The story behind THE classic drive-in photo

Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments, drive-in theater, Utah, 1958.

photo by J.R. Eyerman — Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Take a look at the 200-pixel photo thumbnail I’ve embedded here. Look familiar? That might be because it’s been used as a “generic” drive-in photo for several theater sites, including one in India, and I just spotted it in an otherwise well-researched book, Drive-in Theaters by Kerry Segrave. (I’ll post a book review in a few days.)

That photo was taken in 1958 at a drive-in in Salt Lake City by J.R. Eyerman and published in Life magazine. (The drive-in isn’t named. Based on the city lights, I’d say it was the Motor-Vu, but it could have been the Highland or the Park-Vu, all long dead by now.) You can see the full-sized photo and the story behind it at the Life web site.

Ben Cosgrove, editor of Life.com, writes “Despite how familiar and recognizably universal an experience it might be, however, it turns out that it’s remarkably difficult to really capture in a single, still photograph what it feels like to go to the moving pictures.” Amen to that! In fact, the more I look at that photo, the more I wonder whether it was doctored or partially staged.

I’ve got no problem with the magnificent mountainous sunset, reflected by rows of hardtops. That right there is a superb photo, probably taken from the projection booth. But look at the ambient twilight. It’s hard to imagine a projectionist even starting a feature with that much light in the sky, but we’re supposed to believe that The Ten Commandments had been running long enough to have reached Charlton Heston’s Red Sea scene?

It’s easier for me to believe that the photo was doctored or staged. Eyerman could have started with that photo of the cars pointed at a blank screen, waiting for the movie to start. Then he could have superimposed that frame from the film, resulting in “Charlton Heston as Moses, arms outstretched, looming over what appears to be, if one looks at it just right, a congregation of rapt, immobile automobiles at prayer,” as Cosgrove elegantly describes it. The low-tech alternative would be to stage it by projecting just that frame, even as a slide, well before the film was shown to the audience, then taking the photo. Although it wasn’t so easy to do in 1958, superimposing wins my uninformed vote.

Got a better idea? Know more about this than I do? (That’s not difficult.) Leave a comment and tell us more.

Update: The Salt Lake Tribune just mentioned this photo in a sidebar for a drive-in story. According to the note, Eyerman showed the Brigitte Bardot film And God Created Woman to an invited audience of college students. “For the photo that was actually published, Everman (sic) swapped Heston’s image for Bardot’s.” See, I was right this time!

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