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Drive-in revival

Hipsters and boomers alike rediscover the joy of watching a movie outdoors


Sometimes it takes losing something valuable in order to appreciate it. That seems to be the case with the drive-in theater, which had been fading into the background for well over a decade. Like its culinary counterparts, the drive-in diner and the soda counter, the drive-in was another American icon whose time had come and gone.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the cultural scrap heap.

In June 1998, when Clay Croker saw that the struggling North 85 Twin was closing down, he and his wife joined hundreds of others in taking advantage of the free final-night screening. Up until then, they'd ignored the place, even though it was a five-minute drive from their house.

Once the sun set, the breeze turned crisp and the hazy beam of light arced over the parking lot, Croker, a 40-year-old freelance animator for the Cartoon Network, was besieged by childhood memories. He recalled sitting in his driveway in Mableton watching a silent version of The Poseidon Adventure playing at the Marbro Twin a half-mile away. Recording the soundtracks to his favorite movies on a smuggled cassette deck held up to the metal speaker. Peering over a fence, hoping to catch a glimpse of some R-rated action.

Already obsessed with '50s pop culture, Croker was transformed overnight into a drive-in junkie. For the next year or so, every time he had a hankerin' to see a new movie, he'd head down to Atlanta's sole remaining drive-in, the Starlight Six.

When the North 85 Twin was bulldozed, he salvaged its huge sign and bolted it to the back of his house. He ordered a crate of speakers and replacement parts from the last remaining manufacturer. He bought "footlights" used to mark parking-lot boundaries from a failing Illinois drive-in. And he turned his backyard into an outdoor theater by stringing a screen between two trees, wiring his deck with drive-in speakers and showing grade-Z horror-film marathons to friends on a projector.

"I went around the bend for drive-ins for a while," Croker admits a little sheepishly.

Perhaps, but at least he's in good company. After many years of taking the drive-in for granted, folks across Georgia and around much of the country are rediscovering this quintessential icon of the American landscape. Much of the credit goes to the ongoing retro revival that has also re-introduced us to swing dancing, '50s fashions, lounge music, tiki bars and cocktail culture.

Once teetering on the brink of extinction, drive-ins have made a modest recovery, with many of the surviving theaters enjoying their biggest success in years. It's unlikely we'll ever see another boom in drive-in construction, as we did between the end of World War II and the Watergate era, but drive-ins seem to have found a solid niche by appealing to retro-pop enthusiasts -- and by reminding us of what made them so fun in the first place.

Once we've allowed nostalgia to steer us to the nearest drive-in, where we unload the folding chairs, fire up the hibachi and pull a PBR out of the cooler, we realize what a singular experience it was -- and still is -- in this age of indoor malls, arena rock shows and enclosed sports venues. It's a place where you can be surrounded by a sellout crowd, but it doesn't feel crowded because you're in your own cocoon. You can walk around, chat with friends or go get some Goobers without missing any of the action. And if someone drags her screaming kids to the movies, as long as they're locked in the car, that's her problem, not yours.

Located just off

one of the main drags in the tiny town of Blue Ridge, Ga., near the Tennessee border, the Swan Drive-in snarls traffic on weekend nights through much of the summer, with cars packed full with families and high-school kids lined up out to the highway leading into town. Not that it matters much to locals; there's very little else to do after dark in Blue Ridge.

But it's not just bored townsfolk who keep the single-screen Swan afloat, says owner Steve Setser. There's also the steady stream of North Georgia tourists, many of whom have come to ride the town's prime attraction, the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, and to experience a bit of nostalgia. On a good night, as many as 500 cars pack into the theater.

"For local people, the theater isn't that popular because it's always been in their faces," Setser says. "But I have people who come from 100 miles around so they can show their kids a drive-in."

It helps that the Swan is one of only four drive-in theaters still operating in Georgia.

Setser courts those trying to recapture a slice of Americana with the aid of retro-style graphics and lettering on the theater's website. The same design appears on the staff T-shirts: a picture of a blue '55 Chevy -- representing the year the Swan was built -- which also happens to be Setser's personal set of wheels. He parks the car prominently next to the box office whenever he's at the theater.

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