ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
It was Gloria Swanson playing faded film star Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" who insisted that she was still big. The pictures had gotten small.
Well, as NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports, they're even about to get small in Nairobi, Kenya.
(Soundbite of frogs)
GWEN THOMPKINS: There sure is a handsome moon tonight. It's just a crescent, really, but no less illuminating than a well-placed comma in a line of verse.
Here, on the outskirts of Nairobi, the stars are out and the crickets and frogs, of course. Makes you miss childhood, when frogs were everywhere. But on a night like this, in a place like this, you can buy a ticket to another era at the last outdoor picture show.
The Fox is the last drive-in movie theater in Kenya, aside from the makeshift screens that people jimmy together on the sides of buildings. This is a proper drive-in, built just after World War II with box office toll booths, a long, curving driveway, an expansive green and a brigade of upright speakers that look like something that Gary Cooper might have tied his horse to.
The screen, 120 feet by 70, the kind of screen that makes you think of searchlights cris-crossing the sky, of horses galloping after a stage coach, of John Ford and Cecil B. De Mille and Barbara Stanwyck, who really knew how to walk across a room.
Major Michael Kinyua manages operations for the drive-in and other Fox theaters in the country. He remembers seeing a rerun of "The Ten Commandments" on this screen in the late 1970s, relaxing with his honey in the backseat of a sedan.
Major MICHAEL KINYUA (Operations Manager, Fox Theaters, Kenya): I came with friends, with our girlfriends.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Major KINYUA: Here in your car, you can hold. You can hug. You know, there's a lot of freedom in your car.
(Soundbite of laughter)
THOMPKINS: Back then, people did a fair amount of canoodling on a night like this, under a moon like this, a kissing moon, and some things don't change, but the Fox certainly has.
During colonial times, Kinyua and his pals would never have gotten in. Only white patrons came here, and most were British servicemen and their sweethearts or families.
With independence in 1963, the rest of Kenya came to sit under the stars: Arabs, Somalis, black people and Kenyans of South Asian descent. Dinesh Harani wants to be a star. He resembles the actor Ben Gazzara, and at age 47, Harani says he wants to break into pictures.
Mr. DINESH HARANI: So I go to the gym. I look younger if I dye my hair, and if they put a nice effect on the lighting and everything, makeup, you look more young. You look even 30 years old on the screen.
THOMPKINS: Truth is, there aren't enough Dinesh Haranis at the Fox. Slowly, slowly, as the Kenyans say, business has dropped off.
Tonight, the great lawn is virtually empty. The road outside is one of the area's busiest, but only nine cars occupy a space that can hold more than 500. Twentieth Century Fox sold its interest years ago. And now, the movies that play here are exclusively Bollywood, straight from Mumbai.
But it's better to see them than to hear them. How's this for a hearing test? Major Kinyua says the movie tonight is in English.
(Soundbite of film)
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) (Speaking foreign language).
THOMPKINS: But You might notice that the movie is in Hindi. Understand the problem?
Isaac Musina is a black Kenyan who has been the projectionist here for nearly 40 years. He has learned to love Bollywood movies, even though he doesn't speak a word of Hindi.
Musina dances between two enormous projectors that look like what Orson Welles might have leaned on for inspiration.
The room is immaculate, with fans whirring and tubes of cool water coursing through the machines to keep the celluloid from melting onto the spools. Giant reels, the size of extra-large pizza pies turn, making the 35 millimeter film go…
(Soundbite of clacking)
THOMPKINS: Musina watches the print closely. He's waiting for a signal that comes onto the screen, letting him know it's time to fire up the other projector with a new reel. Call it the secret language of projectionists. Most people don't notice.
Mr. ISAAC MUSINA (Projectionist, Fox Theaters, Kenya): It's a small dot on the right side.
THOMPKINS: At intermission, Kalpana Bhanderi bypasses the gleaming candy stand and walks her two children back to the cafeteria where they can get hot, thick French fries and, unfortunately, thin ketchup. Her kids are seven and nine years old and, frankly, you wouldn't want to sit next to them in a movie theater. Neither does she.
Ms. KALPANA BHANDERI: So, you know, if they want to misbehave, they can misbehave in the car. Like theaters, they can't make noise. Here, they can't make noise. They have to sit in one place. So drive-ins are better.
THOMPKINS: But nine cars and French fries won't pay the light bill at the Fox or the workers or the minimum $3,000 that it costs to get a film from India past customs and approval from the Kenya Film Censorship Board, not when hawkers on the streets of Nairobi don't pay taxes at all.
The hawkers sell black market DVDs of the latest releases for about $4 apiece, and there are sometimes 25 movies on a single DVD. That's partly why the folks who own the Fox Drive-In are going to tear it down.
They've got prime real estate out here that could be making them a lot more money. In the coming months, they're planning residential housing, a mall and, yes, a six-screen Cineplex. The future of the entertainment business in Kenya is apparently indoors.
But who knows? Maybe they'll paint some stars on the ceiling and a great, big, kissing moon. Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Nairobi.
(Soundbite of film)
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) (Speaking foreign language).