From Missouri Bootheel To Big Screen, Wes Neal's Boulevard Drive-In Keeps Him Young
In a big gravel lot under a canopy of trees by Turkey Creek in Kansas City, Kansas, children spill out of parked cars toward a playground as parents set up lawn chairs and grab beer from the cooler.
It's a typical Sunday night at the Boulevard Drive-In, and a few hours till the main event. As for what's showing?
"Oh, I can't remember. I'd have to look it up," says owner Wes Neal.
Turns out it's Captain Underpants, and Neal only likes "cowboy movies." But that's not the only reason he's not up to speed.
"Here, it's about the show before the show," Neal says.
He would know. Neal has worked at this drive-in for 65 years. And, turning 90 years old this November, you could say he's been around for a while. Though he might not say it like that.
Neal is the kind of guy who'd say he's never worked a day in his life. Far from it. He grew up on a farm in the Missouri Bootheel, the smallest, southeasternmost corner of Missouri. He spent his days harvesting crops and picking cotton.
"I'd follow a team of mules and a plow all day," he says. "I'd hit a stump on the way, the handle would hit me in the side and knock me three rows over. You had to be tough back then."
His parent's farm was three miles from the grocery store and the Post Office. Some days he'd walk 12 miles throughout a single day.
"Sometimes at noon, dad would say, 'Boy, go to the Post Office while you're resting,' or 'Boy, go pump the mules a trough of water while you're resting,'" he remembers.
When he was 25, he left the farm for a day job in Kansas City.
"I had all this energy, I couldn't go to sleep at night. I'd get up and go run around the block 10 times just to get tired enough to go to sleep," Neal says.
That's when he came to the Boulevard Drive-In, looking for something to do with all that energy.
"They put me to work; that took care of that," he laughs.
It was 1953. He worked nights as a "ramp boy," doing maintenance and swinging a flashlight to direct cars for $3 per night. Back then, tickets were 50 cents a person. At the snack bar, you could get a hamburger for 15 cents and a soda for a dime.
It was a big shift from his life on the farm.
"I never had any kind of conversation with my parents ever," he says. "They'd just tell me what to do. If they had company, they'd say, 'Go on out and play, get away from here,' so I never got to talk to anybody."
In fact, he says, he didn't know how to talk at all. It sounds sad, but it didn't last for long.
Neal fell in love with the drive-in. Not for the big screen, or the spectacle of it, but for the people. He must have loved it — for over 30 years he worked two jobs, ending his first at 3 p.m. and starting his second at 6 p.m.
When his wife, Maisie, died, he moved into a house overlooking the lot. For 65 years, he's never been too far away. Over that time, he says, not much has changed. They kept those old speakers for your car windows, and they still have the old ticket machine up front, though now they just use it to tally customers.
They upgraded their snack bar, and their playground is relatively new. It sits where there used to be a small train, and a zoo with sheep and monkeys for the kids. Not that drive-ins really needed a lot of flourish back then.
"Drive-in theaters always filled up and overflowed in the 50s and 60s," he says. "They were the only form of entertainment back then."
Neal says his drive-in didn't experience as much of a drop in attendance as many others did when television hit its stride. But, he says, they did what they had to do to keep it relevant.
Like many drive-in theaters, they went through an X-rated film phase. In recent years, they upgraded to digital projection for a sharper image. And, last month, Neal's grandson Brian Neal bought a drone — he's hoping to implement something like a "kiss cam."
Neal will tell you his is the "best drive-in in the world."
On a Sunday night, you can find him manning the ticket booth at the front gate. When he's not doing that, he's walking around and saying hello to his customers. Everyone recognizes him, and it's most likely not because of that bejeweled belt buckle with his name on it — a gift from one of his regulars.
Neal says he's as retired as he'll ever be. When you catch him pulling over his golf cart to pick up trash around the edges of the 19-acre lot, it's hard not to believe him.