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Snack bar closed, restrooms open: Starlight Drive-In finds its place in midst of pandemic

A few weeks ago, Alpharetta’s Swan family cooked veggie burgers, packed them in a basket with popcorn and soda and loaded it all into their car with assorted pillows and blankets. The family of five then drove south and pulled into a line of cars at Starlight Six Drive-In.

Throughout years of pre-pandemic moviegoing, the Swans looked for theaters with the best reclining seats or the tastiest dine-in options but hadn’t found their way to the Starlight, the 71-year-old theater on Moreland Avenue in southeast Atlanta. After seeing a Facebook ad, they decided to give it a try.

They’re not alone. Metro Atlantans looking for quarantine-approved activities are repopularizing the Starlight Six, with newcomers joining film fans who live nearby or grew up seeing movies under the night sky.

Ada and Finn Covington
Ada and Finn Covington wait for the sun to go down and the big screen to light up at a recent showing of “Trolls World Tour.” (Photo by Kathleen Covington)

Quianna Harper worked at the Starlight while in high school and returned for a double-date soon after the drive-in cautiously reopened in April. “It was like a normal night at Starlight,” she says of Covid-19 social-distancing experiment that featured the Will Smith crime comedy Bad Boys for Life (2020). “Everybody kind of stayed within their cars, and people kept their distance.”

The Starlight Six Drive-In reopened April 22, after being closed for more than three weeks in accordance with shelter-in-place orders. Visitors must watch from within their vehicles and practice social distancing at all times. The concession stand remains closed but the classic coral-pink-tiled restrooms are open (with a notice to avoid standing in line if possible). Moviegoers buy tickets from attendants wearing masks and gloves, and are encouraged to park their cars at least one or two spaces away from other vehicles.

Box-office staffer Jerrell Riley has worked at the Starlight part-time for five years and considers his co-workers his family. Most were laid off when the theater closed. (Starlight owners and local management did not respond to multiple interview requests.)

Riley says he and his co-workers applied for unemployment and worked odd jobs until they were called back. He never did receive any unemployment benefits.

Swan family
The Swans — mom Mandy, dad Lawson, daughter Gracie and sons William and Watson — came from Alpharetta to spend a night with the “Trolls.” (Photo by Mandy Swan)

The reopened Starlight is showing movies on four of its six screens instead of the usual three because demand has increased, Riley says. It’s still screening its March lineup —  such films as the Vin Diesel action-drama Bloodshot, the Elizabeth Moss horror flick The Invisible Man, the comedy-drama Knives Out and the Hilary Swank horror film The Hunt — because the studios that shoot films have been delayed, too. Newer is the horror film Wretched, which came out May 1.

For cities like Atlanta, designed for automobiles, drive-in theaters make sense. The Starlight opened with one screen in 1949 and, by 1952, moviegoers spent more time and money at drive-ins than at live theater, opera, and professional and college football combined, according to Douglas Gomery’s Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States. Briefly, in 1956, drive-in attendance beat traditional theaters, too. Now comes another renaissance, more than 60 years later.

Google searches for “Starlight Drive-In,” incidentally, peaked March 22–28, with numbers at a five-year high.

Most theaters in Georgia are owned by national chains like AMC, Regal and Cinemark and remain closed indefinitely. Smaller independent theaters (the Plaza, Springs Cinema and Taphouse) are opening in limited capacities. The Plaza has a pop-up drive-in in its parking lot and offers private rentals. The Springs Cinema is renting to small groups “for you and your quarantine crew” and selling to-go beer and popcorn packs.

Starlight Drive-In reopened April 2020
The Starlight reopened April 22 with employees wearing masks and gloves, using sanitizer and following a strict cleaning protocol. (Photo by Kathleen Covington)

“The Starlight is the safest place to watch a movie or somewhat be in a crowd,” Riley says, citing the theater’s regimen of gloves, masks, sanitizer and cleaning sprays.

“It was a fun atmosphere, and there was some nostalgia” says Lawson Swan, whose family watched the computer-animated musical Trolls World Tour. “My wife and I grew up going to drive-in movies as kids in our hometown of Albany, Georgia, but the kids had never done it.”

Trolls was well-attended, but Gracie Swan, a college sophomore, missed the community aspect of moviegoing. “We grew up sitting in theaters with lots of people and hearing people talk,” she says. “There was definitely a sense of separation that’s going to last a long time after this.”


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