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Driving by the thriving, two-screen Highway 21 Drive-In Theater, I remembered two of Beaufort's bygone outdoor cinemas.
First, I recalled the Royal Drive-In Theater of the 1960s, just over the current Beaufort-Port Royal municipal boundaries, now the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly, Sears, Maxway and other stores of the shopping centers. Its sign survived the drive-in, and stood for years at the location of the current Keith's place.
Then I remembered having run the 1930s-vintage Simplex projectors once or twice at the Greenlawn Drive-In Theater in the early 1970s. Jean Ribaut Square now stands in its stead.
Drive-in theaters are making a comeback after the seedy days of porn flicks and scratchy old movie prints. According to Lisa McLaughlin in an Auust 2006 article in Time titled "Movies That Star the Stars," the outdoor cinema industry began June 6, 1933. A Camden, N.J., man rigged a 16 mm projector on the hood of his car and aimed it at a sheet hung on the back wall of his machine shop. As there were no individual speakers, the sound system blasted into the great outdoors. Richard M. Hollingshead, the brave pioneer of drive-in entertainment, heard even louder complaints from his neighbors.
The movie selection on that historic night was a second-run British comedy entitled "Wife Beware." But the truth is, as John J. Dunphy and Matthew Holm put it in an article in the August 1997 edition of Country Living, "What's playing is not always as important as simply being there." Drive-ins are a deep-rooted American tradition, which grew with the rise of affordable automobiles in the years following World War II. The peak year was 1958, with almost 5,000 drive-in theaters in the U.S.
The drive-in craze embraced not only theaters, but restaurants, churches, motels, banks and funeral parlors. So, what caused the decline of drive-ins? For one thing, said Allison Fass in the June 4 issue of Forbes, suburban housing developments devoured the valuable land on which the drive-ins had been built. Then came daylight-saving time and summer sunsets at 9 p.m., a late hour for families. Aging drive-in theater owners were retiring without buyers. Air-conditioned indoor theaters gave blessed relief from outdoor cold or heat. In the 1980s, cable television and home VCRs kept movie fans at home. By 1995, the number of drive-in theaters had dwindled to 500 locations, only a tenth of their 1958 total.
But Forbes magazine talks of a "mini-revival," with 88 of today's drive-ins rescued or newly built since the 1990s. The United Drive-In Theatre Owner Association said that numbers still fluctuates, from 447 sites (684 screens) in 1999 to 397 sites (650 screens) in 2006. The association Web site reported that "the 1978-1988 time period was particularly hard on the industry, with over 1,000 screen closings. ... But by the 1990s, new drive-ins were being built and reopenings were becoming more common. The numbers have leveled off from their rapid drop in the 1980s. Some owners who want to retire now are seeking someone to purchase it to keep it as a drive-in instead of selling the property for development. Though drive-in numbers will never be as high as they were in the 1950s, the industry seems to be on an upswing."
The bottom line is: