Their numbers may have dwindled, but some of Virginia’s classic drive-in theaters have answered the digital drumbeat and are making a stand against the mighty multiplex.
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We reinterpret O. Winston Link's iconic 1956 photograph, "Y6, Pusher, East, Iaeger Drive-In," taken during the heyday of the drive-in theater.
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Hull's Drive-In in Lexington.
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Jim Kopp of the Family Drive-In.
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The Moonlight Drive-In Theatre in Abingdon.
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The Goochland Drive-In
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The Family Drive-In Theatre in Stephens City.
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Hull’s Drive-In in Lexington.
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Staff at the Keysville Drive-In.
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John Heidel, owner of the Goochland Drive-In where a concession stand favorite is the Gooch Dog, a hot dog covered with mac n’ cheese.
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Burger and fries at the Mayberry Drive-In in Moneta.
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The Park Place Drive-In in Marion.
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’50s-style retro diner at the Mayberry Drive-In.
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The Starlite Drive-In in Christiansburg.
A short row of cars is lined up at the entrance to Hull’s Drive-In Theatre, which sits just off Route 11 in Lexington, not far from a fireworks vendor and a truck stop. The warm late-April Sunday is turning brisk as the sun lowers and longtime Hull’s ticket taker Sam Newcomer stands outside the rickety ticket booth nursing a cough. “Fridays and Saturdays are busier. Sundays are usually the slow night,” he tells me after he collects $7 for admission from a man and his Shih Tzu in a late model truck.
The sounds of “At The Hop” are echoing off the mostly empty drive-in movie lot, and the smell of popcorn is in the air. Hull’s opened in 1950 as the Lee Drive-In Theatre and, unlike many open-air cinemas constructed during that time, is still doing business today. When longtime owner Sebert W. Hull passed away 15 years ago, a group of Lexingtonians formed the Hull’s Angels and rallied to save it, boxy metal speakers and all. Today, Hull’s is the only community-owned, nonprofit drive-in theater in the U.S.
This place is so deeply rooted in the community that its aquamarine-trimmed concession and projection booth is actually sunken into the earth, as if it were a natural part of the sloping Shenandoah landscape. “Aesthetically, I think we’ve got one of the more beautiful spots,” Newcomer, 54, says after he ushers in a stumpy green compact with Delaware plates. “No room to hide someone in that trunk,” he jokes.
The Hull’s season officially began May 10 with summer blockbusters Iron Man 3 and Oz. Tonight’s double feature rerun of Lincoln and Django Unchained is designed for a more adult audience before the superhero and kids flicks take over. “Come summertime, we’ll have every mother in the county with a minivan out here,” Newcomer cracks.
Drive-ins are family friendly and inexpensive, explains Jeremy Reter, Hull’s manager and projectionist, who is preparing tonight’s show in the projection booth. “I have a family of five kids. I can’t imagine what it would cost me to take them to the Cineplex to see a movie.” As if on cue, Reter’s 5-year-old daughter Jenna enters and asks if she can have a candy bar.
Bob and Dolores Watkins were the first to find their spot tonight. The Surry residents have driven four hours in their 2006 Jeep Compass to take in the show at Hull’s; there are no drive-ins where they live. “This is our third time here,” Dolores tells me as her husband opens up the back hatch to show off a plush bed of quilts and pillows. “All the comforts of home,” he says.
Meghan McGowan, a 20-something Lexington native, has brought an out-of-town date, Brian Harrison, to show off the hometown screen. She’s says she's been here “umpteen” times. “I can still remember hiding under the projector as a kid and making the peace sign when the credits rolled,” she says outside the snack bar, hiding behind her dark hair giggling, still a little embarrassed.
“It seems like there’s a bit of a resurgence in drive-ins,” Newcomer tells me from the ticket booth as the pre-show sounds of ’50s songs like “The Wanderer” and “Tequila” waft from the theater’s low-power FM band. (You can listen to the sound through those doorhang speakers or through the radio.) “History does repeat itself,” he says. “Fashions do resurface.”
Years ago, I watched a Hull’s projectionist prepare his trailers, concession ads and features—a process that took hours and involved spooling huge ribbons of celluloid around a metal rotator. The apparatus looked like something out of Forbidden Planet. Problems were solved using strategically placed paper clips.
But Hull’s installed a digital projector last year. A sleek modernized unit sans exposed parts is what you’ll find now in this cramped closet space. Thanks to modern-day technology, the projectionist’s job is about as complicated as ordering a sandwich at Wawa.
“You download a movie, put it on a hard drive, build a playlist and hit play,” Reter, 39, says with a smile. “Everything else, it does on its own.”
The theater didn’t upgrade because it wanted to. The major Hollywood studios will stop making 35mm prints available next season—film projection will be obsolete, which puts the state of drive-ins in a precarious place. While Hull’s has converted to the demands of the 21st century, others across the country have not. At a time when this fading American institution is starting to hold its own again—drive-in numbers have stabilized over the past few years—some big screens across the country may go dark.
“It’s a rough guess, but I think we’re going to lose 15 or 20 percent of them,” says Kipp Sherer. He and his sister Jennifer maintain Drive-ins.com, a website that follows the industry. “A few have already closed because it was too much,” he says, rattling them off: “The Sunset in Plentywood, Montana, the Cottage View in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, the Auto Vue in Colville, Washington ...”
“Our biggest challenge as an industry right now is converting to digital,” says Jim Kopp, 59, manager of the Family Drive-in Theatre in Stephens City, adding that many parks have not yet made the switch. That includes his own, as well as the Moonlite in Abingdon, Virginia’s oldest open-air cinema.
Kopp also sits on the board of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association and is in charge of events celebrating this year’s 80th anniversary of the drive-in. He says the game show Jeopardy will present a category on the theaters this summer. The Macy’s department store chain is also doing a national promotion. “Drive-ins are still alive,” he says excitedly.
In the U.S., there were once more than 4,000 outdoor movie screens. Today, the count is approximately 360. At the height of popularity, the 1950s, Virginia ranked ninth among states in the number of giant flickers, with examples dotting the Commonwealth—from the Coswell in Appomattox to the Summit in Glade Spring to the Anchor in Newport News. Most of them closed in the late ’70s and early ’80s, done in by rising property values and decreasing interest.
But a few survived, like the Family Drive-In, which was built in 1956 and sits on 7.5 acres 10 miles from Winchester. It’s the only two-screen drive-in left in the state, Kopp is proud to say. It even has its original lighted row markers and speaker poles.
“There are [seven] of us drive-ins left in Virginia,” he says. “And each one is unique in its own way. There’s something about the Family Drive-In that’s different than Hull’s or the Park Place or the [now closed] Keysville Drive-In ... there’s a uniqueness to each one.”
In his fourth season running the Goochland Drive-In, 42-year-old John Heidel admits that his 40x80 screen, found midway between Richmond and Charlottesville just off of I-64, is “an anomaly.”
“We’re the newest drive-in in America,” the boyish Heidel says with pride and a little disbelief. (Since I spoke to Heidel, the Coyote Drive-In has opened in Fort Worth, Texas.) “There are more lucrative things you can do with 10 acres of land off of a highway exit than to put in a part-time, seasonal business that’s beholden to the weather.”
The Goochland went digital last year. “Drive-ins are some of the last theaters to convert,” he says. “The projection systems that have been operating these drive-ins for decades are considered ‘horse and buggy’ now.”
“We fill up here,” says Jerry Harmon, 48, owner of Marion’s Park Place Drive-In, which opened in 2000. “People come out with their blankets and chairs. It’s just like the old days.” Park Place offers pool tables, a batting cage and miniature golf, among other amenities—all on the site of the original Park Drive-in, which screened movies in Marion for a quarter-century before going bust in 1983.
I ask Harmon about going digital: “I think there’s some that will go out of business, and I’m currently trying to save myself,” he says, a little downcast. This summer at Park Place, there will be a fundraising push to buy a new projection system. Cost: $100,000. “Right now, we’ve got a raffle for a four-wheeler to be held Sept. 21; anything we can think of to raise a little money.”
Most of Virginia’s drive-ins are in the western part of the state—there are currently none in the Hampton Roads or Metro D.C. areas, where the earliest regional examples were constructed. But the Commonwealth is unusual in how many new screens have gone up in the past 15 years—Park Place, the Goochland, the re-opened Keysville and the “small screen” Mayberry Drive-In near Smith Mountain Lake. Meanwhile, other longstanding auto parks have closed down, such as the Fork Union Drive-In (circa 1953) where the grass field was so well maintained that Kopp says Tiger Woods could putt on it. And then there was the cozy 200-car Hiland Drive-In in Rural Retreat, which opened in 1952 and closed in 2008.
The older drive-ins can really take you back. At Abingdon’s celebrated Moonlite, with its distinctive marquee dotted with a yellow neon moon, the retro experience is so evocative that you almost feel like you are living in black and white. Each show begins with the playing of two old country love songs formerly written about the historic movie spot, and the voice of owner William Booker welcoming you to “movies under the stars.”
Sadly, this historic theater, which dates from 1949, is one of those currently caught in the digital crosshairs. “Yeah, I’m worried. I’m very worried,” Booker told the Kingsport Times-News in 2012. “They say 90 percent of all theaters will be digital by next year. We’re going to have to buy a $200,000 projector, and right now I don’t have that kind of money.” At this writing, the Moonlite is open—still screening film—though Booker is not returning press inquiries.
“This digital conversion has been brewing for about a decade, but no one knew how it was going to play out,” Sherer says, adding that it was only recently that the studios began offering drive-ins financing options to help them switch over. And it’s not a small job—it costs more to convert an outdoor theater than an indoor because the special digital projector uses twice the power and produces four times the light.
The upside is the difference in quality. “You can definitely tell,” says Reter. “You go from watching a 35mm film where you can see all of the scratches on the film, because the print travels from theater to theater, and if it isn’t threaded just right, you can see the film jittering a little bit, but digital—it’s clear and steady, it’s like night and day.”
Like Hull’s, some longtime screens have already made the switch. The homey Starlite in Christiansburg will celebrate its 60th anniversary this summer and has already installed a new projector. “That’s progress,” founding owner Dorothy Beasley, 81 years young, told The Roanoke Times last year. “You got to go with it or get behind.”
Known for its colorful star-dotted signpost and the Beasley family’s famous chili, the Starlite is now owned by daughter Peggy. “It’s still the same screen,” says Karen Clark Nagy, a community volunteer who operates the theater’s social media. “Mr. Beasley [who passed away in 2009] built the frame back when they opened in the summer of 1953.”
The old challenges of running a drive-in remain, like blocking out ambient light—one reason why small towns and drive-ins were made for each other. “The lights are a challenge,” says Park Place’s Harmon. “I planted trees all around to address it. I have a Wal-Mart on one side of me and a doctor’s office on the other. When the doctor’s office put their big lights up and it was brightening me up, I asked them if they would turn them a little different and they agreed. Everybody’s happy.”
As for trunk-hiding teenagers, Harmon laughs. “I haven’t caught any in the trunk, but I catch ‘em sneaking in around the edges sometimes. But I’m pretty good about catching them ... I know a guilty look when I see one.”
“Some of them do it just because it’s what their parents did,” Reter says at Hull’s, rolling his eyes. “It’s what’s expected at a drive-in, to try to sneak in. A rite of passage.”
There are fewer of those hijinks these days because drive-ins no longer serve merely as teenage passion pits. The contemporary vibe is family friendly. “If you’ve ever been to a tailgate party at a football game, that’s what you get at the drive-in,” Kopp says.
And what of the future of drive-ins? Can nostalgia alone keep people showing up? It is more than that says Kopp: “The combination of things make it magical. A good movie, family and friends, you can bring your dog, you are sitting outside underneath the stars—that’s what gets people coming back.”
Let’s all go to the Movies
From old survivors to new builds, here is where you can view movies under the stars in Virginia.
5113 Kent Junction Road, Norton
Admission: $6; children 5-11, $3; under 5, free
A long-running favorite nestled in the Jefferson National Forest.
Valley Pike, U.S. 11, Stephens City
Admission: $8; children 3-11, $4; under 3, free
Complete with many original fixtures, it’s Virginia’s only two-screen drive-in.
4344 Old Fredericksburg Road, Hadensville
Admission: $8; children 4-11, $3.50; under 4, free
America’s second-newest drive-in.
2367 N. Lee Highway, Lexington
Admission: $7; children 7-11, $3; under 7, free
The nation’s only community-owned nonprofit drive-in theater.
1696 Whitehouse Road, Moneta
Admission: $7; children 5-11, $3; under 5, free
This “small-screen” drive-in near Smith Mountain Lake is connected to a ’50s-style retro diner once located in Chesapeake.
Park Place Drive-In
301 Park Blvd, Marion
Admission: $6; children 5-11, $2, under 5, free
This park also offers miniature golf, pool tables, a batting cage and other pleasurable distractions.