Eden Drive-In offers old-time experience, cheap prices

by Amy Kingsley

Somewhere north of the greater Reidsville city limits, the folks responsible for generating directions for Mapquest must’ve started making stuff up.

That’s what I’ve decided around 7:30 p.m. Tuesday evening when I realize that I am lost. In Eden. For the second time this month.

Fortunately I purchased a map of Rockingham County last time I got lost. I promptly retrieve it from the pile of junk cluttering up my trunk. At the time I bought it, I figured the flimsy accordion sheet would languish in the backseat of my car, a purchase borne of intense frustration. But all of a sudden it’s useful again, this map spread out across the dashboard. My boyfriend Mark and I retrace the lines back to the suddenly elusive Eden Drive-In.

As it turns out, we weren’t far off the track. The computer had sent us straight when we should have jogged right. I turn the car around and within five minutes we’re there.

The sign pointing the way off the main road is a simple affair, black letters on white with an illustrative arrow. I heed its directive and pull the car into a gravel driveway.

Doing so reveals an enormous screen hidden from the road by stands of pine. Neatly etched onto the expansive surface are the words Eden (in cursive) Drive-In (printed). A neat white kiosk displays two posters framed in dual snakes of incandescent light.

The driveway splits into parallel tracks separated by an empty narrow booth. A sign propped against the window informs patrons to pay at the grill, so we trudge up the path past the whitewashed fence and into the verdant spread.

I’m a little giddy because this is my first drive-in experience. Neither of the films on tonight’s double bill are ones I would’ve have been willing to pay full price for at a regular movie theater. But combine two summer blockbusters – Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and Superman Returns – with rock-bottom prices and a heavy dose of novelty and you’ve got me. I park the car and go in to buy the tickets, ten dollars for both of us.

Part of the attraction of a drive-in is the price, which in Eden runs five dollars a person, free for children 11-years-old and younger.

“Where it might cost a family like seventy bucks to go to the regular [movies],” says Kristi Stewart, “here it might cost them twenty.”

Stewart is manning the L-shaped concession stand housed inside an inconspicuous cinder-block structure. Business at the grill is slow. The appliances behind Stewart are shiny and still.

Besides the grill, the building houses a cluttered projection booth and low-power radio station. Owner Tim Robertson broadcasts the movie soundtracks on an FM frequency while the film rolls.

Mark and I are a little early when we settle into a spot around 9 p.m. Several children make the most of the disappearing daylight, clambering around a pirate ship in the playground.

Unlike a regular movie theater, the pre-show protocol at the Eden Drive-In is quiet, almost meditative. No slide shows of local advertisements and movie trivia assault the patrons. Eighties-era anthems and bubblegum pop are nowhere to be heard.

All we can do is watch the sunset and contemplate the surroundings. Eden is situated in land of natural low curves perfectly suited to establishments like drive-ins and amphitheaters. But aside from its natural qualities, the overall cultural atmosphere in Eden rides the fence between quaintly old-fashioned and creepily anachronistic. Mark and I disagree about the town’s heebie-jeebie factor tonight. I’m feeling oddly fond of the place, but he’s a little freaked out by the town’s more Stepford-esque qualities. We turn the conversation to speculation about how many of Eden’s youngsters were conceived here.

As the cars start streaming in, Mark waxes nostalgic about the drive-ins in West Virginia where he watched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, early Friday the 13th movies and Rocky 3.

The merciful quiet of the pre-film drive-in serves a purpose. Any given trip up to the Eden Drive-In promises a veritable marathon of movie watching. Tonight we will be indulging in about five hours of big-screen entertainment. Viewers need a rest before undertaking that much visual stimulation.

Robertson said that the weekend before last featured their longest bill, a triple feature that started after sundown and ended just before sunrise the next morning. It was their most successful weekend yet, with more than 800 paying customers. Almost 30 cars made it through all three movies.

About two-dozen vehicles have gathered on this hot night. Next to us, a group of teenagers have piled into the bed of a pickup truck for the show. As the movie starts, Mark and I break out the contraband: a tube of Pirouline wafer cookies and a bottle of wine. It is high-brow fare for low-brow entertainment.

Pirates of the Caribbean 2 starts and sweeps us from our inland county to the high seas of the Victorian age. Shadowy pines frame the big-screen ocean.

Robertson bought the Eden Drive-In 12 or 13 years ago, by his reckoning. His family already owned the Rockingham Theater in Reidsville when they started sniffing around the drive-in. The lot has housed a drive-in since the 1960s, but hard times in the early 1980s had forced the original owners to abandon the venture.

In addition to his night job running the drive-in, Robertson spends his days installing business telephone systems. He takes a break from a voicemail system he’s working on to talk to me.

Between the films, Robertson plays songs from the early rock ‘n’ roll era, a ploy that intensifies the whole generational throwback vibe.

Robertson himself dresses in the contemporary style, with a goatee, black cutoffs and matching T-shirt. Soon I discover that not even this small town family establishment is immune from the worries of the modern world.

When I ask a woman where the bathroom is, she gestures to a building in the farthest, darkest corner and offers a suggestion.

“You should find someone to go with you.”

I laugh, a little wine drunk, and trudge through the grass and gravel to the bathroom. Up above, hundreds of stars vault across the firmament.

Mark is lying on the roof of the car admiring the constellations when I come back.

“It’s so much cooler out here,” he says.

We’d finished off the wine about halfway through Pirates. I know as we climb back into the car that I’ll be fighting its soporific effects during the next feature.

Then the screen lights up and within minutes, Superman makes his first appearance. His spaceship lands in the cornfield adjacent to the farmhouse where he grew up. The setting on the screen could be Eden.

I glance around as the first cars start to leave and ponder a lesser message of the Superman story. Clark Kent, hero of the world, was born and raised in the country. Bryan Singer’s film doesn’t dwell on it, but depicts the countryside as salubrious. But this rural setting is not working its salubrious effects on me. By the end of the first hour of Superman Returns, I’ve developed a pounding headache.

By the 2:30 a.m. end of the film, my wine buzz has worn off and I’m ready to go home. Greensboro is an hour away; it’s dark and I’m praying we can find our way back.

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