Walterboro looks to save landmark drive-in mural

This mural has greeted motorists passing through Walterboro for more than 60 years, and some in town are trying to preserve it for generations to come.

WALTERBORO - It's far from the most useful structure in town, but it's certainly among the most noticeable.

And a small group of folks here are joining forces to find a way to save the 63-year-old black-and-white mural painted on the back of the town's drive-in theater.

The last movie show flickered to a halt here many years ago, but they argue the silhouette of the Lowcountry should live on.

The supporters include Tex Roberts, whose uncle helped create it.

Roberts says he considers this a sort of "bumblebee project," because some feel it's unlikely to fly, but adds, "We've got a lot more people who say, 'Yes, let's do it,' than people who are negative, so that's encouraging."

The artist Carew Rice came up with the image of deer and ducks passing under an oak tree, and Robert's uncle Foch Headden, a sign painter who worked between Florida and North Carolina, used cables and a block and tackle to transpose it onto plywood boards behind the screen.

Rice even wrote Headden in 1950 to compliment him on his work.

"I appreciate the faithfully rendered reproduction in enlargement of my design," his letter says. "Many people have commented upon the picture and in other places than just local."

Before Interstate 95 was built, many passing through the eastern end of South Carolina also passed by this drive-in on U.S. Highway 17A, also known here as South Jefferies Boulevard.

Roberts says some people back then even described Walterboro as "the little town that has the silhouette on the screen."

Of course, the recent years have not been kind. A visit here last month showed a handful of the plywood panels lying on the ground, and the town's code enforcement is interested in seeing the structure stabilized.

The city is supportive of the group, though, and it let about 15 of them use City Hall for a recent strategy session.

Roberts says the owner, Keith Kinard, also is willing to work to save the screen, even going so far as to subdivide his land.

Roberts is trying to create a nonprofit, which currently goes by the informal name "Screen Savers," to receive tax-deductible donations for a project he figures might cost upwards of $30,000.

And he's working to nail down other details, such as who would own and maintain the screen, and how it would be used. One possibility is a small park, with a small parking area, landscaping and a few picnic tables.

Roberts, who also is a semi-retired sign painter, repaired it several years ago, "and it's actually held up much better than I thought it would." But he says the timber framework that holds the panels to the metal frame needs to be replaced.

While the scope of the work still needs to be figured out, Roberts says it's important to save as many of the original panels as possible.

"If we were to tear it apart completely and redo it, it no longer would be a historical thing," he says. "We don't like that."

Roberts says he would like to remove the metal framing on either side of the mural, a later enlargement designed to handle wider movies filmed in Cinemascope.

Joe Williams, a Walterboro real estate agent, was among the 15 or so people who met recently to talk about saving the mural.

"I think it is important to the town in a lot of regards," he says. "I think it's got tremendous potential to bring tourists off I-95 and designate Walterboro as a tourist attraction to a degree."

Williams says the property could be turned into a park, "or it could potentially be restored to a drive-in movie theater."

South Carolina once had 79 drive-ins, but only three remain open, in Beaufort, Greenwood and Monetta, according to

"If it were restored in such a fashion, it could be a location for premieres of movies that are made in South Carolina, Williams says. "I think that would put Walterboro on the map nationally as an interesting place to stop over on the way to Florida."

It's too early to say how this story will end, but let's hope Roberts, Williams and others are smiling when the credits roll.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.