Cover Story: Drive-in revival

Hipsters and boomers alike rediscover the joy of watching a movie outdoors

Sometimes it takes losing something valuable in order to appreciate it. That seems to be the case with the drive-in theater, which had been fading into the background for well over a decade. Like its culinary counterparts, the drive-in diner and the soda counter, the drive-in was another American icon whose time had come and gone.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the cultural scrap heap.

In June 1998, when Clay Croker saw that the struggling North 85 Twin was closing down, he and his wife joined hundreds of others in taking advantage of the free final-night screening. Up until then, they’d ignored the place, even though it was a five-minute drive from their house.

Once the sun set, the breeze turned crisp and the hazy beam of light arced over the parking lot, Croker, a 40-year-old freelance animator for the Cartoon Network, was besieged by childhood memories. He recalled sitting in his driveway in Mableton watching a silent version of The Poseidon Adventure playing at the Marbro Twin a half-mile away. Recording the soundtracks to his favorite movies on a smuggled cassette deck held up to the metal speaker. Peering over a fence, hoping to catch a glimpse of some R-rated action.

Already obsessed with ’50s pop culture, Croker was transformed overnight into a drive-in junkie. For the next year or so, every time he had a hankerin’ to see a new movie, he’d head down to Atlanta’s sole remaining drive-in, the Starlight Six.

When the North 85 Twin was bulldozed, he salvaged its huge sign and bolted it to the back of his house. He ordered a crate of speakers and replacement parts from the last remaining manufacturer. He bought “footlights” used to mark parking-lot boundaries from a failing Illinois drive-in. And he turned his backyard into an outdoor theater by stringing a screen between two trees, wiring his deck with drive-in speakers and showing grade-Z horror-film marathons to friends on a projector.

“I went around the bend for drive-ins for a while,” Croker admits a little sheepishly.

Perhaps, but at least he’s in good company. After many years of taking the drive-in for granted, folks across Georgia and around much of the country are rediscovering this quintessential icon of the American landscape. Much of the credit goes to the ongoing retro revival that has also re-introduced us to swing dancing, ’50s fashions, lounge music, tiki bars and cocktail culture.

Once teetering on the brink of extinction, drive-ins have made a modest recovery, with many of the surviving theaters enjoying their biggest success in years. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see another boom in drive-in construction, as we did between the end of World War II and the Watergate era, but drive-ins seem to have found a solid niche by appealing to retro-pop enthusiasts — and by reminding us of what made them so fun in the first place.

Once we’ve allowed nostalgia to steer us to the nearest drive-in, where we unload the folding chairs, fire up the hibachi and pull a PBR out of the cooler, we realize what a singular experience it was — and still is — in this age of indoor malls, arena rock shows and enclosed sports venues. It’s a place where you can be surrounded by a sellout crowd, but it doesn’t feel crowded because you’re in your own cocoon. You can walk around, chat with friends or go get some Goobers without missing any of the action. And if someone drags her screaming kids to the movies, as long as they’re locked in the car, that’s her problem, not yours.

Located just off

one of the main drags in the tiny town of Blue Ridge, Ga., near the Tennessee border, the Swan Drive-in snarls traffic on weekend nights through much of the summer, with cars packed full with families and high-school kids lined up out to the highway leading into town. Not that it matters much to locals; there’s very little else to do after dark in Blue Ridge.

But it’s not just bored townsfolk who keep the single-screen Swan afloat, says owner Steve Setser. There’s also the steady stream of North Georgia tourists, many of whom have come to ride the town’s prime attraction, the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, and to experience a bit of nostalgia. On a good night, as many as 500 cars pack into the theater.

“For local people, the theater isn’t that popular because it’s always been in their faces,” Setser says. “But I have people who come from 100 miles around so they can show their kids a drive-in.”

It helps that the Swan is one of only four drive-in theaters still operating in Georgia.

Setser courts those trying to recapture a slice of Americana with the aid of retro-style graphics and lettering on the theater’s website. The same design appears on the staff T-shirts: a picture of a blue ‘55 Chevy — representing the year the Swan was built — which also happens to be Setser’s personal set of wheels. He parks the car prominently next to the box office whenever he’s at the theater.

As at every other drive-in operating today, it’s done away with car-mounted speakers in favor of the more cost-efficient radio sound system — which is the only thing that’s changed at the theater.

The Swan’s busy concession stand still offers the traditional pickled eggs and sausages sold from gallon-sized jugs of vinegar on the counter, but what first catches your eye as you walk in is the gorgeous, red-and-white, two-toned popcorn machine, a museum-quality piece that dates back to the mid-’40s. Last Saturday night, when a concessions worker announced a half-price sale on funnel cakes during a sold-out showing of Spider-Man, lines quickly materialized out the door.

Setser has worked at the Swan since he was 15, so he’d already seen it through the lean years when he bought the theater in 1989. The business does very well, catering mainly to families with child-friendly double-bills. Setser explains that he chose to run a drive-in partly because it fits with his own affinity for nostalgia.

“I’d rather have something old than something new,” he says.

It’s the same sensibility that brought together the Drive-Invaders, a loose collective of Atlanta retro-hounds who share a love of rockabilly tunes, classic cars, horn-rimmed glasses, Bettie Page bangs, old bowling shirts and drive-in movies.

Shortly after the closing of the North 85 Twin, local surf-rocker Scott Rogers was talking with friends at the Star Bar in Little Five Points when they hatched the idea of organizing a sort of weekly tailgate party at the Starlight Six, located a few miles to the south on Moreland Avenue.

The group of about 25 would vote on which of the half-dozen double-features to see and then meet there on Tuesday nights. Rogers had grown up watching drive-in movies. He’d gotten interested in them again while stationed at an Army base in Fayetteville, Ala., where that was the only thing to do.

“The drive-in was a place where significant life events happened,” he says. “People got engaged or knocked up or went through the rite of passage of seeing their first R-rated movie.”

When Starlight owner Teri Oldknow found out about the gang of throwbacks that was coming back week after week, she had to meet them. She and Rogers hit it off, and they cooked up the first Drive-Invasion in 1999, a three-day festival over Labor Day weekend featuring retro-rock bands all day and movies all night. The films run the gamut of the dependable drive-in genres: exploitation, blaxploitation, teen sex romps, Elvis flicks, horror and slasher flicks.

The following year, they launched Mondo Movie nights, a trashy double-feature on the third Sunday of the month during the summer, which routinely draws up to 300 cars. On a recent weekend, a modest crowd took in two films by good-humored thriller impresario William Castle as they enjoyed cookouts, checking out each other’s cars and yelling back at the screen.

Oldknow could probably make more money simply showing her usual first-run fare, but she’s embraced the Drive-Invaders as fellow old-movie lovers. Plus, she acknowledges that the group, through word-of-mouth and its advertising via posters and flyers, has given her plenty of free promotional support.

“It’s so important to keep this cultural experience alive,” she says. “I’m committed to keeping the Starlight open. But then, I know no one’s going to offer me $50 million for it.”

Drive-in theaters

were the brainchild of one Richard Hollingshead of New Jersey, who in 1933 opened the Camden Drive-in. The story has it that Hollingshead’s movie-buff mother was so obese that she felt self-conscious l not to mention uncomfortable — wedging herself into a narrow theater seat, so he devised a way for her to watch films without leaving her car.

The drive-in gained mileage from America’s love affair with the automobile, but it didn’t explode as a cultural phenomenon until the post-war years, as returning servicemen busied themselves having children and needed someplace to take their new families. In the 1950s, it was common for slightly brighter film prints to be specially made to accommodate drive-in screens.

From the beginning, Oldknow says, drive-ins were the redheaded stepchildren of the film industry. In the ’30s and early ’40s, when the big movie studios owned most of the indoor theaters (or “hard-tops,” in drive-in parlance), they refused to give drive-ins access to first-run films.

Still, drive-ins flourished. What other place kept the kids occupied in a playground until show time and allowed them make as much noise as possible in the back seat without bothering anyone else?

Drive-in construction peaked around 1960, when there were more than 5,000 theaters in operation in big cities and small towns around the country. The beginning of the end, according to drive-in expert Susan Sanders, was the passage of the federal Uniform Time Act of 1966, better known as Daylight Savings Time.

“That was the death knell because, especially in the South and Southwest, families had to wait until after 9 p.m. before it got dark,” says Sanders, who, with husband Don, has published two successful coffee-table tomes, The American Drive-In Movie Theatre and Drive-In Movie Memories.

Meanwhile, the growth of television was eating away at the adult audience. Gradually, drive-ins became the domain of teenagers, who wanted to see raunchier fare while they fooled around in their four-wheeled “passion pits.” The era helped give birth to such sub-genres as the hot-rod movie and the surfing flick. Russ Meyers’ Vixen, filmed in his trademark “Bosomania,” made a killing playing for two years at an Ohio drive-in, according to Sam Patton, former owner of the late Blast-Off Video and a schlock film aficionado, who fondly remembers sneaking into drive-ins in the trunk of a friend’s car.

“You could have shown people eating cardboard for two hours and the teens wouldn’t have cared, because it was all about the sex,” he says.

During his high-school years, Clay Croker, like many of his contemporaries, was a drive-in regular. “It’s where my girlfriend and I would go to ... um, you, know ...,” he trails off. “Anyway, that was a time when I didn’t really care what bad movie was playing.”

And yet, after Croker left college, the drive-in seemed outdated, an entertainment format that had long been eclipsed by such technological triumphs as video games, cable TV and the multiplex. The open-air theaters that had given post-boomers so many of their formative experiences were passe, obsolete, over-the-hill. In a word, the drive-in was simply no longer cool.

The decline of the drive-in began in the 1970s, toward the end of the exploitation era. By the early ’80s, with the advent of the VCR, the industry was officially on the ropes. Those theaters that didn’t sell out or go under were reduced to showing skin flicks and hosting weekend flea markets.

“If it weren’t for swap meets, this industry wouldn’t have survived,” says Oldknow, who says the Starlight made ends meet during the lean years by showing X-rated films.

The other major factor in the near-demise of the drive-in was far more mundane: real estate. As American cities began to expand into the suburbs, even profitable drive-ins became less valuable than the property on which they sat. Many theaters became run-down because their owners didn’t want to invest more money into a business they were planning to sell.

Sanders has traveled through 42 states searching for drive-ins. And he’s been dismayed to find that, in towns where a theater no longer exists, often someone will tell her, “Oh, that used to be where the Wal-Mart is.”

“I don’t know whether they have specifically targeted old drive-in properties,” she says, “but it makes sense that, with an average of 10 to 12 cleared acres, drive-ins offer an ideal footprint to a big chain store like Wal-Mart.”

The huge California-based Pacific Theater chain, which once owned 150 drive-ins, sold all but two as it essentially morphed into a commercial real-estate holding company. New Jersey, the birthplace of the drive-in, has none left.

Metro Atlanta saw theaters close on Stewart Avenue, Bankhead Highway, Cobb Parkway, Buford Highway and a dozen other sites. The Starlight Six had little choice but to soldier on. It’s location on Moreland Avenue — surrounded by a truck depot, a cemetery, a landfill and public housing projects — has never aroused any interest from developers.

Then along came

the nostalgia craze, and drive-ins that had been hanging on by their fingernails found themselves in the black for the first time in a decade. The most successful of the theaters even found themselves able to book first-run Hollywood films. A handful of entrepreneurs have taken a chance by re-opening drive-ins that had shut down — or even building new ones from the ground up. Nowhere has this happened more than in Alabama, which has eight drive-ins, half of which are new.

“We’re as perplexed as anyone by that trend,” Sanders says. “If I had to guess, I’d say they were built by baby boomers who had such a fond feeling about drive-ins that they wanted to build one for their community.”

Georgia’s other two drive-ins are in Jessup, near Savannah, and the Highway 17 Theater in Dewy Rose near the South Carolina border, a new drive-in that recently moved from its previous home between Commerce and Athens. Sanders predicts that the number of remaining drive-ins — about 450 — is unlikely to change much in the coming years, largely because the worst is already behind them.

“There’s something so magical about seeing a movie under the stars that we’ll always want to see films projected outdoors,” Sanders says. She and her husband currently are touring the nation’s drive-ins with their well-received independent documentary film, Drive-In Movie Memories.

The Dallas residents just returned from upstate New York and rural Pennsylvania, where they visited Becky’s Drive-in in Walnutport, a pristine single-screen theater that has remained essentially unchanged since it opened in 1946. Many aficionados consider it the country’s finest, although the Sanders admit to being partial to the art-deco Brazos Drive-in, about 40 miles southwest of Fort Worth.

In the South, the drive-in seemed to be more welcoming to black audiences than indoor theaters, says Sanders, whose research has turned up only one segregated drive-in, in North Carolina, with a fence dividing two sides of a parking lot. In Texas, a white businessman did well with a theater he promoted as “Dallas’ finest entertainment for colored people.”

“In the old days, theater owners would decorate their screens with hand-painted murals and neon to attract people driving by on the road,” Sanders says. “But, apart from the handful that are left, those days are gone forever.”

So are the days when drive-in fanatic Croker could persuade his mother to drop him off with friends at the Smyrna Drive-in near Dobbins Air Force Base. It was there, on one memorable evening, that he soaked in a quadruple feature that would serve as a cinematic Lollapalooza to any 12-year-old boy: Yog: Monster from Space, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, Destroy All Monsters and The Thing with Two Heads, with a honky’s noggin grafted onto the monstrous Rosey Grier.

“That’s what started me on the road to ruin,” recalls Croker, who has devoted much of his disposable income and a corresponding share of brain cells to collecting posters, memorabilia and actual film prints of such schlock-horror movies.

Although he hasn’t made the rounds of Georgia’s other drive-ins, he’s planning on a trip to Los Angeles along the famed Route 66, which still boasts a number of vintage drive-ins, including one that has a hotel where occupants can watch the movie through the windows.

And if it’s showing the double-feature The She-Creature and The Valley of Gwangi, chances are he’ll feel like he’s 12 all over again.??