Here’s a toast to nostalgia. In our modern era with home theaters and movies on demand on smartphones, they’re talking about building a big new drive-in theater near Graham, on the other side of Burlington.
Can the return of manual typewriters, party-line telephones and vinyl records be far behind?
For you young folks, a drive-in theater was an old cow pasture where they built a big white wall to serve as a movie screen and brought in a really big film projector. Come sundown, you drove your car in and parked. Portable speakers on posts allowed you to hear the movie.
Here in the hometown we said good-by to drive-ins in 2014 when the Bright Leaf closed with some sadness in Mount Airy. My last trip there was in 2005 to see “Batman Begins.” I went solely out of curiosity and nostalgia. I had not been there since I was a teenager.
Quite frankly I couldn’t hear the movie very well. And as I drove in I realized my modern car’s automatic headlights would not turn off after dark and run on parking lights only, so I regrettably shined lights into people’s eyes. I missed comfortable theater seats and did not want to walk so far to the concession stand.
I found that I had become spoiled by modern, digital TV and movie houses with better viewing and audio.
Our hometown outdoor theater was the Valley Drive-in that was down in a creek bottom along Highway 67 and opposite the Carl Rose & Sons Ready Mix concrete plant. I got into the Valley one time as a kid before it turned to showing X-rated films, a practice that some small, struggling drive-ins used at the time to try and stay in business.
It didn’t work. The Valley closed in the early 1980s. With the Valley’s marquee billboard along the highway long gone, only the entrance and exit ramps in the curb remain. You about have to know about the drive-in to be able to point out its now overgrown, wooded location.
Drive-ins became a post-World War II craze as cars began to be widely owned. Teenagers found that they had more privacy at a drive-in, while families found that they could load up a car and treat the family for one low price without having to buy individual tickets at a movie theater.
North Carolina ranked in the top 10 in America for drive-ins during the craze, according to driveinmovie.com, an internet site. The state had more than 200 at one time.
Now we’re down to five: in Shelby, Albemarle, Eden, Henderson and Kings Mountain. The first four are holdovers from the old days. But the Kings Mountain theater west of Charlotte is new, built in 2016 by a campground owner seeking to expand his business and capitalize on the closing of an old drive-in on the other side of town.
As nearly everyone had gotten a TV by the early 1960s, drive-ins took a hit, more so than did indoor movie theaters. The old drive-in fell out of style.
Finally, Hollywood’s transition from film to digital movies a few years ago knocked off most all of the remaining drive-ins as the low-budget operations had no taste for buying expensive, new digital equipment.
Despite all of that, plans for the new I-40 Drive In at an interstate exit near Burlington includes space for 1,000 vehicles spread over 34 acres; Bright Leaf’s capacity was 150, Valley’s 300. And it’ll have not just one but five screens, according to the Burlington newspaper. Plans also call for a restaurant, a playground and a mini-golf course, the newspaper said.
It’ll be the largest drive-in in North Carolina, and undoubtedly the largest one in state history, with construction to begin this summer, the newspaper said. It’s to open by the end of the year.
Good luck with that one. It’ll take some doing to lure a new generation to the big outdoor screen.
As I see it, they have one hope. Back during drive-ins’ heyday, teens would go to not watch the movie. To learn why they would go to not watch the movie, ask an old person who’s not shy about explaining some facts about life at the drive-in.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.