Bittersweet memories of drive-ins

Drive-In movie theaters, which were once common summertime adventures in Charleston, have all gone away. The only one left in the Lowcountry is Highway 21 Drive-In in Beaufort.

There hasn’t been one around here since 1987. They were once very popular, known by names such as The Magnolia, The Gateway, The Port or The Flamingo. The most well-known was the first to open and the last to go dark: the North 52.

Know where I’m headed now? That’s right, Charleston’s long since departed drive-in movie theaters.

It was a summertime staple during the 1950s and ’60s to pack up the car and see what was playing on the big screen. I stumbled across an old ad recently for the North 52 Drive-In enticing people with these reasons:

Dress as you want

Smoke if you wish

Let the kids sleep if they will

We’ll warm the babies (sic) bottle for free!

Given that call to action, how could you afford not to go? Times were different then. So were the prices. That same ad touted 40 cents per adult admission. It seems most proprietors charged $5/car in later years, which might have encouraged a few willing souls to enter the grounds riding in the trunk.

Just for frame of reference’s sake, here’s where those favorite date nights and family outings took place:

The Magnolia on Savannah Highway, where car dealerships now reside. Opened 1950, closed 1977.

The Gateway near Northwoods Mall, where Hooters and Outback now serve meals. Opened 1968, closed 1979.

The Port on Rivers Avenue, now an industrial business park. Opened 1970, closed 1986.

North 52 near Montague Avenue overpass over Rivers Avenue. It first opened in 1945 and eventually closed in 1987. At its height, it could accommodate 1,000 cars.

It’s hard to imagine with today’s air-conditioned, multiscreened venues and cushioned seats that people once waited in line to watch a movie in their cars. But it was seriously popular entertainment.

The refreshment and snack bar also was a unique experience. The ads on the giant screen featured crude animation showcasing a dancing hot dog along with marching ice cream bars.

Those ads often were separated by an announcement stating, “The show will start in five minutes.”

How did we hear what was happening? At each parking spot, a post held two audio speakers that were pulled into the vehicle and dangled from a slightly rolled-down window.

You also could buy some coiled contraption that could be ignited and kept on the dashboard to discourage mosquitoes. Is that why some cars seemed to fog up more than others?

I suppose the romantic and nostalgic aspect of watching a movie under the stars stirs up fond memories of this experience.

But I’m not altogether sure those days were really better or not. One thing’s for sure, candy bars and sodas didn’t cost more than $10! That part of the moviegoing experience has certainly left a bitter taste and a longing for the good ol’ days.

If you ever watched a giant movie screen while sitting in your car, then you are probably aware of other goings-on. For instance:

Who didn’t drive-off with the audio box still dangling from the car window?

Who didn’t stuff a brother or two into the trunk to save a dollar?

Who didn’t drive too fast over the speed bumps?

Who didn’t go for a walk just to see what might be going on in other cars?

I still travel past old drive-in locations and if I squint, I can barely see where the big screen used to sit.

We all probably forget how hot and sticky it might have been or whether the mosquitoes and gnats really loved those nights that featured not one, but two movies.

Our memories are kind that way. Our drive-in movie memories might be even kinder.

Reach Warren Peper at