It was a hot, sticky August evening, and the sun was still high as cars filled with families began lining up along the gravel drive leading into Hull's Drive-In Theatre in Rockbridge County, Va.
While the gate wasn't scheduled to open for another hour and a half, moviegoers were eager to claim their places on the theater's tiered lawn. To their delight, theater staff began selling tickets early.
The movie wouldn't begin for more than two hours, so patrons set up camps in front of their vehicles. Some sat on blankets on the ground. Others eased into lawn chairs. As they waited, the adults chatted and the children tossed balls to one another, running about in the slowly cooling air.
“We like to come early so the kids can come out and play before” the movie starts, said Diana Desper, 45, of Staunton, Va. “It’s a family atmosphere.”
Nation’s Only Nonprofit Drive-In
The picnic scene was like a flashback to the ‘50s, when more than 4,000 drive-in theaters dotted the American landscape. Today fewer than 400 such theaters exist throughout the nation as many have gone under due to low profitability – a fate that almost took down Hull’s.
In the summer of 2000, Hull’s Drive-In stopped showing movies, putting the folks who live near the theater in mourning.
They’d lost a community fixture that had continually shown films since opening as Lee Drive-In in 1950 and assuming the name Hull’s Drive-In in 1957, when Mr. and Mrs. Sebert Hull purchased it. Without the theater, things just weren’t the same.
When Hull’s opened for the season, “it was sort of like a sign of spring,” said Peggy Payne, who sells tickets at the theater. “[When] there was nothing on the marquee … we thought, ‘We can’t have that.’”
Instead of letting the movie screen go permanently black and allowing the lawn to grow over with weeds, community members banded together.
They formed a nonprofit group called Hull’s Angels in 1999 and began collecting donations to save the drive-in from doom. It didn’t take long for the group to raise enough support to open the theater for the latter half of the 2000 season and for a full first season in 2001.
Since then, Hull’s has operated as the country’s only nonprofit drive-in, showing double features of second-run movies every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from April to October on the original wide screen.
“It’s been a part of the Rockbridge way of life,” said Hull’s Executive Director Frank Kulesza. “We’re carrying on a piece of Americana.”
‘Evening Under The Stars’
The concession stand opened and in no time, a line stretched out of the door. Customers ordered freshly made hamburgers, hotdogs, corndogs, French fries, snow cones, sodas and, of course, popcorn with real butter.
Oldies music played from speakers as snack bar attendants called up orders and Kulesza began feeding film through an old projector.
“The number one rule is that everybody has fun,” Kulesza broadcasted over the loud speaker in between songs. “We appreciate you coming out tonight.”
At a table near the concessions members of Hull’s Angels sold T-shirts, glow-in-the-dark toys and raffle tickets as part of their fundraising efforts.
As night fell, Kulesza announced, “We’ll play one more song and then we’ll start the show.”
Children settled in near their parents and young people on dates snuggled in close.When the last song was done, movie patrons laid on their horns – a traditional cue to let the projectionist know they were ready for the show.
With a flicker, the movie appeared on the screen and the audience fell quiet for another “evening under the stars.”
For more information about Hull’s Drive-In, visitwww.hullsdrivein.com.