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Across South Carolina, drive-in movie theaters are still hanging on

VCRs and Netflix led to the decline of the drive-in. Now, nostalgia is fueling their comeback.

  • 6 min to read
Across South Carolina, drive-in movie theaters are still hanging on
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Hunter Elkins and Shelby Draft sit on top of their vehicle before the start of the movie at The Big Mo drive-in movie theater in Monetta on Saturday, June 15, 2019. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

It’s a Friday night at the Highway 21 Drive-In, one of only three outdoor movie theaters in South Carolina. 

A stream of bright lights cuts through the darkening twilight in an open, grassy field in Beaufort. Cicadas hum in the background as cars line up in front of a giant movie screen. Buttery popcorn shifts from eager fingers to crunching mouths in the back of one pickup truck, while the laughter of children on the swing set carries back to the line at the concessions stand. 

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The small town of Monetta is surrounded by hundreds of peach orchards spread across the Midlands.The large peach projection room is a symbol for The Big Mo drive-in movie theatre in Monetta on Saturday, June 15, 2019. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The Travel Channel placed the Highway 21 Drive-In as No. 2 in the Top 10 list of drive-ins in the United States. And since the Beaufort indoor theater has closed, more moviegoers are showing up at the drive-in to watch the latest releases. 

There’s also The Big Mo in Monetta and the 25 Drive-In Auto Theatre in Greenwood. A new drive-in, The Stateline Movie Time Theater, just opened right across the border in Tabor City, North Carolina, with a 40-by-50-foot screen and plans for two more screens and a playground.

Drive-ins are still hanging on, and in some cases, expanding both across the nation and in the Palmetto State. This is happening even in the age of streaming, which has universally disrupted the way in which movies are consumed.  

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April Dugger, 5, eats a handful of popcorn while in line at the concessions at the Highway 21 Drive-In on Friday, June 14, 2019, in Beaufort. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Back in the 1930s, drive-ins emerged as an alternative to cramped indoor movie theaters. In the 1950s and '60s, they became a family-friendly destination and a date night alternative. 

In 1976, the VCR was invented. More families decided to save their money and watch movies at home. Drive-ins shuttered across the country, declining from an estimated 2,400 in 1980 to just 443 in 2000. 

Netflix launched in 1997; Hulu a decade later. Blockbuster closed its doors worldwide in 2013, and the number of drive-ins continued to decrease. Just 348 are left in the country as of March. 

Yet, in the past couple years, drive-ins started to make a comeback. 

According to 2019 U.S. Industry Statistics and Market Research, the number of drive-ins and revenue from drive-ins have both steadily increased since 2014. Those growth trends are estimated to continue through another decade. 

Perhaps it’s a craving for camaraderie in the digital age, perhaps it’s the unique experience that other venues can’t offer, perhaps it’s the simple nostalgia. 

Beaufort

Joe Barth, the owner of the Highway 21 Drive-In along the Spanish Moss Trail, puts his money on that last point. After all, nostalgia is what convinced him to buy the dilapidated drive-in, which opened in 1978, back in 2004. 

“My wife would tell ya I was stupid,” Barth said. 

He’s since added a screen and a playground, gone from a traditional projector to the universal updated digital format and created a bustling concession stand that is also open for lunches. The drive-in operates seven days a week in the spring and summer and on weekends in the fall and winter. Tickets are $7 a person for a double feature on either of the two screens. There are sometimes special events and community gatherings.

“When Candace Glover won ‘American Idol,’ we showed it here and did it for free,” Barth said. 

He’s also streamed concerts at the theater and held Christmas and New Year’s Eve events. 

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"It's those family moments that are the things you remember growing up," Ella Rae said as she watches a movie from her air mattress with her son Jacob Muench and daughter Lark Rae in the back of the vehicle at the Highway 21 Drive-In on Friday, June 14, 2019 in Beaufort. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Overall, he said it doesn’t make a whole lot of money compared with the investments he’s had to make to keep it operating, which he estimated to be near $1 million. But it’s a simpler way of life. He’s always lived in a place that had a drive-in and has fond memories of them from childhood. So do most of the people who buy tickets there now, he said. 

Fran Roberts has been coming to the Highway 21 Drive-In since Barth opened it. Her son was then 3 years old. Now, he’s 18 and heading off to college in the fall. 

The first movie she saw at a drive-in was “Star Wars.” The night The Post and Courier paid a visit, she was seeing “Toy Story 4” as a late Mother’s Day present. 

“For me, it brings back childhood memories,” Roberts said. “People will drive farther for a drive-in because it just takes you back.” 

“It reminds me of the old days when things were simpler,” she added. 

A lot of military families also enjoy the drive-in, since it’s next to the Marine Corps Air Station. Often, planes will fly overhead as the sun sets. Barth said a few people have complained about the noise but most don’t mind it. 

“In Beaufort, it’s the sound of freedom,” Barth said. 

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Greenwood

It’s all about classic cars and good food at this drive-in in the Upstate. 

On your way there, along U.S. 25, you’ll pass by a Speedway Car Care Center, a few auto parts stores and an annual June car show. 

Just a few miles away from those car-centric destinations is The 25 Drive-In Auto Theatre, which first opened in 1955. The current owners, Tommy and Carolyn McCutcheon, also have a classic 1968 Chevrolet Camaro convertible parked underneath one of their movie screen projectors. 

As cars line up along the road to get in, ‘50s rock music blares on the speakers from the concessions stand. 

The two bought the three-screen drive-in back in 2008 and have a saying to “come hungry.” They’re known for their Barbecue Bacon Burger, along with several other items on their menu, including ribeye, grilled chicken sandwiches and homemade chili. 

Tommy McCutcheon used to be in the restaurant business before working at the drive-in. At 14 years old, he worked for his dad at a cheeseburger house, and he still owns a couple restaurants in the area. 

At the 25 Drive-In Auto Theatre, he is in the kitchen while Carolyn manages the concessions and their son Tom handles the ticket booth. It’s a family-friendly and family-centric operation.

Here, you’ll see Disney classics and superhero blockbusters. Tickets are $5 for ages 3-11 and $10 for ages 12 and older. It’s open year-round on weekends. 

“What it is about drive-ins is the good, wholesome environment,” Carolyn McCutcheon said. “People still say 'yes, ma’am' and 'no, ma’am.'”

Since he made the purchase, Tommy McCutcheon said he’s invested about $750,000 into the drive-in, which has been rated one of the most charming drive-ins in America in Architectural Digest

“This is my 11th year, and I’m thrilled every time I look up there and see the big screen,” he said. “It still takes my breath away after all these years.” 

Monetta

Several hundred rows of peach orchards line the entrance along U.S. 1 to the town of Monetta.

Just an hour outside of Columbia, the recognizable landmark of a large peach-shaped projection room at The Big Mo Drive-In theater can be seen from the road. Richard Boaz, the owner, said they added the feature after going from film to digital in 2014. They wanted a new look. 

Boaz and his wife Lisa bought the land for The Big Mo back in 1998 for $10,000, inspired after a visit to The Valley Drive-In in West Virginia. 

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Micah Clark, Caleb Philips, Christopher Bruce Johnston and Stephen Bruce Johnston play spike ball before watching a movie at The Big Mo drive-in movie theater in Monetta on Saturday, June 15, 2019. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

It was on Labor Day and the last showing for their season. Boaz leaned over to his wife and said, “This is so cool; we could do this.” 

The Monetta drive-in had been dark for 14 years after originally opening in 1951 when the Boazes took over. The property was overgrown with weeds, and half a screen was blown out. It became quite the project.

“We have been at it for 20 years now and invested hundreds of thousands of dollars over time,” Boaz said. 

To Boaz, it’s still a work in progress, even after setting up three screens, a playground, several concessions and The Big Mo movie marquee out front. Like other drive-ins, The Big Mo has also had to switch to digital projection, which has been a frustrating and expensive process, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“When we went digital, we were stepping off the Titanic onto a life raft before it went down,” Boaz said. “Digital is the worst thing to happen to drive-ins. They are computers and are vulnerable to weather and crashing. With film, it was all mechanical and you could fix it.” 

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Evan King, 9, plays with his Hulk fists that he got for his birthday at The Big Mo drive-in movie theater in Monetta on Saturday, June 15, 2019. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Although Boaz said this has been a good financial year for The Big Mo, the past two years were not as profitable as three or four years ago. Boaz owes some of this year’s success to the big blockbusters that have been released.

“This year, they had a really good movie slate,” he said. “‘The Avengers,’ ‘Toy Story,’ ‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Lion King.’ What is it going to look like when you don’t have those good movies in a season?” 

Every drive-in is unique in its own way. Boaz said they bring showmanship to theirs. During the intermission, they host a trivia contest. And, of course, there is the concessions stand, though some moviegoers inevitably sneak in outside food and drink, cutting down on profits. 

“We keep it lighter than most,” he said. “I can’t stand battling customers on bringing in a bottle of water and a pizza slice. Maybe they will get hungry later and want a funnel cake or a drink.”

The Big Mo is open March through October on the weekends with a $9 admission. 

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The ticket taker booth lights up as cars make their way in at The Big Mo drive-in movie theater in Monetta on Saturday, June 15, 2019. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

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Kalyn Oyer is a Charleston native who covers arts and entertainment for The Post and Courier's Thursday edition, Charleston Scene. She used to write about music for the Charleston City Paper and Scene SC.