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Free Citizen

This writer espouses individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.

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Location: Jackson, Mississippi, United States

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Iuka Drive-In Theatre

This piece by Jebb Johnston of the Daily Corinthian ran in The Clarion-Ledger on October 20, 2003.

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The screen is backed by a curtain of evergreens, and the ceiling is awash with stars. On an autumn evening, a mostly teenage crowd motors into the open-air auditorium that is the Iuka [eye-you-kuh] Drive-In Theatre, a relic of another era that lives on in spite of mulitplexes and stadium seating.

Movie start times here aren't carved in stone. The projectionist waits for just the right moment when the day gives way to night.

As a vampires-vs.-werewolves shocker plays, Mars rises in the sky above the screen.

"We used to advertise dusk," said Earl Curtis, who has run the drive-in for the past 14 years. "People don't understand what dusk is, so I started putting times."

The old speaker poles, no longer needed to hold speakers, function as rough parking guides.

About five years ago, the drive-in began broadcasting the movie soundtracks by FM-radio signal. It provides better sound for the audience and means less hassle for the staff.

"It was getting to be where people were taking (the speakers) for nostalgia," Curtis said. For years, people would say, 'We've got to go to the drive-in, because it probably won't be there next year.' They wanted to take a piece of it."

That nostalgia is likely the major appeal of the drive-in experience, which is hard to come by these days.

In Mississippi, drive-ins continue to operate at Guntown and Hattiesburg, and Curtis said one reopened in Amory last year. Some sources still list Pontotoc's as active, while others say it has gone dark.

"There are four drive-ins that I know of, and for a long time, it was just us," Curtis said.[1]

He said the drive-in is a great bargain for families and offers people conveniences such as smoking and a little more freedom with the kids' behavior.

For Curtis, drive-in management has been a family business.

The Iuka Drive-In, which went dark for about eight years at one point, was in his family in the 1970s. He also runs the Pink Cadillac Drive-In in Centerville, Tennessee.

Local residents will recall other screens that went dark through the years. Booneville had the Scenic on Mississippi 145, and Belmont had the Starlite. There was the Corinth Drive-In across the state line in Guys, Tennessee, and Corinth's Skylark, which closed and was removed from U. S. 72 in 1986.

"We ran on through most of June '86," said Alan Simmons, who managed the Skylark, which had a house under the screen tower, from 1982 until the closing.

Eventually, cable TV and VCRs cut into business.

The Iuka Drive-In shows movies on Friday, Saturday and Monday, which is family night. During the last five years, business has picked up, growing by as much as 10 percent to 20 percent this year, Curtis said.

The industry has started to see its fortunes improving, with 40 drive-ins reopening and 20 new ones built since 1990.

Fast Facts: (1) The number of drive-ins peaked in 1958, when there were 4,063 across America; (2) that was also the peak year for Mississippi, when there were 69 across the state, and is also the year the Iuka Drive-In is believed to have opened; and (3) some 384 drive-ins remained in the U. S. at the end of 2008.

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[1] The Iuka and Guntown drive-ins are now the only two left in the Magnolia State. Iuka is located in Tishomingo County, in the northeast corner of the state. Guntown is about 15 miles north of Tupelo in Lee County, which is also in northeast Mississippi. Three good Web sites on drive-ins are Drive-Ins.com, DriveInMovie.com, and DriveInTheater.com.

Here's a good article on the history of drive-ins, with some great comments.

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