Tedder

Movie under the stars: Drive-Ins offer a fun way to spend a summer night

Marquees decaying with rust. Sixty-foot screens ravaged by neglect. Tracts of land infested with weeds.

For many, this is their only image of a drive-in movie theater. But that is starting to change.

After nearly being erased from existence, there are now 15 operating drive-ins in Tennessee.

Thanks to some inspired local entrepreneurs, the drive-in experience is being introduced to an entirely new crop of moviegoers in middle Tennessee, namely families.

“We don’t attract a nostalgia crowd and we don’t try to. We are a minivan crowd,” said Barry Floyd, owner of the Stardust Drive-In in Watertown.

In addition to the Watertown location, there are drive-ins in nearby Woodbury and Tullahoma, with more on the way. A site in Camden has recently been approved for a drive-in as well.

Near Extinction

No more than 10 years ago, drive-in theaters were near extinction.

According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association website (uditoa.org), drive-ins reached their zenith in 1958 with 4,063 locations across the country.

Drive-ins were built along the edge of towns to minimize light pollution. But as urban markets begin to spread, land costs rose. When multiplex theaters and cable television infiltrated the movie business in the ’70s and ’80s, patrons abandoned drive-ins and owners were forced to shut down.

The UDITOA estimates that more than 1,000 locations closed between 1978 and 1988.

“Drive-ins never became unpopular. Drive-ins became unprofitable,” Floyd notes.

However, in Tennessee, locations in Harriman, Sparta and Maryville were restored and reopened in the late ’90s.

Floyd and his wife Dawn opened the state’s first newly constructed drive-in in more than 20 years with the single-screen Stardust in 2003. A second screen was added in September 2005.

Ray Rhoton, owner of the Oldham Theater in Winchester and the Capri Theater in Shelbyville, was driving past a piece of property in Tullahoma when a radical idea hit him. He turned to his daughter Montana and said, “I’m fixing to build a drive-in and name it after you.”

The aptly-named Montana Drive-In, operated by Ray and his wife Beth, opened with three screens in November 2004.

The Higgins family manages the Higgins Moonlite Drive-In in Woodbury, built and opened with two screens in 2005.

Unique Experience

Today, the drive-in provides a unique experience for those searching for a casual evening.

“It’s amazing to see all the people who come out who have never been to a drive-in,” owner Becky Higgins said of the crowds at the Moonlite.

A trip to the multiplex usually involves boisterous kids and cramped seats. The drive-in experience allows, and actually encourages, frolicking children and relaxed seating.

Families arrive early to play catch in front of the screens. Viewers are permitted to bring folding chairs for sitting outdoors, while those with larger vehicles have been known to fold seats down and lie under the stars.

Because of this distinctiveness, the drive-in theaters attract patrons from all over Middle Tennessee.

Challenges Remain

Even with a rebirth in popularity, drive-ins still face challenges. Because of the space needed to house the multiple screens of these local drive-ins, the owners must purchase a sizeable chunk of property, and land is not cheap.

“The movie business is more about business than it is about movies,” Floyd said.

Consider this?a Friday night showing of a first-run movie at a multiplex will cost at least eight dollars. The drive-in provides a double feature of first-run movies for a fraction of that amount.

Sure, it’s a great deal, but as a result, drive-ins rely heavily on concessions to make their profit. Fortunately, the food selections aren’t your run-of-the-mill popcorn and hot dogs.

The Montana serves everything from chicken to BBQ ribs to fried Oreo cookies, the Moonlite offers chicken strips and hamburgers, while the Stardust takes pride in their Philly steak and cheese sandwiches.

More Than a Novelty

Proving drive-ins are not simply a relic of yesteryear, modern upgrades have been added to make the experience more than a novelty.

For instance, drive-ins are no longer a haven for B-movies or racy pictures. These local drive-ins are family-operated and marketed as a source of family-friendly entertainment.

And sound now comes across your car stereo on low-frequency FM bands instead of intrusive car-side speakers.

The Stardust and Moonlite both hold “themed nights” to further generate interest.

It’s those kinds of revisions these owners hope will allow future generations to continue “discovering” drive-ins.

As Rhoton surmised about the drive-in experience, “It’s just fun.”

Stardust Drive-In

stardustdrivein.com

Location: Watertown

Days of Operation:

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday Mid-March through Memorial Day, Labor Day through late November; Seven days a week – Memorial Day through Labor Day

Hours of Operation:

Movies start at dusk; Patrons are encouraged to arrive an hour early

Prices: Adults $7; kids 6 – 11 $3; children under 5 free

Montana Drive-In

montanadrivein.com

Location: Tullahoma

Days of Operation:

Open year-round except Christmas Eve

Hours of Operation: Movies start at dusk; drive-in opens around 6 p.m.

Prices: Adults $5; children under 11 $4

Higgins Moonlite Drive-In

themoonlitedrivein.com

Location: Woodbury

Days of Operation:

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – Mid-March through late November

Hours of Operation:

Movies start at dusk; patrons are encouraged to arrive an hour early

Prices: Adults $6; senior citizens $5; children 5 – 12 $4; children under 5 free

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The Murfreesboro Pulse: Middle Tennessee’s Source for Art, Entertainment and Culture News.

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