They faded away when the masses sought more comfortable confines inside air-conditioned movie theaters. But across North Carolina, six drive-in movie screens still hold on to the sentiment that outside is better.
It’s a sticky hot Gaston County evening at the Belmont Drive-In Theatre. Showtime is still an hour away, but no one in the crowd of hundreds seems to mind.
Dozens of children toss footballs and Frisbees in the grassy space between the giant movie screen and the first semicircle of cars. Their parents stand 20-deep in line at the concession stand to buy hot dogs, cotton candy, and, best of all on a hot summer night, ice-cold sodas. Other moviegoers enjoy a tailgate dinner from the backs of SUVs or recline in lawn chairs as they wait for the night’s double feature, G-Force and Harry Potter, to begin once night falls.
Looking at the weathered sheet metal fencing and squat cinderblock buildings, no one would confuse this drive-in, one of only six still operating in North Carolina, with the glitzy modern movie houses down the road in Gastonia and Charlotte. But patrons don’t come to these nostalgic cinemas for luxury. They come for affordable family fun under the stars.
Beyond the fence, cars continue to stream off of McAdenville Road and down the gravel driveway leading into the theater. There, employee Rain Drum collects the admissions fees ($4 per person, kids under 16 free) and gives each driver a concession stand menu, a plastic trash bag, and a warm greeting.
Peggy Lawing loved the view of the place on nights like this. She ran the Belmont Drive-In for nearly 30 years, right up until she died in January. She worked through last summer.
“I like a crowd, and I like kids,” she said then, clutching a radio and running the show during what would be her final season at the drive-in. “As long as it’s fun, I want to keep doing this.”
Lawing grew up in West Charlotte, just a few miles east of the Belmont Drive-In. Her future husband, Bill Lawing, started working the projection booth at the theater when he was just 16. The Lawings took over the Belmont Drive-In in 1983 and, after Bill’s death 14 years ago, Peggy became the theater’s sole proprietor.
The Lawings’ children and grandchildren have decided to keep the theater their parents loved so much alive. The theater reopened for the season on April 9, and it will show movies every weekend through November.
From the owners to the patrons, family is the engine that drives our state’s drive-ins.
Nora Melanson of Lincolnton brings her 6-year-old son, Cory, and his friends to either the Belmont or Bessemer City drive-ins about once a month. After playing in the grassy field, the boys take advantage of the remaining twilight to color in coloring books. Then Melanson will visit the concession stand to get the crowd their favorite movie snacks — popcorn and cotton candy.
Then the show starts.
From heyday to today
The late 1950s and the early 1960s were the heyday of the drive-in movie theaters. America’s post-World War II love affair with the car was in full swing, and a pleasant night parked in front of an outdoor movie screen was a decidedly American pastime. In those days, North Carolina had more than 200 drive-in theaters.
But times change and the drive-in theater slowly faded away. Those in North Carolina were no exception. From the Twilite in Nakina to the Bel-Air in Walkertown to the Dreamland in Asheville, one by one, our drive-in theaters locked their gates and darkened their screens.
Those that still survive have two factors in common: a devoted core of regular patrons and owners who love the business too much to let it die.
Jim Kopp, owner of the Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre in Henderson, is one of those who can’t let go. It was born into him. Kopp grew up in Pittsburgh, which had 35 drive-ins when he was a kid.
He spent his career working for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. But his love of drive-ins never died. He participated in a nonprofit effort that kept the historic Hull’s Drive-In in Virginia operating.
Then, in 2006, he had a rather unusual opportunity to get in the business himself. The drive-in theater in Henderson went up for sale —on eBay. Kopp bid $22,000, and won.
“I bought it lock, stock, and barrel off eBay,” he says. For the next two years, he and his wife shuttled between the D.C. area and Henderson, where they ran the theater on weekends.
In 2008, Kopp retired, and he and his wife finally moved to North Carolina. He stays busy — he bought a second drive-in in Virginia in April — trying to keep alive a piece of his childhood.
“That was the family entertainment back then,” he says.
Kids and dogs welcome
Most drive-ins focus on PG-rated movies that appeal to parents with children, such as cartoons, superhero adventures, and science-fiction blockbusters.
Kopp’s Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre, for example, features a playground and picnic tables. Kopp even allows patrons to bring their dogs into the show — and offers doggie biscuits to the canine cinemagoers.
“With our regular patrons, their dogs know they’re getting a treat,” he says with a laugh. “They stick their heads out of the window just waiting.”
Admission prices are cheap — for example, an entire carload of people can attend Shelby’s Sunset Drive-In for just $8. Most places even offer double features for the price of one admission. Concessions, too, are far cheaper than at the local Cineplex. The Belmont Drive-In offers a hot dog, popcorn, and soda for $5.
Kopp and other theater operators depend on those concession sales to stay in business. The vast majority of ticket money — as much as 100 percent — goes back to the film studio. So movie theaters need hungry, thirsty customers to pay the bills.
“You keep it family oriented, and you keep it economical,” Kopp says. “Our adult admission is cheaper than a child’s admission [at traditional movie theaters] in the Triangle.”
To draw viewers to the concession stand, drive-ins go old-time, offering hand-prepared snacks that movie patrons enjoyed 50 years ago. The Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre in Henderson serves chili cheese fries and home-churned ice cream, while fans at the Sunset Drive-In in Shelby swear by the cheeseburgers topped with chili and onions.
Back in Belmont, Drum waves in the final few cars of the sellout crowd. He and the rest of the crew still have hours to go before they finish up, but he said the employees enjoy the experience as much as the kids playing football.
“It gets pretty crazy for us sometimes, but we love it,” he says.
In the mix is parent Mike Barrella of Belmont, soaking up the value of a family night outside, with a movie.
“It’s a hometown tradition,” he says.
Albemarle: Badin Road Drive-In
2411 Badin Road
Belmont: Bill’s Belmont
314 McAdenville Road
Bessemer City: Bessemer City Kings Mountain Drive-In Theatre
1365 N.C. Highway 161
Eden: Eden Drive-In
106 Fireman Club Road
Henderson: Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre
3336 Raleigh Road
Shelby: Sunset Drive-In
3935 West Dixon Boulevard
Bruce Buchanan is a freelance writer living in Greensboro.