paint, all different ages and various shades of pale. We figured if we mixed them all together we'd get something approaching flat white. We were half-correct. I bought a couple of rollers and another 12-pack of PBR, and we set to work. A couple of sweaty hours later, we had a splotchy, glorious, big-ass movie screen. Our house hasn't been the same since.
At first I borrowed my friend Maggie's nifty little Cinego projector to show movies on Wednesday nights, but we started to build up a small following, and I felt like an asshole burning up Maggie's valuable lamp hours (projector bulbs cost about $300 apiece). I decided to start from the ground up and build my own dream outdoor bike-in movie theater. I had almost no money to spend on the project. If it was gonna happen, it was gonna have to happen cheap.
First, I needed a projector booth to house the brains of the operation. In the first of many strokes of luck, our backyard shed happened to be placed perfectly in line with the screen. The only problems were that the shed was full of shit and the back window was all boarded up. Step one: Clean out the shed, turn the window into a swinging door that opens to the projector, and build a table to house the components. Done.
Next, I laid speaker wire in the back yard, setting up five discrete channels for Dolby Digital surround sound. All the wire fed back into the shed. Within an hour, the yard was ready to yield its first noise complaint.
I started the search for components. Like the Bad News Bears of home entertainment, I assembled a ragtag hodgepodge of stuff, combining unused equipment I found in the house with some good, cheap finds on Craigslist. I snagged an almost new HD projector for $300. I hope it wasn't stolen.
My friend Sam had worked on the production of The Road, the upcoming Cormac McCarthy film. For one of the film's sets, the crew re-created an old-style movie theater, and at the end of the shoot, in typical Hollywood fashion, they left all kinds of production detritus behind, including a dozen or so vintage folding movie chairs. One Zipcar trip to a Southeast Portland warehouse and our seating problem was solved.
With little tweaks along the way, each Wednesday for the second year now, we've invited friends to gaze upon the big screen, lay out under the stars, drink, smoke, cuddle and be merry. We've giggled uncomfortably through Pee Wee's Big Adventure, sung along to The Muppet Movie, traveled in time with Bill & Ted on their Excellent Adventure and thrown beer bottles at the screen during the "Bob's Country Bunker" scene of The Blues Brothers, all for less than the price of a 19-inch television at Best Buy. If that's not why God made the movies, I don't know what else the fella could've been thinking.
What you need
Cinder-block, model unknown, and miscellaneous cans of old paint
Projector booth: Old wood shed, circa 1931
Projector: Viewsonic HD projector
Cost: $300, on Craigslist.
Projector leveling device: The Tao of Pooh, 1982 edition
Cost: 25 cents, at Second Story Books in Washington, D.C.
DVD player: Sony DVP-NS50P
Cost: Free (thanks to an old roommate who moved out and forgot to take it).
VHS deck (for the hard-to-find classics): Panasonic PV-V402
Cost: $10, on Craigslist.
Surround sound receiver: Sony STR-DE445
Cost: $25, on Craigslist, plus $4.52 in gas for drive to Tigard and back.
Speakers: Emerson five-channel surround system
Cost: $25, at Goodwill.
Cables: Miscellaneous speaker wire and AV cords
Cost: $25, at Fred Meyer, plus $4.99 to replace speaker wire destroyed when landlord ran over it with a lawn mower.
Seating: Nine vintage red-velour movie theater folding-style chairs, plus eight log stumps
Cost: Free (thanks to a friend who inherited them from The Road film shoot—and the lady who cut down the tree next door).
TOTAL COST: $394.76