A review of the news that made The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s front pages through the decades.

As COVID restrictions are eased and more Georgians are vaccinated against coronavirus, social distancing may soon be a thing of the past. The same was once said of drive-ins, which have experienced an uptick in business during the pandemic.

“Drive-ins are something of past history. All things come and go,” Clayton County Commission Chairman Charley Griswell told the AJC’s Lee Dancy in 1985 when Forest Park’s South Expressway Drive-In theater closed after nearly 30 years in business.

The metro area’s sole remaining classic drive-in theater, the Starlight, has managed to keep the marquee lighted and the projectors going since its much-heralded June 1949 opening as the South’s largest drive-in. Long before social distancing became part of daily pandemic life, the Starlight offered plenty of elbow room for moviegoers.

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“(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
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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.

ExploreAtlanta's Plaza Theatre opens two pop-up drive-ins

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?

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Do you think more drive-ins will open post-pandemic?

• Choose up to 2 answers.

Yes

No

Too soon to say

What would get you to visit a drive-in over a traditional theater?

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Lower admission price

Safety of social distancing

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I would not visit a drive-in

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See Results

Have you ever been to a drive-in theater?

Yes

No

Do you think more drive-ins will open post-pandemic?

Yes

No

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

ABOUT DEJA NEWS

In this series, we scour the AJC archives for the most interesting news from days gone by, show you the original front page and update the story.

If you have a story you’d like researched and featured in AJC Deja News, send an email with as much information as you know. Email: malbright@ajc.com. Use the subject line “AJC Deja News.”