U.S. Route 11 slips through the western part of Virginia, skirting mountains and shadowing rivers as it travels from the West Virginia state line just north of Winchester to the Tennessee line in Bristol. Along the way, it traverses 325 miles. But it also seems to traverse a few decades, as the rural part of the state it meanders through seems blissfully resistant to the passage of time.
No, that doesn’t mean that your cellphone won’t work there or that you’ll need a time-traveling DeLorean to visit. But it does mean that the social forces at work have preserved a beloved facet of a bygone era: the drive-in movie.
There are five of these outsize monuments to Hollywood and America’s car culture along Route 11 in the Old Dominion, with another on the Tennessee side of the border town of Bristol. My wife and I have enjoyed taking our now-teenage kids to these outdoor theaters over the years, and recently we thought it was time to take a couple of trips back, to remind them of what they’re missing when they just stream a film from Netflix onto a laptop.
You might think that drive-ins, which reached their zenith of popularity in the 1950s and ’60s, mostly attract aging nostalgia hounds, but in fact the overwhelming majority of attendees are families with young children, says Jim Kopp, who runs the Family Drive-In Theatre in Stephens City, just south of Winchester.
Opened in 1956, the Family Drive-In has been owned continuously by the Dalke family, but Kopp has leased it for the past two years, making some customer-friendly changes. He has extended the season on weekends in the spring and fall, and he shows first-run films on the weekend they come out. The Family Drive-In has two screens, with the latest release projected on the original main screen and usually an older film on a screen in the back.
And it definitely has family appeal. When they were younger, our kids loved the large playground in front of the screen, which kept them busy while we waited for dusk so the movie could begin. Our 16-year-old daughter points to a barely visible divot in her shin where she carelessly let one of the large bench swings whack her during a visit five years ago.
Our kids also love the Snow Caps candy from the concession stand, which is of course where the drive-ins make nearly all their money. (Theater owners say that up to 70 percent of the relatively low ticket price goes to Hollywood for the movie.) So forget the diet for a night and consider that chili dog and box of candy a contribution to cultural preservation. But even if you load up on drinks from the concession stand, be sure to take a sip from the water fountain: The fresh Shenandoah Valley water is almost worth the trip itself.
Though it’s an easy two-hour drive from Stephens City to Hull’s Drive-In in Lexington, you can’t see movies at both theaters on the same night, so you may as well take it easy and see the sights along the way, such as the multitude of antiques shops in the valley’s many villages and towns.
Our kids demanded a stop at Route 11 Potato Chips in Mount Jackson, 30 miles south of the Family Drive-In. They weren’t frying chips when we visited, but we like to support our sort-of-local snack-food maker, just as we often choose Virginia wines.
Another 50 miles down the road in Staunton is Wright’s Dairy-Rite (since 1952!), the other kind of drive-in. This is an old-fashioned hamburger and ice cream shop with curb service. A malted milkshake is probably the order of the day for traditionalists, but we felt daring and tried the house specialty, Wright’s Wheelie, a fresh glazed doughnut topped with ice cream and whipped cream.
Finally, we arrived at Hull’s Drive-In. Hull’s opened in 1950 but closed down when owner Sebert Hull died in 1998. Fortunately, a community nonprofit group dubbed “Hull’s Angels” sprang into action and reopened the drive-in in 2000.
The group has sought to upgrade it since; new restrooms accommodate more people, so we didn’t have to watch “Kung Fu Panda” from the bathroom line. The Angels are also raising money for a new screen and the costly move to digital media that faces all these vintage showplaces. Boy Scouts do regular maintenance; the new roof on the ticket building was an Eagle Scout project. Hull’s shows movies on weekends only, reversing the order of its double feature on Sunday night.
The circa-1952 Starlite Drive-In Theater in Christiansburg is another 80 miles south. Our 16-year-old appreciated the proximity to Blacksburg, because it gave us a chance to visit the Virginia Tech campus. I assured her that the pleasant summertime climate during our visit was a lot different from the icy winter months, when students call the town Bleaksburg.
The Starlite’s parking area slopes steeply downhill toward the screen, which makes it easier to see over the vehicles in front of you. There’s no playground here, but there is plenty of open space where the kids enjoy burning off energy before the movie. “The kids have a big time here, playing with a ball,” remarked owner Dorothy Beasley.
Watching the movie from chairs or blankets outside the car is apparently the thing to do in Christiansburg. In fact, if you’re a first-timer at the drive-in, here are your options: You can sit in your car, or you can bring chairs and sit outdoors under the stars. In the latter case you’ll want a portable radio so you can tune in to the audio track.
Many of the other drive-ins have dispensed with the traditional speaker sound system, but not the Starlite. Hanging the old metal speaker on the car window gives you that authentic experience from the drive-in’s glory years, but I have to say that the mono sound is really tinny. That’s why theaters also broadcast the audio track in stereo: You can tune it in on that fancy sound system in your car.
This time, we sat outside like the other families, who, Beasley said, are the Starlite’s biggest customers. She prefers to show movies that are rated PG or PG-13 over R, precisely so that parents and children can attend together. Sure enough, “Pirates of the Caribbean” was a big hit with the families in attendance that night, if not with the critics.
At the Park Place Drive-In in Marion, the scene is decidedly different. The Park Place is just down the street from Jerry’s Typewriter Repair, confirming that the Route 11 time warp is in full effect in Marion. Families may still be the mainstay, but this 2000 addition to the drive-in inventory was constructed as an all-around family entertainment complex. Out front is a rustic-style building that houses a small video arcade, pool tables and the all-important ice cream counter. Around back are batting cages and putt-putt golf.
“This looks a lot more inviting than the other drive-ins!” exclaimed our 13-year-old son. He hit a couple of rounds in the cage, discovering that the medium-speed baseball lane is faster than the one at our local batting cage and that the machine doesn’t count its 15 pitches with much accuracy. It threw him a good three dozen before it decided that he’d had enough.
There’s no traditional speaker-on-a-post sound system here, so the lush green parking area has an unfinished appearance. If you’re really heartbroken at the lack of speakers, you can drown your sorrows at the ice cream counter, where you can get Hershey’s in 32 flavors. We enjoyed cheerful service from one of the many teens we saw wearing “Marion High School Class of 2011” T-shirts.
The Moonlite Theatre in Abingdon, which opened in 1948, is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. It’s the oldest drive-in in Virginia and also the largest, 50 percent larger than most of the others, with space for 464 cars.
Unfortunately, the Moonlite is showing its age these days. When we dropped by, one side of the marquee was broken out and there were broken lights and lots of weeds on the approach driveway. The traditional speaker system wasn’t working. Oh well. We weren’t interested in seeing “The Hangover Part II,” anyway. We’d like to come back to see a more appropriate movie at the Moonlite, especially if the community rallies behind its historic screen and helps spruce up the facility.
And we didn’t make it to the final theater on Route 11, but the Twin-City Drive-In in Bristol, on the Tennessee side of this town that straddles two states, is worth a mention. It’s an authentic drive-in dating to 1949, although the original wooden screen was destroyed by a tornado in 1977 and replaced by the current screen so quickly that Bristol’s drive-in fans didn’t miss a single weekend.
Maybe, I thought as we drove home the fast way, up Interstate 81, the Route 11 time warp was at work that week three decades ago, squeezing in some extra hours to help ensure the continuity of the road’s drive-in heritage.
Carney is a freelance automotive reviewer for MSNBC.com. He lives in Herndon.