Dinner Party at the Drive-In

The drive-in movie theater, once a symbol of Americana, may be an endangered species elsewhere, but Greenwood’s Auto 25 Drive In is still lighting up the night with movies and family fun.

  • Publication date August 9, 2021
  • Categories History

While the growth of technology has kept more people seeking their entertainment at home, Greenwood residents and visitors can still enjoy the throw-back fun of a movie at the drive-in theater. The Auto 25 Drive In, or just “the 25” to its many fans, is still bringing an entertaining slice of American pie to area families. 

With only three drive-ins left in South Carolina, the 25 has become more than a great place to hang out with the family; it’s become a cultural icon lovingly maintained by owners Carolyn and Tommy McCutcheon, who never had any intention of owning a drive-in theater.

The Rise and Fall of Drive-Ins

While drive-in theaters began to appear in the U.S. as early as the 1910s, it was Richard Hollingsworth of New Jersey who opened the first patented drive-in in June 1933. His success spurred a surge in drive-ins throughout the country and even abroad, popular as a fun family event and an affordable date night. By the late 1960s, there were more than 4,000 drive-in theaters in the U.S., and the phenomenon had become a fixture of post-war American life.

Then came the oil crisis and high gas prices of the 1970s, followed by smaller cars ill-suited for an entire family to relax in while watching a movie. Soon, cable television and the VCR depressed drive-in attendance even further, and many owners decided that it would be more profitable to sell off the acreage that drive-ins require. Add in streaming services, and the number of drive-ins in the U.S. had hit just 321 in 2018. 

South Carolina reflected those trends, going from more than 70 theaters in the 1950s to just three today, the Plaza 21 in Beaufort, the “Big Mo” in Monetta, and the 25.

Carolyn McCutcheon is a director of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association (UDITOA), a not-for-profit group that works to preserve and promote drive-ins throughout the U.S.

Reviving a Landmark

Carolyn and Tommy McCutcheon, known around Greenwood as Mom and Pop, spent 27 years in the restaurant business before taking over the loving restoration and expansion of the 25 drive-in. 

The drive-in opened in 1945 with one screen and ran for 10 years under the ownership of Olin Turner. Turner passed the reins to Pete Zouras, who installed a state-of-the-art Screen Tower and kept the drive-in going until the mid-1980s. At a time when many drive-in owners were making ends meet by showing X-rated films, Zouras refused to deviate from the family-oriented fare he had shown all along. He chose instead to close his run with a showing of “King Kong.”

Driving by the abandoned theater one day, the McCutcheons noticed some profanity painted on the marquee. After church one Sunday, they stopped to clean up the graffiti. Two weeks later, they noticed that someone had dumped a load of roofing shingles in front of the box office. On the third Sunday, Tommy decided to find out who owned the theater and let them know what was happening to the property. 

The owner turned out to be a woman in her late 80s or early 90s, who knew the McCutcheons from coming into one of their restaurants. Tommy McCutcheon got a crew to load up the roofing material, and the owner gave them a tour, then suggested that they buy the place and reopen it.

That night, Tommy McCutcheon couldn’t sleep thinking about the drive-in, even in its current state, with the buildings filled with debris. They wondered how they would get people to come back to the run-down old theater, but finally decided to take the risk and bring back the drive-in. 

The McCutcheons took over in 2008, and brought the 25 back to life in 2009 after it had been closed for 25 years. 

“When we first reopened, getting the word out was the hard part. Facebook was easiest,” Carolyn says. “Now it’s just word of mouth. We have three or four generations there, with family members from Greenville or Augusta.”

Upgrades and Overhauls

While the nostalgic feel of summer nights and family fun is still the same, almost everything else has changed. One screen became two, then three. “We started with 10 mm film,” says Carolyn, “and went digital in 2014. It was make the change to digital or close, at a cost of $100,000 per screen.” 

“When we went digital, we were worried about the money to switch,” Carolyn says. “We just acknowledged the fact that we couldn’t afford it and would have to close. Then, one day, I heard someone say, ‘If you cook, they will come.’ I thought it was my husband who had said it. Now I know that was the Lord speaking to us. We have been so blessed with our clientele.”

“There was just a little bitty kitchen,” Carolyn says, not appealing to people with so many years in restaurant kitchens. “We brought our restaurant skills,” she says, and revamped the kitchen to make tasty burgers and other sandwiches that now are as much a part of the attraction as the movies. Today, there’s a covered patio with 40 tables, and families arrive early to have time to eat and for the kids to play. 

“The movies never start before 9 p.m. in summer,” Carolyn says, “but people are lined up by 7 to get their favorite spot and a glass of tea or lemonade (and the free refills). It’s like being at the beach, people-watching and kids playing with Frisbees.

And there are no more car window speakers, but three separate radio stations, one for each screen. “We have a sound system that will make your car rock like never before,” Carolyn says.

Carolyn believes that a drive-in, like a restaurant, takes on the personality of the people who manage it. “It’s just so happy here,” she says, with multiple generations of families relaxed and enjoying each other’s company as well as the movies. “And everybody is so clean; they pick up after themselves.” 

“They call us mom and pop,” she says. “ Even in Washington DC, we heard someone calling out to mom and pop. It turned out to be customers.”

A Place to Play

While COVID-19 disrupted so many businesses, the drive-in stayed open. It’s outdoor nature made it a perfect place for families to come for a break from the routine. 

“I had so many parents thank us for giving them the opportunity to bring their family to a wholesome environment,” she says. “Kids could see each other in their cars and know that things were still okay in the world.” With playgrounds closed, the drive-in became a safe space to play. “It was almost like a school trip, with families walking the property, pointing out leaves on different trees, talking about the history of the area or of drive-ins.”

In addition to first-run movies, the drive-in hosted an on-screen concert series with concerts by Metallica, Blake Shelton, and others. “Everyone sang along,” Carolyn says. Open on Fridays and Saturdays all year, with a double feature on every screen, the 25 is also available for birthday parties and other special events.

While streaming services make it easy to watch movies at home, the theater, and the drive-in in particular, still offer an extra dimension. It’s a richer experience to watch with others. “We can hear people cackling all across the lot when it’s a funny movie, or walking to the beat of the music.

“We love it too much to retire. It’s like a dinner party every weekend.“

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