It’s Day 326 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. Driving from Elizabethton TN near the northeast tip of that state all the way down to the Starlight Drive-In Theatre in Atlanta GA took almost five hours. But making it to a drive-in showing a new release on the night before Thanksgiving was worth it.
When I first drew up this year-long odyssey, I had planned to finish at the Starlight, the southernmost drive-in (among the ones I didn’t visit in January) that shows movies pretty much every day of the year. Instead, I decided to use this week to sweep through the mostly weekend-only drive-ins that are left in the South, then return north to a December of mostly closed theaters.
The Starlight was opened by the Georgia Theater Company (the Oldknow family) as a single-screen theater in 1947. In 1956, when it added a second screen, it became the Starlight Twin. Four more screens came in 1983, turning it into the Starlight Six.
The Starlight survived in an urban area because of its unusual location. Like most other drive-ins, it was built on what was the outskirts of town. As residential and commercial expanded, most drive-ins fell victim to (as their owners cashed in on) rising property values. As described by Southern Spaces, “The Starlight Six did not suffer this fate because its location — adjacent to the Dekalb County Landfill, a trucking company, a cemetery, (and other undesirable neighbors) — made it unattractive to developers.”
According to the April 2004 issue of Atlanta magazine, managing partner Teri Oldknow said that many drive-ins were built without longevity in mind. “The whole concept of the drive-in was to develop it as cheaply as you could,” he said. “After 25 or 30 years, when everything is run down, you just sell it. It was a land bank, really.”
United Artists bought the Georgia Theater Company in 1985, but Teri’s father chose to keep the Starlight. But when it came time to buy digital projectors, the Starlight only employed four, so there are only four active screens out of the six still standing.
The south set of three screens, of which one is active, has become the event space for the Starlight’s festivals such as the Drive-In Invasion and Rock and Roll Monster Bash, which offer local artists, food trucks, live music, on-site camping, and classic movies in various combinations. On this night, it was just movies, and I was very happy to see the colorful new Pixar release, Coco.
The embedded YouTube video of the day is from 2009, when the Starlight still had six active screens.
Miles Today / Total: 270 / 37441 (rounded to the nearest mile)
Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: Coco / 195
Nearby Restaurant: This long odyssey blurs together a bit, but as I looked around my hotel for dinner, I couldn’t remember previously eating at a Waffle House, even though I’ve talked about them often enough. The last time I stayed over at an Atlanta airport hotel, I remember seeing it out the window, so this was my chance to fill that old yearning. There aren’t too many places where you can get a good, yet inexpensive steak plus a bowl of grits. This is one of them.
Where I Virtually Stayed: Another sign of the Starlight’s location is the paucity of hotels nearby. Of the alternatives, the best combination of proximity and good reviews was the Drury Inn near the airport. The evening reception of snacks and drinks got me ready for the drive-in, my room had all the modern amenities, and the typically solid Drury standard breakfast would prepare me well for another day’s drive.
Only in Atlanta: In the Skylight’s corner of Atlanta, Doll’s Head Trail at Constitution Lakes Park is part wildlife refuge, part hiking trail, part snake pit, and part art exhibit. As described by History Atlanta, “It’s called Doll’s Head Trail because of the in situ artwork created with trash, many of it doll heads, that is left over after the South River floods.” Check out the photos, and if you walk the trail, “watch out for copperheads and deer ticks. Seriously.”
Next stop: Jesup Twin Drive-In Theatre, Jesup GA.