Take a Trip to Yesteryear

photo by John Dersham

photo by John Dersham

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Drive-in theaters offer a social and cultural experience wrapped in nostalgia.

by JOHN DERSAHM and RANDY GRIDER

The first warm winds of spring are blowing in, and you can’t wait to get out and enjoy the outdoors again after the cold, wet, dreary winter months. So… I have an idea for you. How about a drive-in movie?

Yes, that’s right, they are still around. The Lookout Mountain area is home to three outdoor theaters. You don’t have to open the car windows anymore to hang a speaker from the door. Just tune into the radio channel designated for the theater. Most drive-ins show current movies, and double features are common. While some theaters still charge by vehicle, others charge per person.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Many outdoor theaters are open year-round now, but it is in spring and summer that watching a movie under the stars can spark remembrances of youth and being in love… you know the feeling. Oh yes, but some of you have never been, and many of you missed the heyday of the drive-in theaters, in the 1950s and ’60s when there were more than 4,000 scattered around the United States. Only 357  remained in 2013, and many are in rural areas.

Outdoor theaters are facing their biggest challenge since cultural shifts and demographic changes moved most moviegoers inside to high-tech venues with multiple screens and plush seating. The challenge now comes from the movie industry that sometime in 2014 will stop making film copies of movies to distribute to theaters.

While many movies are still shot on film, studios are scanning the film todigital files they can distribute much more cheaply than film copies. Theaters will have to project these files via digital projectors, which smaller cinemas and drive-ins often do not own. Because projectors cost $50,000 to $70,000, some drive-ins will not survive the transition.

Going to the drive-in is a special experience. You get there before dark and talk to those parked next to you. Most drive-ins have playgrounds for the kids. You can bring lawn chairs, sit in the car or in a truck bed. Going to the drive-in is not simply seeing a movie; it is an environmental and cultural experience. You walk between vehicles to visit the concession stand. You enjoy the night air. It’s a social event, fun for couples or the whole family, and a great way to spend a weekend night.

The three drive-in theaters in the Lookout Mountain region are:

Henagar Drive-In
The Henagar Drive-In in Henagar, Ala., operates year round with one screen on five acres accommodating 250 cars. Moviegoers are treated to double features.

“I think a couple of things attract people to drive-ins like ours,” says LaNita Price. “It’s a great deal  economically for families. Drive-ins also offer more freedom for people with kids. You can bring the smaller children without worrying about them bothering other people.

“And then there is the nostalgia factor. We have grandparents who bring their grandkids who may have never been to a drive-in. In fact, I got my husband hooked on drive-ins. He had never been to one until I took him.” The atmosphere is light with games and giveaways. “We try to keep things fun for the people who come here,” Price says. “We place games like ‘Junk in the Trunk,’ where we announce an item. If you have it in your car, you win a prize.” The drive-in opened in 2001, but had to be partially rebuilt after an F5 tornado tore across Sand Mountain in April 2011. Taking the setback in stride, the theater posted “Gone with the Wind” on its marquee until it reopened in June of the same year.

The Henagar Drive-In, located at 168 Gourge Road, Henagar, Ala., is open Thursday-Sunday during warm months and Friday-Sunday during winter. Admission is $5 apiece for two people and $15 for a carload. henagardrivein.com; 256-657-1340

411 Twin Drive-In
Open all year with two screens on 10 acres, the popular 411 Twin Drive-In in Centre, Ala., is a family tradition. Rex and Carl Johnson operate the outdoor theater their father, Emory Johnson, built in 1953. (Emory and his father Grover Johnson later built the first walk-in theater in Centre.)

Though it was closed for many years, Emory, with the help of Rex and Carl, reopened the drive-in in 2001. In 2008, the theater officially became the 411 Twin Drive-In with the addition of a second screen, which brought car capacity to 330 for the first screen and 400 for the second. A new snack bar also was added.

“Even though we are open all year, it’s very seasonal,” Rex says. “Winters are tough and summers are good. We get a good bump in the warmer months from people visiting Weiss Lake.”

While the popular fishing and recreational lake helps, the drive-in itself is a destination for people seeking to recapture a part of their past. “We get people from all over,” Rex says. “It’s really across the board as far as people who come here. We get the families because it’s a good deal economically. Then we get the people who come from a long way because of the nostalgia.”

The 411 Drive-In, located at 300 County Road 265 Centre, Ala., is open seven nights a week from Memorial Day through Labor Day and Friday-Sunday
the rest of the year. Admission is $15 per car for a double feature. Credit/debit cards not accepted. 411drivein.com; 256-927-2855

Wilderness Outdoor Movie Theater
If you are looking for a really BIG drive-in experience, the Wilderness Outdoor Movie Theater in Trenton, Ga., might be the way to go. With a cool 1,000-car capacity, it boasts two large screens – the biggest being 50 feet by 100 feet. The entire complex is set on 45 landscaped acres surrounded by vistas of Lookout Mountain and Sand Mountain. It offers both viewing from your vehicle or a chance to spread out along the hillside in festival-style seating.

While most patrons are within an hour’s drive, theater owner Don Marshall says some people travel as long as two hours to take in a movie or two. “The freedom of being outside” is the main draw, but also it’s a “value for the money to watch two movies for $7,” Marshall says.

Wilderness Outdoor Move Theater, located at 217 Old Hales Gap Road, Trenton, Ga., is open Friday-Sunday from April through October. Admission is $7 per person; children under 3 are free. Credit/debit cards not accepted. wildernesstheater.com; 706-657-8411

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