A news story last year highlighted our local drive in as one of only 11 left in the state of North Carolina. Unfortunately, as of March 15th, that number has now been reduced to 10.
Bright Leaf Drive In

The holes you see are where the original, 1955 era pole-mounted speakers stood last weekend. The picnic tables still stand, but the benches and chairs for the 'front row' crowd have already been moved to the concession stand.

Reaction to the news locally has been overwhelming. Hardly anyone within driving distance of our town hasn't watched a movie at "The Bright Leaf." My parents took my sisters and me to see movies there on hot summer Friday nights, crammed into the back of a huge 1967 Ford Station Wagon, hoping we'd fall asleep so they could watch the second feature in peace.

In the sixties there were Westerns- John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. The Seventies brought Vanishing Point, Billy Jack, and the "Trinity" Westerns.

Always, always a double feature. Sometimes, if you could stay out late, all night shows.

Unlike a lot of drive in movies, The Bright Leaf stayed open year round. The original owner, Don Davis, was always there with a smile and knew you by name. He's always ask me how my dad was doing. On Halloween there would be an all night spook-tackular, and if you weren't careful one of the concession staff would likely scare the bejesus out of you with a rubber mask and a growl before the night was done....

Unfortunately, Don died a few years back. The Bright Leaf was almost closed then, but the outcry from generations of movie goers who grew up with her bough her some more time. Some of the remaining employees- all of whom had day jobs as well- leased the property and worked hard to make it a great place to go spend a night under the stars. They did well- when the weather was nice, you had to show up hours before dark to get a good parking place. The food was some of the best anywhere- try getting a hot dog like that at the local movie chain! and they still showed the old trailers from the 1950's- talking popcorn and soft drinks encouraging you to stop in at the CONSESSION STAND during the intermission. And my favorite, a vintage 1950's short encouraging you to attend your place of worship this Sunday...


Dispite good attendence and enthusiastic crowds, one thing kept working against the Bright Leaf. What had been a lonely stretch of a two-lane blacktop in 1955 was now the center of a major part of town, complete with four lane highway, strip malls, and all that comes with progress. The property, coveted by local realtors, was valued at over $1 millon dollars. (And I'm sure the lease didn't even cover the property taxes each year.) So for reasons not given publicly yet, the remaining owners of the land refused to renew the lease this year, and gave the drive in owners 30 days to get out. One rumor going around is that a major food franchise may put a resturant there. I hope not. That would just be cruel. For me, and thousands like me, this was more than just a place to have a movie. This was where you went to meet friends, cook out on the back row, play pinball, or wonder if this would be the place you'd get your first kiss. The Bright Leaf Drive In, 1955-2010. Rest in peace, old friend.

3 comments:

It is sad to see it go. I am the one that opened it up after Don died. I work for him for years. I did it for the fun of it. I have a lot of memories of the place. I always hung out there growing up and just loved it. Then my aunt worked for Don and she got me working there. After he died I got a lease and opened it back up and got the grill going again. We had a lot of fun there. Things change and I had someone want to buy me out and it was the right time for me. After I sold it I still would work there when I was in town. I loved that place; it was the best way to watch a movie. There are several reasons and events that came together for it to have to close with no notice, but the fact is it is gone. I will miss it. I have a lot of memories of the place. I wish we could get a place on the net where people would put some of their memories of the place. No more drive-in in Mt. Airy. It just seems strange to think it gone.
Dwayne Hemrick

March 25, 2010 at 1:53 AM  

Hopefully the Bright Leaf web page will allow some comments, and of course everyone is welcome to come here and tell their favorite story. I know everyone I have spoken to has had good memories of the place. Dwayne, thanks so much for what you did and for keeping it open as long as you did.

March 25, 2010 at 7:42 AM  

Well, this is another reinforcement of an old lesson--strike while the iron is hot.

Mrs. F and I were "always" going to take the kids to a drive-in, and just never seemed to get around to it. Always something else that "had to be done". Now, we don't have the chance--not at this one.

There's one toward Albemarle; we're going this year or else.

(moved to this post for the Freeholder, posted to incorrect blog post.)

March 25, 2010 at 7:48 AM  

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