Last (outdoor) picture show

Peter Cote (driver's seat) with wife Mikaela (back seat driver's side) and friends Brandyon McMillian and Amanda McMillian sit in the open air of a convertible while watching "Evan Almighty" on the second of two screens at the Highway 21 Drive-In in Beauf

Drive-ins a relic of softer times

BEAUFORT

Steve McLain can see God through the windshield and the Human Torch in his rearview mirror.

Propped up in a 1991 Cadillac Sedan deVille, with a warm breeze blowing through the windows, he puffs on a fat cigar and sips on a Coke, the professional practitioner of a lost art.

He's not in heaven, but somewhere he considers pretty close to it. McLain is watching "Evan Almighty" on a billboard-size movie screen nestled among pine trees, while "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" plays on another screen across the lot. He is one of the regular devotees to this nearly forgotten piece of Americana: the drive-in movie.

"You can't sit in Cadillac seats in any theater," he said.

The Highway 21 Drive-In, just outside of town here, is the last big picture show in these parts, the only place in the Lowcountry you can cruise back to an era when the big screen really meant the Big Screen. Fifty years ago, during their heyday, there were nearly 100 drive-ins in South Carolina.

Now, there are only three.

"I remember when I was a kid and I'd go to the drive-in in Mount Pleasant," said McLain, who now lives in Bluffton. "I think it's the neatest experience for watching a movie."

It is nothing if not a trip down memory lane. Arrive before sundown to get a good parking spot, and it all comes rushing back in a wave of sweet nostalgia: kids playing in their pajamas, lovers sneaking an errant smooch, popcorn buckets piled high on the hood of a car.

Speakers lined up in rows plays the Beach Boys, the Shirelles, the Drifters — music that harkens back to the golden age, that idyllic time that baby boomers long for. That's how long it's been: "Help Me, Rhonda" and "Under the Boardwalk" were hit songs when the drive-in movie was last a popular social gathering spot.

The first drive-in movies opened in the 1930s, but didn't really catch on until after the war. By 1958 there were about 5,000 drive-ins around the country. At one point there were 99 in South Carolina alone, according to www.driveintheater.com, the industry's history Web site.

But 40 years later — after the multiplex, the VCR, the Internet — there were only 800 drive-ins nationwide. And only a few of those were healthy.

Today, it is undoubtedly the tug of nostalgia that pulls most people to the drive-in. But once inside, they find a world that has only gotten better with age. Most gush about the prices of the nightly double feature — $5 for adults, $1 for kids under 12 — as well as the food, the atmosphere and the family environment.

But mostly the food: The funnel cakes, the Sno-Cones, the cotton candy and, of course, the giant buckets of buttered popcorn. Take a whiff of the cooking oil and frying batter and all of the sudden the old jingle "Let's All Go to the Lobby" begins to run through your head.

It was those memories that drew David and Nedra Byrd of Summerville here. On a Friday night they loaded up a few lawn chairs and their kids — Jessica, 15, and Allison, 11 — for the hourlong drive. Waiting for the movie to start, fending off the no-see-ums, the Byrds sit in the back of their truck reliving their childhood.

"We did this as a surprise for the kids," Nedra Byrd said. "We wanted to do something as a family, and we wanted to show them how it was when we were kids."

The Highway 21 Drive-In regularly pulls in people from Charleston, Savannah — all over the Lowcountry. On a good Friday night, there might be 300 cars parked before the two screens, the second added last year as a nod to 21st Century economics. Most studios require theaters to keep movies two weeks. To keep the people coming back, one of the screens gets a new flick every Friday.

The only reason the Lowcountry has a drive-in anymore is because of Bonnie Barth. She saw the summer blockbuster flick "Independence Day" at the Highway 21 Drive-In more than a decade ago and fell in love all over again. When the owners retired and shut down the drive-in, Barth and her husband, Joe, had a novel idea: they would buy it.

"I said, 'But we don't know anything about it,' and Joe said, 'It'll be fun,' " Barth recalls.

It's clear that Barth pays particular attention to the concession stand. She spends most of her evenings deep-frying funnel cakes and making Sno-Cones under a tent outside the main snack bar. The stand is virtually a restaurant, serving hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza alongside the more traditional fare of popcorn and candy.

As the light fades from the sky, the reason for this emphasis on concessions becomes clear. A commercial from the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association begins with romantic images of famous drive-ins of yesteryear, big red letters stamped across the pictures telling you they are "CLOSED."

These days, theaters pay the vast majority of money they collect from ticket sales to rent first-run movies; the snacks pay the bills. Please, the commercial urges, support the drive-in by supporting the concession stand.

Most people do, and many brag about the quality of the food. Some people, Barth said with a measure of pride, come just for the funnel cakes and other fare. She said it has helped to keep the Highway 21 Drive-In open. The drive-in isn't in the black yet, but it's getting by, she said, and doing better all the time.

It certainly seems so on a typical Friday night. Kids run up and down the aisles between the cars, laughing and playing as their parents watch. Whole families pack the line at the concession stand, hoping for a last tub of popcorn or a citronella coil, which you really need out here to keep the bugs away. Meanwhile, twenty-somethings digging the retro scene cruise the lot in silk pajamas like they're at the Playboy mansion. It's pretty clear that the drive-in is back.

As dusk settles, the tailgating parties wind down. The anticipation builds, and everyone gets comfortable and quiet, either out of respect or because they are in awe of the evening sky. The show is about to begin.

Counting down the minutes is Donald Seagraves, the Highway 21 Drive-in projectionist. He's been showing movies since he was 17, and he's now nearly 50.

Seagraves stands between the two projection rooms, one for each big screen, surveying the scene. The Highway 21 Drive-In is just like the outdoor theaters of his youth, perhaps even better. He's old enough to remember the sad decline of drive-ins, when they could get only B-movies and became hang-outs for teenagers.

Now the drive-in is family-oriented, right down to the way the Barths avoid R-rated movies as much as they can. But everyone, he notes, is having a good time.

"It's just a place for people to meet and talk and be outside," he says. "People miss it in their lives."

Seagraves checks the sky, glances at his watch — 8:55. It's time. He makes his way into the projection booth and, moments later, the night sky lights up and images begin to dance across the screen as they did decades ago.

It's magic, all over again.

National drive-ins

1939 18

1948 820

1958 5,000

1977 3,900

1980 3,500

1990 1,000

S.C. drive-ins

1948 36

1954 99

1958 72

1963 56

1967 46

1977 40

1982 25

1987 12

2007 3

Operating S.C. drive-ins

HIGHWAY 21 Drive-In Theatre: U.S. Highway 21 North, Beaufort. 843-846-4500

*Big Mo Drive-In Theatre: U.S. Highway 1, Monetta. 803-685-794

(*Reopened in 1999 after being closed for 15 years)

Source: www.driveintheater.com and the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association

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