It was a treat like no other. The whole family would pile into the car and head to the drive-in. Soon Hollywood idols flickered across the silver screen, shooting stars pierced the night, and the aroma of grilled hot dogs and buttered popcorn filled the air. There was nothing like a little movie magic while sitting in your ’56 Plymouth or ’57 Chevy.

0304DriveinThe drive-in, where Milk Duds reigned supreme, hosted classic movies like East of EdenSome Like It HotVertigoBen HurDr. Zhivago, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, and goofy horror classics likeThe Blob. David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago holds a place dear in my heart and it wasn’t Lara that thrilled me.

Teenagers who borrowed dad’s car found the drive-in an ideal place for dates. At the evenings’ end, corny cartoons warned patrons to replace the speaker to its rack before driving off. Still, many a teen drove off taking a speaker with him, or worse. shattering dad’s driver-side window. The drive-in also tempted teenagers to catch a free show.

My friend and co-author, Robert Clark, grew up in Charlotte, and he remembers a night when he and some buddies hid in the trunk and sneaked into a drive-in. The theater owner was no dummy. He knew just what to look for. When the trunk popped open, Robert found himself peering down the barrel of a pistol. With a gun in his hand, the owner threw them out. “One of the scariest moments in my life,” Robert said.

We can thank Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. of Camden, New Jersey, for the drive-in. In 1932, Hollingshead conducted outdoor theater tests in his driveway. After nailing a screen to trees in his backyard, he set a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car and put a radio behind the screen, testing sound levels. Blocks under vehicles in the driveway helped him determine the size and spacing of ramps so all could see the screen. Soon, the drive-in was off and running into the annals of Americana.

The drive-in’s popularity peaked in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in rural areas, with some 4,000 drive-ins spreading across the United States. Among its advantages was the fact that a family with a baby could watch a movie without having to hire a sitter.

That cultural icon of the 50s, the drive-in, is an endangered species today. The ever-climbing price of real estate, affordable color TVs, daylight savings time, and the advent of VCRs and video rentals did the drive-in in.

98bc7ce283cc0About 400 remain in the United States. There’s one down I-20 in Monetta, South Carolina. When Richard and Lisa Boaz opened  “The Big Mo,” as it’s known, in March 1999, they saved a cultural icon. Sam Bogo opened the drive-in April 26, 1951 and it prospered until the early 1970s when multiplex theaters debuted. Bogo closed it in 1986.

When the Boazs bought it, the marquee letters had long spelled “Closed For Vacation” and though they had blown away long ago as well, sunlight had burned “Closed For Vacation” into the concrete. Well, the vacation’s over. The Boaz’s opened the Big Mo with The Wizard Of Oz, and some 70,000 cars have since rolled in for family films and a return to the 50s. You can too. Rediscover what it’s like to be 17 again at a 50’s icon in tranquil Palmetto Peach Country. The Big Mo.

It’s an experience we old decrepit Baby Boomers ought to relive one more time.

Dusk. The lights drop. Startled kids hustle from the playground to their parents’ cars. The “Star Spangled Banner” plays to a chorus of patriotic car horns and an archaic 3,600-watt projector beams magic onto the screen. Cars from Augusta, Aiken, Columbia, Myrtle Beach, and points in between dial FM 90.3 for audio superior to the old window speakers. A few kids stroll to the concession stand in pajamas. All come to enjoy that one-time Mecca for wanderlust teenagers—the drive-in.

Many romantics will confess their first kiss and first drive-in went together. The drive-in still exudes romance. “Couples will have their first date here, and they’ll come back a year later to get engaged,” said Richard. “We’re waiting to cater a wedding with corn dogs and popcorn,” adds Lisa.

Frequent patrons get Stargazer cards for prizes, and it’s no exaggeration. The Monetta night sky, free of big-city light pollution, sparkles with celestial treats. One night a total lunar eclipse occurred, and “one year,” said Richard, “Mars put on a fantastic show.”

Rediscover what it’s like to be 17 again at a ’50s icon in Palmetto peach country, The Big Mo. The season reopens March 2010 and the gates open at 6:30 p.m. Take I-20 to Exit 33. Take SC 39 to Monetta (about 7 miles.) Turn right onto US 1. The drive-in is approximately one mile down US 1 on the right. Don’t, however, sneak your friends in the trunk. It’s not that expensive and the truth is we don’t quite fit in a trunk like we did those many years ago.

###

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at www.tompoland.net. Email him at [email protected].

21 Comments
  1. Tom one problem that I remember that did a hatchet job on drive-ins was daylight saving time. You stated the drive-in opened at 6:30 but with daylight saving it want get dark until 8:00 in March and even later in June.
    When I was young we watched “Gone With the Wind” at a drive-in in the winter. How’s that for a family to be shut up in a car for over three hours in the cold.

  2. Sorry Tom I didn’t see you had listed daylight saving as one of the culprits that stopped drive-ins.

  3. Here in Savannah we had all night movies at the drive-in. For one low price you could get in for the entire night, one movie after another. Nothing like leaving the drive-in as the sun comes up! I must confess that we also hid people in the trunk. Never me – too claustrophobic!

  4. The Prattmont Drive-In had a huge cottonfield behind it. I let a buddy out on the other side of the field, with instructions, headed in and parked in the back. As sooon as Mr Parker, the Wandering Deputy, went up to the concession and went in, I got out and waved and hollered softly, ‘C’mon, Jimmiy, it’s clear.” I swear, twenty kids got up and ran in from the field.

  5. My husband and I had our first kiss at the SkyVue Drive-In in St. Petersburg, FL. The movie was JOHN WAYNE AND THE COWBOYS. We took my mom’s station wagon and a paper sack of popcorn and a liter bottle of Coke from home, because we’d just graduated from high school and neither of us had any money. Ah the memories!

  6. I’m sitting here, dying laughing. My parents used to take us to the drive-in in our pajamas, with our pillows and a cover. We were allowed to watch the more kid friendly first feature, but then we had to lie down in the back seat, and not look at or listen to the adults only 2nd feature. We were supposed to go to sleep, as it was past our bedtime by then. Of course, at the first sound of gunfire, yelling or kissing we’d pop our little heads up till our parents would yell, “you kids lay back down or you’re gonna get a whippin’.” I’m afraid it encouraged a long habit of wanting to do what we weren’t supposed to do.

  7. Drive-ins seemed so ubiquitous, I find it unbelievable that there were only 4,000 of them! Thanks for putting words to emotional memories of happy family times with my long-gone parents, themselves living a carefree life that even our grown children might not recognize.

  8. Frank Povah

    Their forerunner in Western Australia, and in other warm parts of the continent, was the “picture garden”. They survived into the early 60s when drive-ins, greater car ownership and television finally killed them off.

    The picture garden was a drive-in without the cars. Often planted with trees to serve as windbreaks, they featured canvas, reclining “deck chairs” like those on an ocean liner. The sound was via a large PA system. On WA’s balmy evenings there was no better place to be for a bit of a family night out or a “pash in the front rows” than the picture garden. The sounds and scents of teenage lust was always a big feature of Friday night at the picture garden.

    As a kid, I lived for a while on an island in the Kimberley – really isolated back then. On “picture nights” the entire population of about 100 took cushions, blankets – well it did get down to the 70s some nights – and tramped down to a flat bit of ground near the school (student body 6) to watch the latest offering. The few little kids all crashed together on a tick mattress kept for the purpose in the schoolhouse. The show was invariably a couple of “shorts”, a newsreel and a feature. On rare occasions we might be lucky enough to score a B-grade western as part of a double.

    On one unforgettable night, a musical short featuring Bing Crosby singing “Would you Like to Swing on a Star” was playing. Boring old Bing had just got to “A mule is an animal with long funny ears” when we heard a Cockeyed Bob – a sort of sudden tornado – coming in from the sea. We all ran for the shelter of the bakehouse from where we watched pillows, blankets and the screen vanish somewhere out in the channel by the Piccaninnies, a cluster of rock stacks beyond the reef. On nights of king tides (the rise and fall there is about 36 feet) we could hear over the soundtrack the splashes and slaps as sharks and other predators hunted only feet away. During the season, we’d sometimes hear humpbacks blow and breach.

    In Broome, a few hundred miles to the south, the Sun Picture Theatre was once famous for the fact that during big tides the patrons sometimes got wet feet.

    A picture garden was recently revived in a Perth suburb and is apparently heavily patronised.

  9. When I was a kid, a few years ago, my grandmother lived in front of a drive-in in Laurens. Whenever we visited, we would sneak down and watch the movie – without sound! I spent many a happy hour at drive-ins in my youth and only had one bad experience. My older cousin took me to one, the same one in Laurens. During some intermission, or cartoon, he asked me to go to the concession stand. Not wanting to miss anything I went tearing up the lot. At some point, some fellow had “borrowed” the speaker from the adjacent space and had pulled the cord across an empty space. Needless to say, my run was cut short as I caught the line about chest high. I picked myself up, somewhat dazed, and took off again. I don’t think I did any damage to the car window, but did not stick around to find out.

    And I do remember the Wise in Augusta which add heaters you could hook to your rear window! Thanks Tom for bringing back some fond memories.

  10. This makes me want to go to a Drive In myself! I am 35 and never have been!!

  11. Used to watch the drive-in a mile or so away from my bedroom window in northern Utah. No sound, but it was comforting to see just the same. Like color television. Years later I fell in love with an old friend from high school while we watched a double feature — “Irma la Douce,” and “Tom Jones.” Get thee to a drive-in, Rebecca!

  12. Melinda Ennis

    Don’t forget the Starlight here in Atlanta is still going strong. We had our son’s 16th birthday there. All the kids
    sat in lawn chairs or on the front of our car and the movie was “Mission Impossible.” My husband and I both did the “kids in pajamas and brown grocery bag of popcorn popped economically by our moms” -thing when kids. Then as teens, there were a whole new set of experiences, most already mentioned here. However, I remember a particularly dismal blind date that was a double date with a couple “in-love.” The backseat “lovers” were only visible as thrashing arms and legs. I was not pleased with my blind date, and we were on a bench seat (remember bench seats?). So I was sitting so close to the door that the roll-down window crank was imprinted in my butt, while the moans and sigh from the backseat created a particularly tense atmosphere. And worse, the movie could not even distract me. It was a Clint Eastwood spaghetti-western marathon. Despite hating the genre, I have never watched Clint so intently.

  13. Janet Ward

    When we were kids, our dad would take us to the theater on the Air Force Base — 25 cents to get in, and, being a military base, the movie always started out with the National Anthem, which everyone would stand up for. But for special occasions, we went to the drive-in, seven kids with popcorn from home and a thermos of, wait for it, HOT CHOCOLATE. When I turned 16, my parents took me and my best friend, Katie, to the drive-in to see a double feature — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sand Pebbles. I distinctly remember my mother laughing nervously (she didn’t want Katie to think she wasn’t cool) when Butch and Sundance jumped off the cliff and yelled, “SHHHHIIIIIIITTTTTT” all the way down. I was appalled and embarrassed.

    Now that I think about it, those were two pretty depressing movies for a 16-year-old birthday bash.

  14. Beth are talking about the one that used to be on Victory Drive near the Krystal? I have hit those Palm trees coming out of the drive-in more than once. Girl friend sitting to close.
    Memories seem to all that is left.

  15. Yes there was one on Victory Drive, one on Montgomery St. and one on Montgomery Crossroads, where Wal-Mart is now. Sadly they are all gone now. Lots of memories though. One funny memory I have is from junior high school. The rumor was that a tough kid named Rudy took a girl to the drive-in on his motorcycle. We were too young to drive then so we were all impressed that he had found a way to take a date to the drive-in. So funny now.
    Lots of memories of the Krystal on Victory Drive too!

  16. There is still a wonderful drive-in located in Waverly, TN called the Valley Drive-In. They still play double-features and have the best concession stand food ever!

  17. Piney Woods Pete

    On a warm summer night in 1970 I hauled five paying customers to the drive-in with four freebies hidden in the trunk of my 1956 Chevy Bel-Air. While we were paying for the visible patrons, one of the girls in the trunk kept hollering, “Are we inside yet?”

  18. Cliff Green

    I remember the 411 Highway Drive-in between Centre and Leesburg, Alabama. (Centre is pronounced “center” and Leesburg is named for Robert E.) As a kid, I saw the original “The Day the Earth Stood Still” there. A few years later, still too young to drive, my girlfriend and I hitched a ride with an older couple, one of them had to have been 16, and saw…I can’t remember. The reason I go blank is that Becky Curry kissed me numerous times in the back seat of the car during the film.
    My life has been in a death spiral since.

  19. Thank you all for all the wonderful comments. It pleases me to read how we all tried to save money while having a good time and find that elusive first kiss. Bring back the drive-in!

  20. Doesn’t anybody remember “Vanishing Point”? That was a classic drive in movie. I documented drive ins for years, and have a fairly large group of photos……

  21. Cliff Green

    Phil, I hope we’re talking about the same “Vanishing Point.” A few weeks after it was released, the studio took out full-page ads in national publications; one half re-printed reviews saying, “This is the worst film ever produced,” while the other half printed reviews saying, “This is the greatest film ever made.”
    Is that the way you remember it?
    Maybe Eleanor can jump in here.

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