You Auto Be in Pictures
How babies were made in the ’60s
By Billy Eye
“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” ― Martin Scorsese
The history is vague but it’s been well over a hundred years since Model Ts and touring cars clattered their way to a spot on the beach or at a resort area like our own Pinecroft (pure speculation on my part), where management stretched a sheet between two trees and invited tourists to enjoy a moving picture under a starlit canopy.
Drive-in theaters never caught on in a big way early on. It wasn’t until 1933 that the first modern drive-in debuted in New Jersey, advertised as a place where, “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.”
Open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights beginning in 1941, on the outskirts of town, The Drive-In on High Point Road was Greensboro’s first outdoor cinema with an automotive capacity of 600, admission $1 per car. It would remain the largest of its type in town. In 1949 the lot was renamed South Drive-In. That’s when North Drive-In (400 capacity) opened across town on U.S. 29.
In the summer of 1950, a smaller 195-car capacity Sundown Drive-In, catering to the African-American community, welcomed their first carloads of customers. Owned and operated by Rounder L. Ledwell & Clarence L. Fuller, the Sundown closed in 1966 after theaters of all types were desegregated two years earlier.
As the 1950s unfolded, mobile moviegoing exploded across the country, peaking in the early 1960s when there were more than 5,000 drive-ins nationwide. During that period, luring motorists in with neon signage comparable to a Las Vegas casino, the Piedmont on West Market, the Crescent on Piney Forest Road and the Park Drive-In on Lawndale became date night hot spots.
There’s something inherently romantic about enjoying a Hollywood popcorner bathed in midnight blue, soundtrack enhanced by chirping cicadas, the dialogue echoing from those metal speakers clamped onto the driver’s side window sounding like a too-loud television in the next room of a cheap motel. And why is the glass fogged over in the car next to us? There’s a semi-famous photo taken around 1960 at a local drive-in showing a couple in locked embrace wearing so many layers of clothing you have to wonder how the Baby Boom ever happened.
The format was pretty much the same at any location: After a cartoon and the first feature film, 8-minute shorts featuring dancing, bubbly soda cans, cascading Jujubes and back-flipping hot dogs enticed patrons to visit the refreshment center while counting down the time until the next picture show started.
In 1961 Jim Bellows, owner of the Center Theater downtown, bought the aging South Drive-In, installing new projection and sound equipment along with an air-conditioned concession booth and restrooms (“Plumbing with city water”). The next year, Bellows took possession of the North, renaming it Skyline Drive-In Theatre. In the late-1960s, the Skyline would hold dusk-to-dawn movies, from 8 p.m. until almost 6 a.m., on one weekend projecting all of the Sean Connery James Bond flicks, from Dr. No to You Only Live Twice, in order on the really big screen.
In most cases, like Skyline for instance, the manager’s office and living quarters were actually inside the screen.
Circle Drive-In on Robbins Street was last to open in 1970, just as attendance here and nationwide was winding down. As cities expanded their borders the real estate value of those large properties increased exponentially. The advent of daylight saving time in 1970 robbed businesses of that crucial, family friendly 7 to 8 p.m. hour. Within a few years, a gasoline shortage, coupled with smaller, less comfortable vehicles, resulted in the Piedmont, Park and South Drive-Ins closing in 1975.
By the end of the ’70s, schlocky, sex charged B-movies became the draw, grindhouse features produced especially for the drive-in market like ’Gator Bait (“Untamed and deadly, she ruled the swamp with a blazing gun and a luscious smile.” ), Mad Monkey Kung Fu, Blacula and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, along with blockbusters that had finished their first run at the Carolina or Terrace theaters, crowd pleasers like Smokey and the Bandit and Dirty Harry. The Skyline closed in 1980. Circle Drive-In, Greensboro’s last surviving, flickered out in 1983.
A few years ago, Mike Small was scouting photo opportunities just west of the intersection of highways 158 and 66 in Walkertown when he happened across a still-standing drive-in screen fronted by acres of unkempt weeds bordering a residential neighborhood. He tells me it’s a nearly forgotten reminder of the Bel-Air Theater: “We took our kids Rebekah and Dallas there in 1994 to see Pocahontas when they were younger.” The Bel-Air opened in 1955 and was welcoming carloads of moviegoers until 2000. A uniquely American experience tucked forever into cobwebbed membranes of the mind.
Not this time, Bunky!
You can still experience the joy of a moonlit motion picture. There’s an outdoor screen nightly at Marketplace Mall in Winston-Salem for fan favorites like The Dark Knight and Elf. Marketplace Cinema owner Daniel Kleeberg assures me, “We will be showing movies in the snow if that is what it takes to survive.” I like that idea!
Winston-Salem Fairgrounds also sports an open-air theater called The Drive while Scoop Zone Backyard in Greensboro will rent you everything you need to enjoy movie magic in your own backyard or neighborhood gatherings. Find them on Facebook.
Better yet, take a 45-minute drive north and you’ll discover Eden Drive-In, circa 1949, on Fireman Club Road in Eden. Open weekend evenings at 6:30 p.m., movies starting around 8:30, Eden Drive-In sports two screens with a choice between kiddie fare, Minions and such, and PG movies like Dirty Dancing and Grease. Friday nights are busiest; Sundays you’ll have more room to spread out. With a 400-car capacity, it’s the only authentic drive-in nearby, right down to the old-time snack bar grill. No need for those clunky metal speakers any longer, crystal clear sound is piped into your car radio. Haven’t been myself but plan to check it out.
Facing an uncertain future leaning into the past can be a worthwhile pursuit, no matter how noisy your kids are! OH
Born and raised here Billy Eye, a former Hollywood movie poster designer, would like to credit CinemaTreasures.org for information about drive-in theaters.