Light from the screens dances off the roofs of the scattered cars and sound echoes from auto stereo speakers. Summer Drive-In in Memphis, Tennessee is one of the last remaining drive-in movie theaters in the South. But where most of these outdoor movie theaters have dwindled away, Summer Drive-In continues to be one of the more beloved Memphis landmarks, and carries with it a colorful history of outdoor cinema.
James Lloyd has been a Malco Theaters (who owns Summer Drive-In) employee for 43 years, and has a passion for outdoor film.
"I been around the theater business practically all my life," said Lloyd, who was a 14-year-old Arkansas farm boy when he made his first money at the movies by pushing a popcorn cart between the rows of cars at the old Starvue Drive-In in Blytheville (Memphis Commercial Appeal
Lloyd was there when the Summer Drive-In first opened, on Sept. 1, 1966. The outdoor movie theater was boasted to be one of the most modern theaters of its time. Back then, drive-ins were huge; it was a part of Americana. They would screen B-movies or second-run films, but people continued to come in droves. They were there for the movie, yes, but there was something undeniably attractive about watching a movie under the stars. Something magical, and unique. Of course, the semi-private romance of the cars drew many a young couple to open air cinemas as well.
Lloyd actually lives at the Summer Drive-In, in a small apartment build alongside the projection room. When drive-ins where in their heyday, it was common to build living quarters alongside the screens, as theater managers usually worked long hours. In those days, outdoor movie theaters were built in huge fields with very little nearby in the way of buildings or lights, and the stars created a sparking canopy over the drive-in.
As we all know, most of the drive-ins that were once so popular have now disappeared. Though there has been some decline in popular interest, a large reason behind the closings was due to rising real estate values. Much of that land has now been turned into malls, housing developments, and swap meets.
For those drive-ins still remaining, changes have been made, but many are for the better. Most now play first-run blockbusters instead of the B-movies they used to play. Today, Lloyd can watch Johnny Depp in Public Enemies from one of his apartment windows, and Harry Potter from another. Movie-goers have their choice of popular films with three different outdoor movie screens, and nights with double or even triple-features.
On weekends the Summer Drive-In draws 1,600 cars who utilize FM radios for audio to the films, instead of the old-fashioned speakers that hang on car windows.
Across the hallway from the doorway to Lloyd's apartment is the Summer projection room. Using incredibly bright light bulbs of 6,000 to 7,000 watts each, the projectors "throw" the image hundreds of feet through the air; Screen 3, the most distant (and largest, at 118-by-54 feet), is 730 feet from the booth.
The drive-in originally opened 365 days a year, but is now only open during the summer, and then Fridays and Saturdays the rest of the year. Admission is $7 a person, but kids under 10 are free, so the Summer Drive-In is a popular hot spot for family-friendly entertainment. You see less passionate teenagers and more carloads of kids.
Some outdoor movie attendees are long-time fans. There are people who used to come to the drive-in as teenagers, and now they're bringing their kids. Others are newer movie-goers. Lloyd's grandchildren love visiting their Grandpa; Lloyd piles them in his old Buick and they drive a few hundred feet to park in front of a giant screen and watch a movie together.
Clint Pratt, 38, and his daughters, Taylor, 11, and Shea, 8, were making their first trip to the drive-in since the Pratts moved here from Orlando 11 years ago.
"I thought it was closed down," he said, until he learned differently from a friend. "I think it's really cool," said Taylor, sitting on the open tailgate of the family's Chevrolet S-10 Blazer, parked so the rear of the vehicle faced the screen.
"It's paying its way," Lloyd said of the Summer. He said the drive-in is here to stay, despite some efforts by Malco in recent years to sell the land.