Nov. 13: Starlite Drive-In, Christiansburg VA

It’s Day 317 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. Time to get back to some of the drive-ins that are closed for the season. Starting from Henderson NC, it took me 3½ hours to drive to the Starlite Drive-In in Christiansburg VA.

There are drive-ins with vague pasts, multiple ownership transactions and name changes. This is none of these. As Collegiate Times wrote in 2012, the “Starlite was opened in 1953 by Richard and Dorothy Beasley. The two ‘built, owned, and operated the Starlite Theater together for all those years’ before Richard passed away in July of 2009.” A few Starlite signs now say “since 1952,” so maybe that opener is just a little vague.

A July 2011 story in The Washington Post included a look in at the Starlite. “The Starlite’s parking area slopes steeply downhill toward the screen, which makes it easier to see over the vehicles in front of you. There’s no playground here, but there is plenty of open space where the kids enjoy burning off energy before the movie.” It was being run by Dorothy Beasley then and still offered “tinny” in-car speakers as well as radio sound.

The next year, for that Collegiate Times article, the owner was Peggy Beasley, and she’s still the owner in 2017. Over the past couple of years, she’s been in the news probably more than she’d prefer.

Her nicest coverage came from Virginia Living in 2013. “Known for its colorful star-dotted signpost and the Beasley family’s famous chili, the Starlite is now owned by daughter Peggy,” it wrote, noting that Richard Beasley built the screen frame in 1953, and it survives to this day.

The problem started in 2016 when Peggy Beasley gave up on replacing lost or stolen in-car speakers and switched to large outdoor speakers. As I wrote at the time, that’s the way the original drive-ins handled sound, and there’s a reason they don’t do it any more – neighbors. The Starlite is surrounded by housing, and some of the neighbors complained to the town, as reported in The Roanoke Times.

The situation continued to June 2017, when Peggy Beasley was summoned to Montgomery County General District Court on July 11 to face a misdemeanor noise disturbance charge, as documented in another story in The Roanoke Times. Her lawyer countered by filing an injunction claiming that her rights of due process have been violated, and that the Starlite is exempt from the town’s noise ordinance.

“I just look forward to it being over with,” Peggy said. “Daddy told me to keep it running when he passed away, because there would be a lot of disappointed people.”

The Radford News Journal wrote that she is considering renting radios, which I mentioned last year and of which I’ve seen dozens of examples in my virtual travels this year. Let’s hope that solves the problem.

The embedded video of the day is from WDBJ, Roanoke’s News Leader, and it includes plenty of nice shots of the Starlite as it discusses the sound / noise controversy. And the drive-in has been closed for the season for weeks, so on this night it was quiet as well as dark.

Miles Today / Total: 177 / 35835 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 190

Nearby Restaurant: When a restaurant promises all you can eat, I pay attention. That was the Monday special at Fatback Soul Shack – all the popcorn shrimp I wanted, plus corn on the cob, hush puppies, baked barbecue beans and so much more. Add a nice selection of beers, and I had all I needed for the night.

Where I Virtually Stayed: Not only is there a Hampton Inn in Christiansburg, but its rates for November suggest that this is the bargain time of year. It was so wonderfully predictable – coffee and cookies waiting for me at check-in, a comfortable room with all the modern amenities, and the solid Hampton-level free breakfast in the morning. But I’ve been to so many I’m starting to see that wide Hampton hexagon in my sleep.

Only in Christiansburg: This town has been around since the 18th century when it was “a concentration of taverns and rest stops along the Great Wilderness Road,” according to Wikipedia. Notable early residents included Daniel Boone, who once had an arrest warrant in Christiansburg for a debt, later repaid; Davy Crockett, who served as an apprentice to a local newspaper printer; and William Clark, of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, who lived downtown.

Next stop: Warner’s Drive-In, Franklin WV.

Nov. 9: Park Place Drive In, Marion VA

It’s Day 313 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. It took less than an hour and a half to drive from the Pipestem Drive-In north of Speedway WV across the Allegheny Mountains to the Park Place Drive In in Marion VA.

According to Virginia.org, this was the location of the old Park Drive-In, which the web site says was open 1954-1983. A photo on Historic Aerials verifies that it was there, although the screen was much closer to Park Boulevard back then.

My reference books don’t provide much help. The 1955-56 Theatre Catalog listed the Park owned by William MacKenzie Jr., with a capacity of 200 cars. The International Motion Picture Almanacs for 1955-66 listed the owner as W. Mackenzie, eventually adding the capacity of 200. The Park continued to be listed through 1976, then fell off the IMPA lists and did not return.

I wish I could find more about what prompted Jerry Harmon to rebuild the drive-in as part of an entertainment complex on the site, opening in May 2000. That must have been a great story. Film Snobbery described the place in 2011 as “a complete entertainment complex. There are batting cages featuring fast and slow pitch softball and three speeds of baseball. In 2006, a brand new miniature golf course was built. There is an arcade with an assortment of games, pool tables, and air hockey. Possibly the best addition is the ice cream shop”.

In 2013, Harmon told Virginia Living that the conversion to digital projection was on drive-in owners’ minds. “I think there’s some that will go out of business, and I’m currently trying to save myself,” he said.

The conversion went through at the Park Place, which showed a Jimmy Buffett concert the following summer. On that occasion, Harmon told the Bristol Herald Courier, “The drive-in community is rallying behind this concert – just as it has with the digital conversion efforts of recent years.”

I particularly like the way the viewing field is laid out at the Park Place, as seen in the YouTube video of the day. There are no speaker poles; instead each row has marked parking spaces. And each row is a paved terrace with sloping grass medians in between. Very nice!

Alas, the drive-in closed for the season in mid-October. It’s another dark night for me.

Miles Today / Total: 75 / 35271 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 188

Nearby Restaurant: Since I was already at the hotel (see below), I went to its great restaurant, The Speakeasy, for dinner. It serves a lot of hamburgers and beer, but is also capable of a more substantial meal. I enjoyed the rib eye steak dinner with a baked potato and broccoli with enough beer to wash it down and then some. After all, I wasn’t going to drive anywhere when I left.

Where I Virtually Stayed: After the sameness of chain hotels, it was a nice change to stay at the General Francis Marion Hotel, one of National Geographic’s Top 150 hotels in North America. Like the Park Place, it was an older establishment that was thorough refurbished and reopened recently, in this case 2006. The price was very reasonable for such a historic place. My room was comfortable and the wifi was solid, although I went without a fridge. In the morning, a free continental breakfast had me ready for another day’s drive.

Only in Marion: Harry Chapin’s 1973 single WOLD was only a minor hit, peaking at #36 on the Billboard chart. When I brushed against the radio business a few years later, I was told that the song, about an aging, hard-drinking radio disc jockey on the phone with his ex-wife, hit too close to home to get much airplay. So I was very surprised that WOLD-FM is alive and well in Marion. The station predated the song by five years.

Next stop: Eden Drive-In, Eden NC.

Nov. 6: Hull’s Drive In, Lexington VA

It’s Day 310 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. Thanks to the miracle of interstate highways, it took me less than an hour and a half to drive from the Goochland Drive-In Theater in Hadensville VA, over the Blue Ridge Mountains, to Hull’s Drive In in Lexington VA.

The story of Hull’s is an uplifting story about how a community came together to save its beloved drive-in theater. I’ll get to that shortly, but first I wanted to take it all the way back to the beginning.

This drive-in opened as the Lee in 1950, built and owned by Waddy and Virginia Atkins of Roanoke on land leased by “the Hostetter family,” probably farmer Mason Hostetter who owned adjacent land. The Hull’s history page on Weebly said that the couple would “drive back and forth from Roanoke every night.”

Meanwhile, Sebert Hull and a partner had built the Mountain View Drive-In in Buena Vista VA in 1950 and sold it in July 1957. Reminiscing in an article in The News Leader of Staunton VA, Hull remembered that five weeks later, “There was a movie my wife wanted to see … I hadn’t been on the field 20 minutes when the owner came up and started propositioning me. He’d been commuting from Roanoke, and wanted someone local to take it over for him. How he knew I was there I still don’t know.” (My wife figures that Hull’s wife set him up.)

That’s when Mr. & Mrs. Atkins sold the drive-in, which immediately became Hull’s. In 1958, the Lee’s former owners purchased the Riverside Drive-In in their hometown of Roanoke.

That 1994 News Leader article asked Hull, then 70, when he would retire. “The only thing I’ve ever said is that at my age, I never really know what my health will be, so I’m just going to play it year by year.”

When Hull passed away before the 1998 season, his widow sold the drive-in to W.D. Goad, who owned the adjacent body shop. Goad ran it for one season then saw the drive-in needed technical improvements and began looking for a buyer. Hull’s was mostly dark for 1999.

In June 1999, two months after the drive-in failed to open; Eric and Elise Sheffield convened a public meeting with more than 50 concerned fans. They formed Hull’s Angels, a non-profit group dedicated to re-opening the drive-in. Within three months, Hull’s Angels had sponsored a two-night benefit at the drive-in, grown to 500 members, and raised $10,000. After researching other options, Hull’s Angels decided it should try to buy Hull’s.

The group’s first lease-purchase agreement was in April 2000, and the IRS approved Hull’s Angels as a 501(c)(3) non-profit that December, making it the first tax-exempt drive-in. In May 2001, Hull’s Angels exercised its option and purchased the business and land lease.

As you can see in the embedded YouTube video of the day, Jeremy Reter is the current executive director of Hull’s Angels. Another YouTube interview calls him the manager and projectionist, so it’s safe to say he runs the place. “Being the first non-profit, community-owned drive-in theatre in the country made us unique,” Reter told The News Virginian this year. “Since then we have been the model for other communities to save their drive-ins. It is a special thing to be non-profit because it allows people to realize that this is something that they can get behind and be part of in keeping alive.”

Hull’s had its last weekend of the season at the end of October, but it promises to be open bright and early in 2018.

Miles Today / Total: 94 / 35053 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 188

Nearby Restaurant: It’s getting to be that time of year when I look for good soup. Good soup plus pastry would be even better, and that’s Sweet Treats Bakery. The blackened chicken noodle soup was comforting and interesting at the same time, and the cheesecake brownie was two more great tastes rolled into one. Mmm, comfort food!

Where I Virtually Stayed: Lexington has what is typically an oxymoron – an unusual Hampton Inn. It’s the manor house of the historic Col Alto mansion (which has its own Wikipedia page), which is why I stayed in a queen bed “historic” room with a fireplace but no mini-fridge. Breakfast was the Hampton standard, although its setting was much nicer than most. This place is definitely something to experience.

Only in Lexington: Confederate general Stonewall Jackson’s favorite horse, now stuffed, is on display at the Virginia Military Institute Museum in Lexington. According to the VMI web site, Little Sorrel is one of two Civil War horses to be mounted at death. Atlas Oscura wrote, “Originally named Fancy, the Confederate general bought the horse for his wife as a gift in 1861, but soon decided, in a Homer-buys-Marge-a-bowling-ball-esque move, that he would keep the beast for himself”.

Next stop: Meadow Bridge Drive-In, Meadow Bridge WV.