“(The Starlight) has space for 900 cars, the largest single space of any drive-in theater in the South,” said a Constitution 1949 article previewing the Starlight’s June 10 debut. “The screen is 96 feet tall — four stories high. The movie images play on a 60 by 60 foot space.”
Original owner Fred Coleman told the paper he based the Starlight’s spacious design on drive-ins he’d visited during a California trip.
Original amenities at the Starlight included a 40-foot snack bar, tile restrooms and the promise of a parking attendant accompanying every car to its parking position and connecting a speaker for movie audio. When it opened, a seven-acre grass area buffered the nascent theater from nearby Highway 42.
By November 1956, the Starlight was Atlanta’s only “twin” drive-in, boasting two screens. In 1983, noting the proliferation of multiplex indoor cinemas, the Starlight added four more screens, bringing the total to six. It also started its popular weekend flea market, making use of the property from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. When COVID hit last March, DeKalb County issued a shelter-in-place order, closing the Starlight along with other businesses as part of a lockdown aimed at stemming the spread of coronavirus in the community. But the theater reopened less than a month later.
Opened in 1949, Starlight Drive-in is the only dedicated drive-in theater in metro Atlanta. AJC File
According to the Cinema Treasures website, there are currently four operating drive-in theaters remaining in the state. The Tiger and Swan Drive-Ins, located in north Georgia, the Jesup Drive-in south of Savannah and Atlanta’s Starlight.
Even as Governor Brian Kemp has lifted most COVID restrictions on the state’s businesses, patrons shouldn’t assume things are quickly heading back to pre-coronavirus norms. Plaza Theatre owner Christopher Escobar told the AJC recently that despite reopening for indoor screenings last September, the Plaza continues following CDC and City of Atlanta COVID guidelines for businesses. Escobar started two pop-up drive-ins during the pandemic and plans to continue showing films outside. The idea was a hit; restless Atlantans desperate for a night out under lockdown found the drive-in experience liberating.
The same held true after the Starlight’s big opening night. As one of the theater’s first patrons put it back in June 1949, “It’s just like sittin’ in Atlanta and watchin’ a picture in Birmingham — ‘cept ya could see that big screen plum to California.”
INTERACTIVE MAP: Where were Georgia’s drive-ins located and how many remain in operation?
Have you ever been to a drive-in theater?
Do you think more drive-ins will open post-pandemic?
Too soon to say
What would get you to visit a drive-in over a traditional theater?
Lower admission price
Safety of social distancing
The novelty of the experience
I would not visit a drive-in
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