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The Big Mo
Cars line up at the entrance to the Monetta Drive-In Theatre.
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Highway 21 Drive-in
Don Seagraves, the veteran projectionist at Beaufort’s Highway 21 Drive‑In, examines the last 35 mm film to be shown at the drive‑in. Keeping pace with the times, the theater switched to a new digital projection system this summer.
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Carolyn and Tommy McCutcheon pride themselves on serving great food at the Auto Drive‑In.
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Readers Calvin and Dale Fox Holsenback enjoyed movies under the stars at the Monetta Drive-In Theatre as teenagers in the 1960s.
UPDATE: A big win for the Big Mo
Thanks to your votes, Monetta's Big Mo Drive-in Theater will be getting a new digital projector. Project Drive-In, a social media campaign sponsored by Honda Motor Co., awarded new digital projection systems to nine drive-in movie theaters across the U.S. based on the votes of movie buffs. For more information, visit projectdrivein.com and thebigmo.com.
In an era of on-demand entertainment, streaming video and high-definition screens on our smartphones, the very idea of a drive-in theater may seem as quaint as black-and-white Leave it to Beaver reruns and Davy Crockett coonskin caps, but don’t count them out just yet.
Three drive-in theaters are still in operation in South Carolina, and if you hit the byways of the Palmetto State this fall, you will find that they are doing just fine, thank you, by catering to modern moviegoers with an irresistible combination of affordable prices, first-run features, outdoor ambiance and surprisingly good food.
MONETTA DRIVE-IN THEATRE
Welcome to The Big Mo
It’s 6:30 p.m. on a Saturday, with the sun still riding high in the early summer sky, yet dozens of cars are lined up alongside Highway 1 waiting for the Monetta Drive-In Theatre, aka The Big Mo, to open.
By the end of the evening, moviegoers in more than 300 vehicles will pass through the gates to watch double features of first-run films—42 and Oz the Great and Powerful on the main field, The Croods and G.I. Joeon screen two, or Scary Movie 5 and Olympus Has Fallen on screen three.
“If you think this is busy, you should come out here on Memorial Day,” says Richard Boaz, who owns the drive-in with his wife, Lisa. “We’ve had all three fields sold out. It’s just nuts.”
The Big Mo, one of three outdoor movie theaters still operating in South Carolina, opens in March and shows movies on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until the end of November.
Built in 1950, the drive-in opened a year later with a screening of Nancy Goes to Rio. It operated through the heyday of outdoor movie theaters and hung on through the 1960s and 1970s. Finally, in the mid-1980s, the theater surrendered to the reality of the times and closed as Americans opted to stay home and watch movies on cable television or VHS tapes.
Richard and Lisa Boaz had always loved drive-ins. When the couple lived in West Virginia, they went often, and Richard thought that operating one of the big, nostalgic facilities would be, well, a lot of fun. When they relocated to South Carolina, Boaz spent weekends looking at drive-in ruins around the Palmetto State. Eventually, he heard about the long-shuttered theater near Monetta and drove over to take a look.
Time had not been kind to the property. The big screen was heavily damaged, the field was overgrown with trees and the roof of the box office had caved in. But for Richard Boaz, it was love at first sight.
In 1998 the couple became the owners of the Monetta Drive-in Theatre and went to work restoring the place. They reopened on March 26, 1999, with the re-released Judy Garland classic The Wizard of Oz. In 2005, they added a second screen, and just two years ago, as business continued to grow, they opened a third screen.
On any given movie night, guests arrive early to get the best spots, play games, toss a football and chat with neighbors. Families bring chairs and tables, even couches, and really make a night of it under the stars.
For U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Roger Hemion and his wife, Toni, weekend trips to The Big Mo are an ideal family outing. The couple and their four children routinely make the 45-minute trip from Fort Gordon, Ga., near Augusta.
“We absolutely love it,” says Toni Hemion. “We come back every time they have a new movie. In fact, we’ve been here the last four weekends, and we don’t plan to slow down anytime soon.”
Like most other customers, the Hemions appreciate the fact that they can see two first-run movies for the price of seeing one at an indoor theater. At The Big Mo, it’s $8 for adults and half as much for children.
“It’s something we can all do together,” says Toni Hemion. “And it’s cheap.”
The food isn’t bad, either. Over at one of the theater’s snack bars, Kim Laramee is busy cooking hamburgers, chicken sandwiches and corndogs for a parade of hungry moviegoers. One of Laramee’s satisfied customers is James Chiaramonte of nearby Aiken. Chiaramonte says he is a huge fan of The Big Mo and does all he can to spread the word.“
I’ve been out here maybe 15 or 20 times,” he says. “I found out about the place two years ago and have tried to make it a point to be up here as much as possible with family and friends.”
Richard Boaz says satisfied customers like Chiaramonte make it all worthwhile.
“Our take on it when we got into this business was this: As long as we are having fun, the people are having fun and the business pays for itself, then anything else is gravy,” says Boaz. “I always tell people that we’ve had a little bit of gravy and a lot of fun.”
5822 Columbia Highway North (Highway 1), Monetta
Making memories two movies at a time
Greenwood residents Tommy and Carolyn McCutcheon were on their way to church one Sunday morning a few years ago when they noticed a huge, unsightly pile of trash in front of the shuttered drive-in movie theater they used to frequent when they were kids.
Tommy McCutcheon was so annoyed by the assault on one of his favorite childhood haunts that he contacted the owner of the property—one Virginia Turner, then in her 90s—and told her that he would clean up the mess for her. That spontaneous offer to haul away trash eventually led to his purchase of the property and the reopening of the Auto Drive-In.
“We’re having the time of our lives showing movies,” says Carolyn McCutcheon. “And the people who come out here just love it. They hug us and thank us for opening.”
The original drive-in was built in 1945, making it the oldest of the three operating drive-in movie theaters in the state. The place closed in 1982 and remained so for most of the next three decades.
By the time the McCutcheons came along in 2008, the complex had fallen on hard times. Vandals had used shotguns to blast holes in the giant 85-by-48-foot screen. The ticket booth and concession stand had been ravaged by termites. Six-inch pines and wild cherry trees had sprouted throughout the property. It took a year to restore the drive-in to its former glory, but in April 2009 Tommy McCutcheon hit the switch on the big 35 mm projector for the first time since the 1980s.
For the next year or so, customers came in droves, and business was so good that the McCutcheons bought and cleared some adjoining land and built a second screen. When they premiered that one with Pirates of the Caribbean in the spring of 2011, the place sold out. Sensing a growing appreciation of outdoor movie theaters, the couple has plans for a third theater screen on land already secured and cleared for that purpose.
The McCutcheons show double features on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from midFebruary through the end of December. In addition to great food (“We have a rib-eye sandwich that’ll be more tender than your mama’s love,” says Tommy McCutcheon), customers get free refills on popcorn and sweet tea.
The result? “Our business is up 40 percent from the same time last year,” says Tommy McCutcheon.
Part of that increased business comes from moviegoers like Dan Walters and his family, who got tired of what he found to be noisy and unpleasant visits to indoor theaters.“We come out here six or eight times a year,” Walters says. “We just enjoy being outside under the stars. It turns a trip to the movies into a family event.”
That “family event” feeling stems from a freewheeling atmosphere at outdoor movies. One evening not too long ago, the McCutcheons’ son, Tom, who also works at the drive-in, walked past some Lander University students relaxing on a couch they had brought with them. McCutcheon jokingly told the students that the only thing missing was a coffee table so they could prop up their feet. Not ones to ignore a good idea, the students showed up the following weekend with their trusty sofa and, of course, a coffee table.
It’s the memories—or the making of memories—that seem to be foremost in the minds of moviegoers at the Auto Drive-in. Shannon Bernhardt and Armando Neri have fond recollections of going to outdoor movies with their families and want their 8-year-old daughter, Isabella, to remember these times with her family as well.“
I know when she’s 30 she’ll remember the drive-in, and she’ll recall us talking about the great cheeseburgers here,” Bernhardt says.
Bernhardt isn’t the only one who raves about Tommy McCutcheon’s cheeseburgers. Made with fresh ground beef and topped by tomatoes that the McCutcheons personally select and buy at a farmer’s market, the burgers are huge sellers at the snack bar.
The McCutcheons realize that they are members of a small fraternity of outdoor movie theater owners, but as long as people want to enjoy the drive-in experience, the couple will keep the place going.
“I promise you that if you come out here and watch a movie with us, you will remember it for the rest of your life,” says Tommy McCutcheon. “That’s our main line of business right now—making great family memories.”
3109 Highway 25 South, Greenwood
HIGHWAY 21 DRIVE-IN
Worth the drive
Don Seagraves has mixed emotions as he threads the big film projector with one of the last 35 mm movies to be shown at Beaufort’s Highway 21 Drive-In. After all, Seagraves has been running projectors at movie theaters for decades, and the looming switch from film to digital stirs up feelings that he probably didn’t realize were there.
“Tomorrow is my last night of film,” he says. “I’m a little sad, because it’s something I did for such a long time. I started when I was 17, and I’m almost 60 now. But, you know, with digital you get three times better light, three times better quality of picture and much better sound. And that’s what it’s all about—the presentation to the public.”
The Beaufort drive-in is the first of South Carolina’s three outdoor movie theaters to go digital. The other two plan to make the change by next year.“
You either convert to digital or you’re out of business,” says Joe Barth, who owns the drive-in with his wife, Bonnie. “We don’t want to see it close. And I think I can speak for Bonnie when I say that the people who come in here make us feel like we are kind of obligated to keep it open for them.”
Fans of this drive-in are quick to share their excitement about the place. Moviegoer Roberta Coleman, for example, says she feels “like a little kid” at the drive-in. And her husband, Darrell Coleman, says they like the place so much they visit a couple of times each month.“The drive-in is always kind of nostalgic and a lot of fun,” he says. “There is a small-town atmosphere about the place.”
The drive-in’s Facebook page boasts nearly 5,000 followers, and the Barths use it to engage their customers with running commentaries on upcoming films, new concession items and special events. The customers, in turn, heap praise on the Highway 21 Drive-In experience. One recent post: “Your food is awesome and the people who work there actually make you feel glad you came to spend the evening with them. Would definitely give them two thumbs up!!!”
Joe Barth says that about 40 percent of his customers are military families from nearby Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot.
“They’re right down the road, and we love them,” he says. “But we get a pretty good crowd every night from Charleston and Savannah, too. And that’s over an hour’s drive. I’ll tell you, nobody will drive over an hour to go to an indoor theater. But they will drive that far to come to a drive-in.”
The Highway 21 Drive-in was built in 1978 and passed from one owner to the next until Joe and Bonnie Barth bought the 10-acre complex in 2004. It came with an added bonus—row after row of metal speakers that moviegoers used to hang from their car windows so they could listen to the movie soundtrack. These days, customers listen by tuning to a special FM station on their car radios, but the presence of the old speakers added a nostalgic twist to the drive-in experience.
There were maybe 350 of those speakers when the Barths bought the property. At the end of their first season, 40 of the speakers went missing. When even more of the speakers disappeared during the second season, Joe removed the ones that were left, leaving only a few speakers—for nostalgia, of course—in front of the concession stand.
Those old-time speakers are not the only things that set the Beaufort theater apart. Over the last several years, Highway 21 has become known for its family of ospreys that happily makes its home right on top of the main screen.
“They’ve been with us for about five years,” says Joe Barth. “Every year they come back and work on their nest.”Their names, appropriately enough, are Oscar and Emmy.
“Quite a few people bring their binoculars and sit out there and watch them,” says Barth. “It’s just part of the drive-in experience here in Beaufort.”
If they wanted to, the Barths could probably sell their drive-in to a developer and make a very nice profit. But Joe and Bonnie really love what they do. Joe Barth says if someone made him an offer so attractive that he simply could not refuse, he would more than likely open another drive-in.
“I remember the first day we opened,” recalls Barth. “I looked out our window here and saw a family tossing around a football. Someone else was throwing a Frisbee. I really enjoyed seeing that. We weren’t making any money at that point, but it put a smile on my face because I think that’s what we should be getting back to—bringing families together.”
55 Parker Drive, Beaufort