I was precisely 8 years old the last time I went to a drive-in movie. I remember because it was my birthday, and my mom forced my older brother Kenny, 18 at the time, to bring me along on a date with his girlfriend.
Kenny, as you might expect, was not enthused. Once we parked, he put me on the roof of his bright orange 1979 Camaro with a blanket, a cooler full of Faygo pop and explicit instructions NOT TO LOOK IN THE CAR until the double feature was over.
Alas, the heyday of necking teenagers at the American drive-in is gone. At its peak in the late 1950s, there were more than 4,000 drive-in theaters in the country. Now there are about 350, five of them in North Carolina. If you're in the mood for some cinematic nostalgia this summer, you can get to a drive-in theater in under an hour.
Mark and Jennifer Frank own the Raleigh Road Outdoor Theater in Henderson, about 45 minutes up I-85 from Durham. For $7 per adult and $4 for kids, you can drive up for a double feature and a surprisingly extensive concession menu including burgers, steak subs, grilled chicken and funnel cake fries.
"It's as mom-and-pop as mom-and-pop can be," says Mark, an Air Force veteran who bought the theater from its previous owners in 2011. "The first person you're going to see is me at the ticket booth, and my wife does most of the cooking."
Running a drive-in has long been a tough line of work, and it's only getting tougher. Most are several decades old and use creaky 35mm projection systems that may be decades old themselves.
This year, Hollywood is expected to stop distributing 35mm film prints entirely, forcing drive-in owners to convert to digital projection or close shop. It's the same dilemma independent art houses have been facing (see our story from last week at indyweek.com), but drive-ins have a whole other set of headaches.
"It costs more to upgrade a drive-in, because you have to deal with a lot more ambient light and a larger screen," says Kipp Sherer, who runs the impressive online museum and database Drive-ins.com. "You need a more expensive system."
The Franks hope to upgrade to digital this summer after raising initial money from patrons via Indiegogo.com.
"We've done some of the work already," Frank says. "We had to redo the electrical— the building is from 1949. We're basically going from a 1957 Chevy, very simple to work on, to the world's biggest iPad."
For now, at least, you can still see movies at the Raleigh Road Outdoor Theater much as they were shown in 1949, with stereo sound piped in via FM to your car radio. "In newer cars, the sound is actually very good," Frank says.
No outside food or drinks are allowed, though. Studio fees eat up the admission price, so the Franks make virtually all their money off concessions. But you can bring your dog ("We're pet-friendly for friendly pets"), there's a playground for the kids and the Franks host games and giveaways between screenings.
Oh, and no putting kids on the top of the car, Kenny.
The Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre is open March through December. Other N.C. drive-ins include Eden Drive-In in Eden, Badin Road Drive-In in Albemarle, Shelby Sunset Drive-In in Shelby and Bessemer City Kings Mountain Drive-In Theatre in Bessemer City.