Quintessentially Lowcountry: Beaufort retains a piece of history with drive-in

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Quintessentially Lowcountry: Beaufort retains a piece of history with drive-in

By KATE CERVE kcerve@beaufortgazette.com 843-706-8177
Published Friday, October 2, 2009 in The Island Packet  |  577 Words  |  news

A trip to the Highway 21 Drive-In is a step back in time, a way for children and grandchildren to experience the glamour of Hollywood movies the way their grandparents did.
Drive-in theaters are a deeply rooted American tradition, said Paul Sommerville, a Beaufort County councilman who worked at a Beaufort drive-in as a teenager. That tradition, he said, has remained about the same for the past 50 years.
"The drive-in is one of those things sort of like the horseshoe crab and the alligator -- they haven't evolved that much," Sommerville said.
Bonnie and Joe Barth, owners of the Highway 21 Drive-In, agree. The Barths bought and reopened the theater near Grays Hill in 2004 after the previous owners closed it in 2002.
They added funnel cakes to the concession stand menu and installed FM transmitters, allowing customers to listen to movies through car radios. But they've tried to keep the experience as similar as possible to the one they remember from their childhood.
"It's an important icon," Joe Barth said.
In the heyday of the 1960s, Beaufort was home to three drive-in theaters.
The Royal Drive-In Theater, near the current Beaufort-Port Royal municipal boundaries, is now the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly, Sears and other stores. Kmart stands on the former location of the Greenlawn Drive-In Theater. The People's Drive-In was on Boundary Street, near the Atlantic Inn, said Susan Krumm, whose family owned the Royal Drive-In.
Those three theaters closed by the early 1970s, Sommerville said. But they paved the way for the Highway 21 Drive-In to open on Parker Drive in the mid-1970s.
Krumm said she remembers families bringing station wagons full of children to the Royal theater. They packed blankets and turned the cars around so kids could lie in the back. The theater offered donkey rides and a playground for children before the show, she said.
"Going to the drive-in theater was a huge family event," Krumm said. "They were always playing good movies and it was usually pretty crowded."
Teenage couples also frequented the theaters to watch John Wayne, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, among other stars, she said.
"When you were lucky enough to have a date, you got to go to the movies," Krumm said. "There were very few other places, especially in Beaufort, to go."
Sommerville said, "Young lovers need some place to go express themselves. ...That was a very popular place. In fact, on the weekends, it was packed."
Sommerville said he and his family, including his 10-year-old and 13-year-old daughters, still visit the Highway 21 theater.
"I'm a drive-in junkie and I've always been a drive-in junkie," he said. "I go even when the movies are lousy."
Fewer than 400 drive-in theaters are now open in the United States, down from 4,000 in 1958, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. The Highway 21 Drive In is one of three in South Carolina, and the only drive-in in the state open year round.
Joe Barth said more people have visited the theater each year since it reopened. This year, revenue is up about 60 percent, which could make this the first year the Barths operate the theater in the black, Joe Barth said.
"If we make any money, I promise to improve the drive-in even more," he said. "We're just regular people trying to save something we really enjoy and think should stay around."