America’s love affair with drive-in movies began on June 6, 1933, when Richard Hollingshead opened an outdoor movie theater where people could sit in their cars at Camden, N.J. By January 1942, there were 95 drive-ins in 27 states.
Gas rationing stunted their growth during world War II, but by the late 1940s there were nearly 1,000 (the peak was about 4,100 in 1958).
Burke County got its first drive-in in 1948. That spring, Joe Accardi and Y.E. Spake acquired a lot of land from Duke Power. The property on U.S. 70 West adjoined Riverside Air Park near the current site of the Catawba River soccer complex. At the time, it was a mile outside the city limits.
Movie-goers could stop at the next-door River Side Camp and get a fine fish dinner to take into the drive-in.
A private road led to the parking area at the Skyline (also known as the Riverside) Drive-In. Plainly visible from the highway was a huge screen. The “tower” was a triangular structure, 46 feet high. The screen itself was white-painted Masonite, 34 by 44 feet, and mounted at an angle so it appeared square to patrons looking upwards.
About 225 feet in front of it was a low block building with the projection room, a concession stand and restrooms.The parking area could accommodate 400 automobiles. When it opened, the Skyline had loudspeakers positioned around the parking area. People who parked at the rear might have had trouble hearing, but probably had other things in mind and didn’t care about sound. (Nobody knows how many drive-in visits resulted in marriages — sometimes hasty ones.)
After two months, the owners installed individual speakers at each parking spot. Hung on metal posts, patrons could remove the speakers and put them in their cars, usually on the window or door frame. People sometimes drove off with a speaker still on the car, despite a warning on each one: “Please replace the speaker on the post when you leave.”
The Skyline opened on a Saturday, May 1. It had two showings nightly at 7 and 9 except on Sundays when there was one at 9 p.m. All were first-run movies. Albert Hargrove operated the film machines.
There were specials in all seasons. On Jan. 31, 1949, a Monday, the movie was free.
Children 12 and under got in free when accompanied by an adult. For people who didn’t want to sit in their cars, there were 100 parquet seats. (Such people soon learned to bring their own cushions.)
Burke County’s second outdoor theater was High Peak (also called Hi Peak) Drive-in at the main Drexel intersection on U.S. 70 east. B.J. Norris of Lenoir built it. Joe Rector and his wife, Angie, co-owned it. The entrance was to the left of Rector’s barbershop.
As best I could determine, High Peak opened around Easter in April 1949 — at least that was when their movie ads showed up in the paper. The drive-in was on the side of a hill, which made for good viewing, but it could accommodate only 160 or so cars. It, too, had a blockhouse with a projection booth, restrooms and concession stand.
The third theater, Midway Drive-In, was between Hildebran and Icard on Curley’s Fish Camp Road. Fred M. Smith, president of Midway Mills and owner of Smith’s BBQ and Tourist Cabins near Long View, operated it. It closed in the late 1960s.
What killed the drive-in theaters? Higher land prices, for one thing. Many drive-ins started outside cities whose expanding limits passed them by (adding higher property taxes, too). Daylight saving time, adopted nationwide in 1966, subtracted an hour from outdoor evening viewing time. Color televisions, VCRs and video rentals lured away movie-goers, too. And the drive-in business always was at the mercy of the weather.
I remember going to the High Peak in the late 1970s. One of the last specials was a carload for $5. Both it and the Skyline Drive-In closed in the 1970s.
About 400 drive-ins remain. The News Herald’s editor, Steve Welker, tells me the Bright Leaf in Mount Airy still does good business.
Otherwise, there is very little evidence of where these drive-ins existed. Looking at an aerial photo, I can spot the concrete pad occupied by the projection booth and concession stand at the old High Peak site.
Driving by these sites, however, older folks might remember the movies and the fun of watching the stars under the stars.
Michael “Jake” Conley