Drive-in rules to live by
Joe Barth turned the door knob and entered the storage building where gumball machines go to die.
That’s the joke, anyway, and there were a couple of marooned machines in the corner where he headed, milk crate in hand, his yellow T-shirt matching the scrap of paper he clutched, one he’d torn from a legal pad minutes earlier.
The pad contained a to-do list for this morning, Sept. 30 – a Friday – and what looked like a game of Hangman, minus the scaffold, with spaces for letters that spelled out “MAGNIFICENT 7,” “SULLY,” “STORKS,” and “THE WILD LIFE.”
Barth’s system for updating the marquee at his theater, the Highway 21 Drive-In in Beaufort.
In the storage building, Barth counted out the letters and stacked them inside the milk crate. He put the letters in his truck and drove through the grass to the marquee. He extended a ladder from the truck’s bed to the catwalk above, climbed up, affixed the letters, stepped down and repeated the process on the marquee’s south side.
The process is a throwback – like Barth, who with wife Bonnie bought the theater in 2003 partly because it reminded him of simpler times.
Bonnie Barth’s first job as a teenager was at a drive-in in West Palm Beach, Fla. She had her doubts about their purchase in the early 2000s, when the theater was struggling to break even. But in the summer of 2004, just a few months after the drive-in’s reopening, an elderly woman came through the concession line.
“‘I just want to thank you so much,’” Bonnie remembers the woman saying. “‘We grew up here, in the military, and I used to come here with my father. He always brought us here.’”
The woman had come back to visit Beaufort National Cemetery, where her father was buried. She and Bonnie shared a cry.
Almost a decade later, in 2012, Bonnie put her retirement savings toward a $150,000 digital upgrade for the drive-in.
More recently, the theater was included in a Travel Channel list of 10 “classic” drive-ins.
“(Highway 21 Drive-In) has the feel-good vibe of another era and offers up double features on two screens showcasing the most current Hollywood hits,” the list said.
When the Barths reopened the theater, they screened old movies and “second-run” flicks – nothing new. Now the newest movies arrive on memory sticks and are downloaded onto a computer before being projected onto two screens.
As night fell on a recent fall evening, two beams of light stabbed out toward those screens as moviegoers hurried from the concession stand – where the Barths say they make 80 percent of their revenue – toward their cars.
Eddie and Christie Gillespie were among them, having traveled with their children from Port Wentworth, Ga.
Christy Anderson and son Chase had traveled from Springfield, Ga.
And the Hiltons, Linsey and Ciera and their children, had traveled from Walterboro.
People come from Savannah and Charleston, the Barths said. It’s about the experience, they said, and the uniqueness – the rarity. According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association’s website, there are currently just six sites and seven screens in the Palmetto State.
Nationwide, there 595 drive-in screens, compared to more than 40,000 indoor screens, according to the National Association of Theater Owners.
During the past three decades, drive-ins and indoor theaters have been on opposite trajectories. There were more than 2,000 drive-in screens in 1987, according to the association, and just over 20,000 indoor screens.
“You know what, it probably hasn’t been a great investment,” Joe Barth said in a stubborn Michigan accent that’s endured two decades in the Lowcountry. “We’ve put more money into it than I thought we’d have to.” (In October, Hurricane Matthew damaged the drive-in’s fencing and tore seven panels off the bottom-left corner of the main screen.)
“So I don’t know if it’s been a great investment monetarily, but for the community it’s been a great thing,” he said. “We bring families together.”
Kids throwing footballs around at dusk at the foot of the screens is a sign of success, he said. As is the fact that space has become more crowded with kids and cars, a sign of steady business.
Earlier in the day, as Barth loaded the letters into the milk crate, he lamented his impending duties – climbing aboard the marquee, easing along its sagging catwalk.
Not his favorite thing to do.
He recalled a time when he’d ascended the ladder and was a letter short.
He went ahead and spelled out the movies’ names, trying to camouflage the missing “R.”
Satisfied, he ambled down the ladder and went about his day.
As dusk neared, a man in the ticket line pointed out the error and suggested Barth change it.
Barth thanked him, told him he was probably the only person who would notice.
Later in the night, Barth got a call from his daughter-in-law, who said she’d been getting calls about the misspelled marquee.
“BATMAN v SUPEMAN.”
The man was right, Barth conceded.
But at least people were noticing.
If you go
What: Highway 21 Drive-In
Where: 55 Parker Dr. in Beaufort, north of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort
When: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays right now.
Every day starting the week before Christmas and lasting through till New Year’s Day.
The theater is open daily during the summer months from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Screenings: Double features start at 7:30 p.m. and cost $7 per adult, $6 for seniors or members of the military (with I.D.) and $3 for children ages 5-12. Kids 4 and under get in free.
More information: 843-846-4021 (business line), 843-846-4500 (movie line) or www.hwy21drivein.com.