Drive-in movie theater screen with text "Turn On Your Heartlight: A Drive-in Family First"

Turn On Your Heartlight: A Drive-In Movie Family First

By Brooke Burt

Note: This essay first appeared in print in the Winter 2021 edition of Retrofied Magazine. Order your physical or digital copy today

Last year provided many firsts, some which we didn’t anticipate and weren’t exactly welcome. It was definitely our family’s first experience to weather a global pandemic, while adding to our lexicon words like “contact tracing” and “social distancing,” not to mention all the various ways our lives changed, from virtual schooling for our middle and high school kids to donning masks for any outing to wiping down groceries. We have known throughout this time that we were living through history. Strangely enough, this year also gave us some positive new experiences we probably wouldn’t have had, including a trip to a favorite haunt for generations before mine: the drive-in.

In my 40 years of living, I had never been to a drive-in movie theater. My youth was spent like a majority of other kids growing up in the ’80s and ’90s—at the movie theater connected or within walking distance to the mall. With at least five screens, bathrooms, and concessions that could be accessed without walking out in the elements, my friends and I would enjoy trips to the food court and the Nature Store before heading over to be enveloped by the neon lights and cushy seats at the Northpark 10.

Although the drive-in came into existence in the early 1930’s and in its heyday had about 4,000 locations throughout the country, there are only around 300 drive-ins still operating today. One of those locations just happens to be a little over an hour from my house. So when entertainment venues across the US closed due to COVID-19, my movie-loving family and I decided to make the trek to Blue Ridge, Georgia, for some big-screen, outdoor family time.

Swan Drive-In Movie Theatre, a Relic From the Past

Swan Drive-In Movie Theatre sign in Blue Ridge, Georgia

The Swan Theater has been in operation since 1955. Our contemporaries from Blue Ridge remember it fondly as a gathering spot for teenagers, especially since it backs up to the local high school and is right down the street from the idyllic main thoroughfare of this North Georgia mountain town. Their memories of The Swan contrasted greatly with my own memories of teenage moviegoing. It seemed like it was from another simpler, more wholesome time. In the twenty years we have called Atlanta home, we have not taken advantage of the various drive-in theaters still in existence and within driving distance of our home. We made a plan to fix that this past July at a showing of E.T., a movie we purposely picked due to our sense of childhood nostalgia. We packed some camp chairs, board games, blankets and some books, and we were off on our adventure.

We made a plan to arrive early, as we knew from our friends’ expertise and advice that the front row was where it’s at for drive-in. While amorous couples in years past might have preferred the quiet seclusion of a back row parking spot, we wanted the optimum view for the experience. We were in luck! There were still a few spots left in that coveted front row, and we snagged one and proceeded to set up our viewing footprint, which included opening the tailgate of our SUV and letting the back row of seats down so our kids could make a cozy cocoon, complete with pillows and stuffed animals. My husband and I set up our camp chairs in front of a wooden picnic table at the end of our parking space and put the portable radio we had brought along with us on the table facing us, so we would be ready to tune in to the appropriate station when show time started.

We had over an hour to wait before the move began, so we were able to talk and read our books and visit the concession stand a few rows back. The building housing concessions and the restrooms looked like it hadn’t changed much since the 1970’s. From its wood-paneled walls to the popcorn machine to the recliners, it looked like a picture straight out of exactly what you would expect a concession stand for a drive-in movie to look like. One of my favorite touches were the giant and very happy rose bushes, with pink and yellow blooms. I’m sure there’s symbolism in there somewhere.

Swan Drive-In Concession Stand at night

After the husband had purchased a souvenir Swan coffee mug for $5 and the Reese’s pieces that are a prerequisite for that particular film, we got ready to settle in, as the dusk created an anticipation that the movie would begin soon. The cars to our left and right kept their safe distance, with the spaces spread out by Swan staff due to the pandemic, but other than that, we were able to forget for just a moment the history we were living in and find our own history to share with our kids.

Embracing the Drive-In Movie Magic

And it was everything you would expect a magical first drive-in theater experience to be for a child of the ’80s sharing a fondly-remembered film with her own children. While I’m sure I’ve seen E.T. since my first viewing when I was a young child, this may have been the first time I really saw it as an adult. The ambience created by the experience itself only added to the magic, and I found myself laughing at the antics of the kids, now seen through a parent’s eyes. I also found that I teared up at several points in the film, not least of which was the soaring pivotal scene, where Eliot’s bike lifts off, away from the adults seeking to fence him in below, up across the moon, carrying his precious friend in his bike basket to return him safely home. Where before in my life, I had felt triumph, this scene on this night, in this setting, filled me with hope. Not all was lost. Some messages of resilience remain despite the circumstances, regardless of the passage of time. I didn’t realize how much I needed to experience this with my kids. And I have to say that I’m not sure the movie would have had the same effect had we not been in the open air, with the moon shining above us and an unseasonable chill in the summer night. It was almost easy to believe that the moon on the screen and the little boy who sailed in front of it, full of goodness and magic, were right above us, just outside our reach, and that if we looked closely enough, we would see it, up in the sky and maybe, even, within ourselves.

Before we knew it, the moon was high, the night was dark, and the movie was finished, the finale providing denouement and no loose ends, to the applause of everyone watching. Another movie showing of Coal Miner’s Daughter was to follow, but we packed up our car and headed back on the winding mountain roads that would lead us home. Our kids fell asleep on the way there and even that reminded me of when they were little, of when I was little.

Despite driving an hour and some change to watch a movie that premiered more than thirty-five years ago, the old stand-by of the drive-in, conducive to social distancing during a pandemic, still provided my family with magic that we will remember for years to come. With the uncertainty of the current times, it was nice to have something tried and true. It was not lost on me that in this summer of divisive rhetoric and upheaval, at the drive-in, everyone’s radio was tuned to the same station, all hearing the same words of “Phone home.”

While I’m grateful to live in our world as we know it, with ideas that are more inclusive and technological and scientific advancements that make a global pandemic a short blip on a long road of living, vastly different from where we would have been had this happened when The Swan open in 1955, I needed to experience this with my family—a return to simplicity. No neon lights or food courts or 20-screen megaplexes—just my car with the three people who are most important to me, driving down a back road from Blue Ridge, Georgia, imagining that inside all of us, there’s a kid with a bike and a little bit of hope and gumption, ready to save something good.

E.T. flying into the night sky across the movie screen at Swan Drive-In in Blue Ridge, GA