It used to be that a family night out involved loading kids into the family station wagon for a visit to the drive-in movie theater. Once parked, dad headed to the concession stand for a greasy, cheesy pizza while the kids kicked around on the playground, and mom clipped the speaker on the car window and adjusted the sound. When those first images flickered on the screen, it was time to settle back with a pillow and blanket and watch movie magic unfold on the big screen.
A Little Backstory
When the nation’s first drive in opened in New Jersey in 1933, it created major buzz and a new pastime was born. Once home to more than 80 drive-ins, South Carolina followed the national trend. Over the decades, most locations closed thanks to the influx of fancier indoor cinemas. Though drive-ins largely went the way of sock hops and black and white television, there has been a small, but vibrant resurgence of a handful of outdoor movie parks. South Carolina is home to three, each proud to continue a tradition that is garnering a whole new generation of devotees.
While the experience is vintage, there have been some modern-day upgrades in recent years. Gone are the boxy clip-on car speakers and 35 mm film. Audio is now delivered via your vehicle’s FM radio and projection has gone digital. Cheap ticket prices, multiple screens, double features and tasty concessions are still a main draw, though.
For those who are new to this or just a bit rusty, here are a few pointers to review before your big night of outdoor cinema:
Once the show starts, you can’t leave and return without purchasing another ticket.
Screen hopping is a no-no. Pick a screen and stay there.
Movies run rain or shine; no refunds for inclement weather.
Playgrounds are closed during the movie.
Leave grills, laser pointers and alcohol behind.
Conversion van or other large vehicle? Head to the back rows so as not to block the view.
No sitting on the top of your vehicle.
Back hatches should be no taller than the top of your vehicle; some drive ins offer twine to tie them to the proper height.
All car lights – inside and out – must be extinguished once movies begin. If your car has automatic lights, check your owner’s manual to learn how to turn them off.
Outdoor chairs are permitted as long as you aren’t blocking the view.
Leave pets at home, please.
No glass bottles.
You are in South Carolina, so don’t forget the bug spray!
While you can bring food in from outside, you might be charged for a “food pass.” But, do consider patronizing the concession stands. Not only are the eats surprisingly yummy, but proceeds help ensure your drive-in movie theater stays up and running. Either way, the total bill at the end of the night is likely to be much cheaper than your typical cinema.
South Carolina Drive-In Theaters
Number of screens: Two
Days of operation: Friday, Saturday, Sunday
Originally known as Plaza 21 Drive-In, this theater was built in 1978. It closed in 2003 and was purchased and reopened in 2004. Highway 21 has the distinction of being open year-round. Concessions run the gamut from hamburgers to hot dogs to popcorn, with funnel cakes being the crowd favorite.
Number of screens: Three
Days of operation: Friday, Saturday and Sunday; late February or March through early January
With just a single screen, this theater was known simply as The Drive-In when it opened in 1945. New owners installed a screen tower in 1955, but the theater went dark in 1983. It did business briefly again in 1999, before shutting down once again. New owners revived it in 2009, added a second screen in 2011, then a third in 2015. A comprehensive concessions menu means there’s something for everyone, but it’s the hand-pattied burgers that win rave reviews.
The Big MO – Monetta
Number of screens: Three
Days of operation: Friday, Saturday, Sunday and, occasionally, Thursday; March through November or early December
The Monetta Drive-In showed its first big screen movie in 1951. It closed in 1986, then reopened as the Big MO in 1999. It’s been going pretty strong since with movies projected through a large giant peach. There’s a strong focus on family fun here, so you’ll find the usual playground as well as trivia games between movies with prizes awarded. There are burgers, nachos and more for noshing as well as South Carolina’s favorite snack: boiled peanuts.