Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

July 26, 2013

An American icon shines on

By Clinton Gill
Glade Sun editor

— In the summertime, when the sun goes down, the lights come up at the Sparta Drive-In. The show always begins with the National Anthem, and patrons stand to salute the American flag proudly displayed beneath the screen. Children laugh and play in the grass, eating snow cones while mom and dad enjoy the open air. There is a tangible sense of freedom in the experience, a romance that is distinctly American, a marriage of two of our most celebrated traditions – the great car culture and Hollywood glamour.

The drive-in movie theater has been an American icon for decades. Richard Hollingshead invented the open air style theater in 1933 using a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car to transmit movies onto a screen he had nailed up between trees in his yard. He used a radio behind the screen to provide sound, and with that, an industry was born. The popularity of the drive-in spiked after World War II, reaching its heyday in the late 1950s to mid-'60s, with some 5,000 theaters across the country. One of the largest theaters was the All-Weather Drive-In of Copiague, NY, which featured parking spaces for 2,500 cars, a kid's playground and a full-service restaurant, all on a 28-acre lot.

The Sparta Drive-In was built in 1948 on the north side of town. The giant screen towered over an eight-and-a-half acre lot with parking spots for 276 cars, though the field could accommodate more, if need be. In the early 1970s, a tornado struck, completely destroying the wooden screen. The owners rebuilt the 40 foot by 60 foot screen, using steel that was designed to withstand 125 mph winds. The screen was assembled on the ground and had to be lifted in place by crane. Ross and Brenda Cardwell, of Sparta, operated the theater until 1987.

"The Drive-in specialized in family-type movies with children admitted free," said Brenda. "The kids would bring blankets and lay on the grass or play while their parents watched the movie. The concession stand was located under the screen and popcorn and bottled Cokes could be purchased from your car while waiting in line to buy tickets for the show."

"Back in the '50s and '60s, we had 'buck night,' where everyone that you could fit on an automobile got in for a dollar, and all you had to do was drive through the ticket office," said Ross. "I've got a picture somewhere of a '49 or '50 model Ford that had 60 people on it. You've never seen anything like it."

Now days, studio representatives insist that every person must purchase a ticket.

The advent of VCRs and home movies in the mid-1980s nearly killed the industry. Many drive-in operations never recovered. According to drive-ins.com, there are only 445 open drive-ins operating around the world, 353 of which in the United States and 53 in Canada. At its peak in 1958, there were 112 drive-ins in Tennessee, 87 percent of which are now dark, leaving only 14 operational open air theaters. The Sparta Drive-In was shut down from 1987-2002. 

Shortly after its reopening, local Sparta resident Tommy Brown got a job parking cars on the lot. Brown worked his way up, learning every job at the theater, until 2009, when he and his wife, Judy, took over ownership.

There's a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes. The drive-in gets their movies from Hollywood studios via other drive-in operations. The 35mm films zigzag from screen-to-screen across the country, arriving in 60 pound boxes. The projectionist builds the film, splicing the ends of five mini reels together while checking for burns and splices that previous operators may have made. It takes about an hour to build the film using scissors and masking tape. The spliced films are then transferred onto two 25 inch reels that hold 2,000 feet of film each. The cumbersome reels are then hoisted onto twin Century Cine Focus projectors. Brown named his projectors "Bessie" and "Bertha" after his mother and aunt, respectively.

There is a certain procedure that must be followed to run the projectors. The bulbs that power the images are 4,000 watts. They burn so brightly that you would need to have a welder's mask on to look at one. Large fans keep the bulbs cool, which is critical – if the bulbs overheat they have the potential to explode. If the power ever goes out, the projectionist has about 15 minutes to cool the bulb down before it blows up.

Fortunately, Brown has never had that problem happen, but "mom and pop" operations like his face a bigger problem. Though no official date has been set, this will be the last year 35mm films are produced. Logistically speaking, transitioning to a digital format reduces production and shipping costs, and the picture quality is much better, but the sizable upfront investment of the digital projection systems will take many operations out of the game. Each machine costs an estimated $60,000 – $80,000, which translates into more than 13,000 full price adult tickets just to break even.

The future for the drive-in may be uncertain, but it is an American icon that has weathered bigger storms. It offers an incredible value as well as fun, safe, family-oriented entertainment. 

"We love the Drive-In. We come every weekend," said loyal patron Aimee Flowers. "We came last weekend, and we'll be here next weekend."

There are only a few weekends left in the 2013 season. After Labor Day, the Sparta Drive-In shuts down. Showing this weekend at the Sparta Drive-In are "The Wolverine" and "The Heat." On Aug. 2 – 3, "Turbo" and "The Wolverine" will be showing. And on the last weekend in August they will have a cruise-in. The features for that weekend will be cult classics "Grease" and "Viva Las Vegas," for the Elvis fans. All movie listings are subject to change. Gates open at 6 p.m. and the show starts at dusk, rain or shine. Admission is only $6 for adults, $3 for children ages 5–12, children 4 and under get in free. The drive-in is at 220 Roberts-Matthews Hwy Sparta, TN 38583, less than 10 miles south of Interstate 40. For more information call 739-8000 or go to www.spartadrivein.com.