The nation's first drive-in theater reportedly got its start in New Jersey, way back in 1933. By the World War II years, drive-in movie theaters were popping up all over Virginia.
At the end of the 20th century, nearly all of them had faded out of existence. So many aspects of modern life had changed. Today, there there are only six still operating in the Old Dominion. Two of them can be found along historic U.S. Route 11 here in the Shenandoah Valley.
Hull's Drive-in is located a couple of miles north of Lexington, Va. in Rockbridge County. It opened in 1950 as the Lee Drive-In. That year may have been the perfect time to open a drive-in theater, seeing as it was at the start of a big decade for drive-in theaters across the country.
Sebert W. Hull and his wife, a local couple from Lexington, purchased the drive-in theater seven years later, and changed it's name to Hull's Drive-in. Known for their friendly way of doing business, they kept it going until Mr. Sebert passed away in 1999. That year, for the first time in its history, the theater shut down.
Then, thanks to a community support group that was hastily formed to take it over as a non-profit operation, the feature film schedule was back before the year 2000 rang in. The quick action by a concerned group of people allowed the theater to hang on to its record of continuous operation since it opened.
The non-profit community organization that owned the drive-in theater was named “Hull's Angels.” It was the first of its kind in the nation. Executive Director Jeremy Reter notes that some people in the community had initially expressed concern about a name that had such a similar pronunciation to that of a well-known motorcycle club. But everyone involved ultimately agreed that Mr. Hull had always referred to his customers as “angels,” and so “Hull's Angels” it became and remains today.
Reter's connection with Hull's Drive-in had started when he began working as a projectionist at the theater. He had retired from a 20-year Navy career and moved his family to Rockbridge County. Soon afterward, he became theater manager and in 2014 took over as the Hull's Angels executive director.
Watch him in action and a title more like “chief cook and bottle washer” could be more accurate.
On any given night, Reter (still) runs the movie projector. He also cooks food at the snack bar and runs the snack bar register, manages the ticket booth and generally jumps in whenever any part of the operation is short-handed. He also is the theater public address announcer.
“A lot of times I'm out in town, people hear me talking: 'You're the guy from Hull's!' And they can recognize my voice,” he says with a grin, adding that his wife told him that she wants to get him a “Voice of Hull's Drive-in” shirt.
The Hull's Drive-in show schedule runs every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from about the middle of March to the end of October, with additional week days added during hot weather weeks. Last year, the weather stayed warm enough to add on a few extra weekends in November.
People go there. Cars often start lining up around 5:30 p.m. to be first in line when the ticket booth opens at 6:30. The early birds get choice, no-smoking row spots in the front area closest to the screen. Although the front of the theater fills up fast, some vehicles will always head straight to the less crowded areas in the back rows. The field is set on a steep hillside, so it's always easy to see the screen from any point on the grounds.
On warm summer evenings, tickets do tend to sell out, often as early as 8 p.m. But people are never turned away. Overflow crowds are invited to park their car in an area outside the theater, then walk through the entrance gate and spread out a blanket or chair on a grassy area in front of the rows of cars. If you can't drive in, you are always invited to walk in.
As cars roll in, hatches spring open. Kids leap out while blankets, portable chairs and sometimes small tables are situated in front of the car or on pickup beds that, along with the open hatchbacks, face the screen. The clientele appears to be a wide mix of young parents and grandparents with children, and younger couples out on a date. The overall mood is friendly and laid back as the sun sets and the shadows lengthen. It's rare to hear any voice raised in anger. Truly, this is a family-friendly, delightfully local-flavored community venue.
It's also pet-friendly, and not just for dogs. “We really don't just say bring your dog,” Reter says.” You can bring any pet. We even have cats, Guinea pigs ...” And one time, a boa constrictor he had seen stretched across the dash of one of the cars, and what had looked like a stuffed bird in the back of one car. It turned out to be a trained raven from the Baltimore Ravens.
“I'm like, that is incredible,” he says. “When we say we're pet friendly, we mean all pets. As long as they keep them on a leash, and keep them well behaved, we're OK with that.”
Hull's drive-in still uses traditional drive-in window-mounted speakers, although the audio feed is also broadcast on a low-range FM radio channel. Many of the window speakers on the field posts are original, along with a field of underground copper cables that somehow still connects everything together. Part of the show includes little film clips that warn about driving off with the speaker still mounted on the car window. It still happens occasionally.
During the afternoons, a constant stream of music from the public address system permeates the empty field. Kind of like a mist of sound, it emanates from numerous rows of car speakers and later on from car stereo speakers. One day it's fifties music, another it's sixties, seventies, eighties, all the way up to today's music.
As twilight approaches, Reter gets on the PA mike: Visit the snack bar, there's free twine available for people to tie their car hatches down so that they don't obsctruct the screen view, here's some of the upcoming features and again, no smoking in the first five rows. By this time, the place is almost completely filled with cars.
Then he announces that the show is beginning. His words signal to nearly everyone to lay on the car horns in a kind of drive-in version of a harbor ship salute. Snack bar action takes a dramatic nose-dive. It's movie time.
Walk along any of the rows and what's interesting is the number of out-of-state plates that are seen.
“You get people that are traveling through the area,” Reter says. And they'll stop in at Rockbridge County, and see that there's a drive-in. And people make an extra stop just to be here overnight to come to the drive-in. Wednesday night, my guy at the ticket booth called me. In the first 30 minutes he was down there, we had cars from Florida, Maine, New York, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Mississippi ... and another one of the other states. And they were all traveling, and they were stopping overnight to catch a movie.”
He regularly gets good feedback from the out of town visitors, including great reviews on social media like Trip Adviser and Facebook. While feedback from regular customers is a valuable thing, a good word from someone who will only be there once in a lifetime is particularly meaningful.
“Because these people, they're traveling all over the place,” he says. “They've seen all sorts of places. And for them to, you know, say such nice things about you, it really says you're doing the right thing.”
Spend any amount of time around Jeremy Reter and it quickly becomes obvious how much the man loves his job. He says that he's a true people person and that's what makes the job so special for him. He loves getting out and being in contact with the folks who visit the drive-in, many of whom have been coming to see movies there since it opened in 1950.
He says that he gets ribbed about how it often isn't uncommon to find him visiting another drive-in on his days off. He once visited the Family Drive-In, located farther down the Valley in Stephens City, Va., and ended up jumping in to help them out. He flipped burgers for two hours that night. Why? Because drive-in operators could well be a brotherhood. The business is in his blood. What makes him go is seeing people having a good time and families being together.
“I feel like a politician,” he adds. “Here we are in an election year. I feel like a politician, walking around, shaking hands, kissing babies, giving dog treats. You know? But that's what I enjoy the most.”
Along with Hull's and Family Drive-In, the four other Virginia drive-ins that have managed to evolve and keep their own piece of 20th century culture alive: Starlite Drive-in in Christiansburg (also along U.S. 11), Park Place Drive-in in Marion, Goochland Drive-in in Hadensville, and Central Drive-in in Norton.
According to Reter, the Mayberry Drive-in, located near Smith Mountain Lake, had ceased operations earlier this year.
But the rest of them appear to continue meeting the challenges, such as ever-increasing, completing family entertainment options, a motion picture production industry that continues to have to evolve, and keeping up with new movie theater technology.
At Hull's Drive-in, the key to its success seems to be unwavering financial and attendance support from the community. In the shorter term, Reter notes a trend toward more new movies for kids. That's helpful when booking double features, where the kids get to see a family movie earlier and then toward the wee hours of the morning, after the little ones have nodded off, the grown-ups get to see something more appropriate for their age group.
Of course, a drive-in experience can be very different from seeing the same movie in a dark auditorium or with a home theater system. It's a lot more social. Conversations among strangers seem to happen easily and naturally during the relatively long lag time between parking the car and when the movie starts. At that time, the rows of cars gradually transform into rows of festive little islands, each inhabited by families and groups of friends.
Then the thick summer air finally starts to cool as dusk approaches. The setting sun lights up the movie screen one final time, as well as the puffy clouds to the west and along the skyline of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the east.
The snack shack lights wink on. A hazy beam of white light shoots out of the projection booth, catching a few night bugs in mid-flight. The big screen comes alive.
A realization that the butter on the popcorn is real.
For one very savory moment, it's the endless summer.
(Story originally appeared on ShendoahValley.com in Aug. 2016, updated for the drive-in's 67th year of operation in 2017.)
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Natural landmark provides a distintive skyline for nearby Lexington, Virginia. The mountain is over 3,600 feet high and offers hiking trails. Photo: Burton R. Floyd
Rockbridge County, Virginia was established in 1777, and is steeped in Civil War history. The county incudes the cities of Lexington (the county seat) and Buena Vista. The county was named for Natural Bridge, a natural historic monument which is located south of Lexington. The county is also known for being the place where Cyrus McCormick invented the reaper.
Visitors come to Rockbridge County to experience it's extensive Civil War History, particularly in the city of Lexington, and to explore the many fesitvals, outdoor activities, historic homes and museums that this rural county has to offer.