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Only about 350 drive-ins exist in the U.S., where once there were more than 3,000. Don Seagraves, the soft-spoken projectionist at Beaufort's Highway 21 Drive-In, describes the outdoor theaters he has worked at for most of his life as "part of our heritage. It's Americana. It's a part of our history that we have to try to keep alive."
In 1976, when he was 17, one of Seagraves' first jobs was as a projectionist. A roofer during the day, he worked as a projectionist at drive-ins and indoor theaters at night. Since then, he's worked at theaters big and small, indoors and out.
Movie lovers drive in "from everywhere," Seagraves said about the drive-in, and he's pleased to talk with them every week. Owner Bonnie Barth added that the staff had all been flattered recently when a couple from England sent an e-mail to thank the Highway 21 Drive-In "for keeping part of America alive."
Not too long ago, Seagraves was one of those Highway 21 visitors. When the drive-in reopened in 2004, Seagraves and some friends were among the 70 cars arriving at the gate that first night.
While paying for his tickets, Seagraves told Barth's brother-in-law that he had run the projector at a drive-in in Tennessee. Along with the admission fee, the brother-in-law took Seagraves' name and number, and within a week, he was working in the booth.
BIG AND SMALL
His father was in the military, so he lived in many places throughout his life, settling in Beaufort in 1983 from Virginia.
Until seven years ago, the Highway 21 Drive-In was owned by an older couple who showed second-run and "B" movies. One reason many drive-ins have failed to thrive is because, until about 15 years ago, according to Seagraves, they were not allowed to show first-run movies that were also being shown at indoor theaters within five miles of the drive-in. Owners "had to take whatever was dealt to them," Seagraves said. A drive-in owner took a suit to end this practice to the Supreme Court and won.
Before then, though, many outdoor theaters began showing X-rated films, and "once they got that image," Seagraves said, "it was really hard for them to come back from that." Once a staple of family entertainment, drive-ins folded by the hundreds.
But one or two new drive-ins are being refurbished each year now, according to Seagraves, often by people who have always dreamed of having one of their own.
In addition to showing the movies, Seagraves' duties as a projectionist include breaking down and putting together the films when they arrive and maintaining the machinery. He said he and his wife, Fara, "do everything" at the theater, running it for the owners, Bonnie and Joe Barth.
Although film hasn't changed much, the way the images on it are projected has, Seagraves said. As recently as the late 1980s, a carbon arc -- two rods that touched, igniting a light -- was used, but now it's a light bulb. The reels have changed, too. They used to be small, 20-minute reels running on two projectors that had to be changed during the movie without being detected. Then the reels grew in size, and now projectionists use a platter system. Unless a theater has digital projection, the projection equipment is basically the same at indoor movies and the drive-ins.
"I've seen a lot of movies over the years," Seagraves said with a smile, though he doesn't necessarily watch them from the booth when he's working. "After you show them so many times, you don't necessarily want to watch them."
He and his wife sometimes check out one of the drive-in's features. They recently watched "Due Date" and loved it.
He's a fan of all genres of film, he said, listing "sci-fi, love stories, any kind of movie that has a good story. I really liked 'Secretariat' because it was a true story -- that was a good one -- and, last year, 'Avatar' was one of my favorites. ... Movies are an escape for people."
Barth said the business depends heavily on the skills of Seagraves and his wife.
"She's front of the house ,and he's back of the house. They've been so great," Joe Barth said.
For Seagraves' day job, he installs carpet with Joe Barth. Sometimes having two jobs can be a bit much, he admitted, but coming to the drive-in at night can be a break because it's less physically demanding work. He does need to stay on his toes, though, "in case something happens. You have to know how to fix it and quick."
The best part of his job, Seagraves said, is when he gets to see others enjoying what he loves.
"I just love to see to see big crowds," he said, gesturing out at the lot on a cold December night.
"Big crowds here warm my heart. When you walk around out there, doing a little security patrol, and you hear people laughing or sitting outside their cars, talking before the movie starts, talking with their neighbors. That's what it's all about."