Traveling back at Bright Leaf

by Lindsay Craven

The concession stand looks like a time capsule. Pepsi signs from the Eisenhower era, a vintage popcorn maker, a shooting game from the first Terminator movie, autographed photos of Andy Griffith from his years as sherriff of Mayberry, actual reels of film from the days before digital. It smells like buttered popcorn and hot dogs. And there are bubbles that float to the ground, emanating from the office upstairs. This is the Bright Leaf Drive-In in Mount Airy and it takes its customers back in time. As one of six drive-in theaters left in the state, the Bright Leaf has become a tourist draw and still remains as popular today as it did when it opened its gates in 1955. It’s like that scene from Grease without all the singing and dancing. Speaker stands still speckle the parking lot although the theater has changed over to a digital radio broadcast. The whole area is surrounded by trees and tonight there is a cool pre-summer, post-storm breeze blowing. “In about August of 2007 we actually bought the drive-in from the previous owners,” Jason White said. “My wife, Nicole, and I have worked here since April 2005 and one day the owners came to us and said that they wanted to sell it because of some family problems and we took over from there.” The couple wanted to make sure that the property remained a drive-in and to keep it a part of North Carolina history. When they are not working the drive-in they each have day jobs: Jason works for the local sheriffs office and Nicole is a stay-at-home mom to their two-month-old son, Caleb.

The Bright Leaf prides itself on being a family institution as is evident by the laughter of the children running freely throughout the parking lot. You will find at least one kid-friendly feature playing almost every weekend. “We definitely lean towards the family movies,” Jason said. “When we have an R-rated movie we try to not have any nudity period and the language is another major thing that we try to watch out for.” “The families only stay out for one feature anyways because they don’t want to have their kids out until 2 a.m. so we usually play our R-rated features second,” Nicole White said. The Bright Leaf isn’t just for kids and families though. Couples make up a large part of the crowd. One couple arrived well before the rest and were eager to share their memories of the Bright Leaf. Stephanie and Dale Montgomery were out on their first date since Dale’s recent release from the hospital for Legionnaires’ disease, multiple strokes and a heart attack.He has been coming to the Bright Leaf since moving to the area at the age of 12 and has seen the area make some changes since then. “There used to be a playground in front of the screen but that’s gone now,” Dale said. Stephanie notes that they always have to go out to eat before they come to the movie, otherwise she spends all of her time in the concession stand. One of the biggest draws of the concession stand is the drive-in’s famous hot dog. “The weenies are deep fried and we get our chili and slaw from a local meat center not out of a can,” Nicole White said. “We toast and butter the buns and it’s not a fat free hot dog by any means.” The Brightleaf hot dog is a local delicacy, famous even among Martians — if you believe the recorded message on the drive-in’s hot line. But most people come here to experience a type of venue that is not so slowly vanishing from the American landscape. “A lot of people have never been to a drivein,” Nicole White said. “It’s a piece of history and we’re the only one in this area and so I think that’s what draws people in.” The convenience of viewing a movie from your own car also gives benefits that one can’t find in a traditional walk-in theater. “You create your own atmosphere, you control your own air conditioner and you don’t have to worry about getting too hot, too cold or too stuffy,” Nicole White said. Once you have taken in the retro vibe of the surroundings it’s time to settle into your car and enjoy what you paid for. This particular night features Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian and Terminator: Salvation. As the commercials begin you get to experience one more piece of history. The drive-in has left the original commercials for Chilly Dillys, the famous dancing hot dog commercial and original messages from the concession stands.’

For more information about the Bright Leaf call 336-786-5494 for the hotline, 336-244-7390 to ask the owner a question or visit

Mount Airy’s Bright Leaf Drive-In has been in operation since 1955. (photo by Lindsay Craven)