I parked my SUV backwards because that’s just what you do here. Raised the rear gate, climbed into the back, and sorted the pillows and blankets. I turned on an old portable radio and dialed through the crackling frequencies. The movie was just about to start, and I was supremely comfortable at this drive-in movie theater.
When the first drive-in movie theater opened in American in 1933, it ushered in a new era of watching movies on the big screen. The idea of sitting in your car, hanging speakers on the windows, and watching a movie under the stars caught on quickly. Decades later, drive-in theaters have a fanbase as dedicated as any fan of a cult classic film they frequently play.
At the peak of the drive-in theater era, there were nearly 80 drive-ins across South Carolina. But by the 1990s, popularity started waning. And then the film industry dropped the hammer on drive-in theaters. Films would no longer be distributed on 35mm film but instead digital hard drives that required an entirely new and rather expensive projector to play.
Today, drive-in theaters are a nostalgic attraction few owners can afford, but few visitors can deny enjoying. The speakers hung on windows are long since gone, replaced with FM transmitters. Black specks on the screens and clacking film projectors have been replaced with crisp and silent digital projectors. But the experience of sitting in your car, sprawled across the back of an SUV, or lounging in chairs beneath the stars is irreplaceable.
On my road trip adventures, I visit drive-in theaters are frequently as possible. Most only operate on weekends, so I have a few chances. In South Carolina, I made it a point to visit all three remaining drive-ins. I found something to love about each one, and each one made for an incredible night.
Highway 25 Auto Drive-In
Located just outside Greenwood, the Highway 25 Drive-In showed its first film in 1945. Since then, the drive-in theater has gone through several owners, including a 30-year hiatus, and now resides with locals Tommy and Carolyn McCutcheon.
The McCutcheons were restauranteurs when they spontaneously decided to buy the dilapidated drive-in. One of the first renovations on the property was the addition of a covered patio to enjoy the food. Next, they expanded the kitchen and menu, drawing on their experience as restaurant owners to create one of the best foodie experiences at a drive-in theater in the country.
Locals will advise you to arrive early at the Highway 25 Auto Drive-In because of that food. The owners buy their meat direct from a source in nearby Columbia, and the fresh, never frozen beef is hand patted into delicious burgers. Go modest with a couple of hot dogs and fries with $7 or go all out with a double cheeseburger and fries for just $14.
The Highway 25 Auto Drive-In began with just one screen, but under the McCutcheons has grown to three. Each screen has a state-of-the-art digital projector for showing new movies, but typically one screen is reserved for classic films.
3109 Highway 25 South, Greenwood, SC | 864-942-9871 | 25drivein.com | Admission is $10 for anyone age 12+, $5 for Children age 3-11, and Free for Children under 3
Where to Stay in Greenwood
My top recommendation for lodging in Greenwood is the Inn on the Square. The affordable boutique hotel is located on Main Street within walking distance of shopping and dining. The comfortable rooms are complimented with a fantastic free breakfast. The hotel is about fifteen minutes from the drive-in theater.
The age of hanging speakers on your car windows for crackling audio is long since over. Most drive-in theaters today require the visitors to tune to a specific FM frequency to listen to a movie.
You could listen to the movie with your car’s radio, but what if you wanted to sit in the back or outside? At the Highway 25 Auto Drive-In, you can rent portable radios. They come with fully charged batteries and free replacements if they die during the movie. You can rent the radios at the restaurant.
The tiny community of Monetta sits in the heart of South Carolina’s peach country. Take a one-hour scenic drive along U.S. Highway 1 from Columbia, and you’re likely to pass more than a few peach orchards along the way. The Monetta Drive-In, locally called The Big Mo, is carved into a wooded area off Highway 1.
Pulling on the local staple crop, the projector room at the main screen looks like a giant peach. You won’t be able to miss the iconic peach at the drive-in, and that’s precisely why the owner built it.
Located about halfway between Columbia and Augusta, Georgia, the drive-in theater is the most remote in the state, although it is just ten minutes from Interstate 20. With three screens, all equipped with state-of-the-art digital projectors, the drive-in shows a mix of first-run films and cult classics.
Double features play on all three screens on weekends throughout the spring and summer. The concession stand is the simplest of the drive-ins in South Carolina with offerings of hot dogs, pizza by the slice, and popcorn each for under $5.
5822 Columbia Highway North, Monetta, SC | 803-685-7949 | thebigmo.com | Admission is $9 for everyone over age 12, $5 for Children age 4-11, and Free for Children under 4
Highway 21 Drive-In
In Beaufort, the Highway 21 Drive-In is tucked into a wooded area just off the major highway connecting Beaufort and the Sea Islands with the rest of the state. The towering oak trees create a natural barrier around the secluded drive-in, and the only outside noises come from military planes occasionally landing at MCAS Beaufort.
Joe Barth purchased the rundown drive-in in 2004 with plans to renovate, expand, and turn the thirty-year-old movie theater into a destination. He succeeded. Just as surely as Friday nights in Texas mean high school football, in Beaufort it means time to pull into your favorite space at the Highway 21 Drive-In.
One of the first changes Barth made to the drive-in was the addition of a second screen. The smaller screen is tucked into a corner of the property and typically shows classic. With state-of-the-art digital projectors at both screens, Barth can offer the latest films or the best classics.
The concessions at Highway 21 Drive-In rival that of roadside grills. You can go as simple as a corndog, hotdog, or nachos for around $5. For just a few dollars more, you can enjoy a cheeseburger meal made with angus beef. Food is cooked to order and usually ready to go within fifteen minutes.
55 Parker Drive, Beaufort, SC | 843-846-4021 | hwy21drivein.com | Admission is $7 for Adults, $3 for Children age 5-12, Free for Children under 5, and $6 for Military and Seniors
Where to Stay in Beaufort
One of my favorite places I’ve ever stayed in was the comfortable Beaufort Inn boutique hotel. The hotel has dozens of rooms spread out across several gorgeous, historic homes and cottages. My favorite room had a second-floor balcony overlooking a private courtyard. The hotel is within walking to downtown shopping and dining, and it’s about fifteen minutes from the drive-in.
What I Loved About Each Drive-In Theater
Usually, I would pick a favorite. That’s what I do when I write about coffee shops and restaurants. It was difficult even to begin thinking of a favorite when the list only started with three options, but that’s not what stopped me from choosing just one.
I loved all the drive-in theaters for a different reason. Each had a unique draw that I felt made the evening so memorable. Here is what I loved about each drive-in theater in South Carolina.
At the Highway 25 Auto Drive-In,the locals gave me the best tip of all: arrive early for the food. Owners Tommy and Carolyn McCutcheon serve excellent restaurant-quality food for their visitors. Rather than rely on frozen meats from food delivery, the McCutcheons travel to nearby Columbia to pick fresh meats from a local source.
Although the Monetta Drive-In was the most remote drive-in theater, I also found it to be the most peaceful. Throughout the entire double feature, I never heard traffic from a nearby highway, planes flying overhead, or even so much as a barking dog. It reminded me of summer nights growing up in the country lying in the front yard and counting stars.
I’ve only been to the Highway 21 Drive-In once, but what I loved the most about the movie theater was the family-friendly atmosphere. A father and son tossed a football around a grassy area at the far rear of the property, and children climbed all over the playground equipment. When the movie screen came to life, a collective, “Shhh!” echoed between the trees from the children eager to begin the night.
10 Rules for Drive-In Theaters
Drive-in theaters are pretty relaxed. Hand over some cash at the entrance, and you’re mostly left to yourself the rest of the evening. But there’s always that one person who has either never been to a drive-in or disregards the comfort of others.
Here are a few rules to make your evening at a drive-in the best it can be for you and everyone else around you:
- Once the movie starts, keep the headlights off. If you have automatic headlights, a common feature in new cars, dive into that owner’s manual you never read to figure out how to disable them during the show.
- If the drive-in theater you visit has more than one screen, pick one and stay there.
- As a general rule, if your vehicle is taller than you, park in the rear. Also, if you have a minivan or SUV and you park backwards to raise the liftgate, tie it down so it doesn’t open fully.
- Do not sneak food or drinks into the drive-in. These mom-and-pop owned theaters frequently have a concession stand at the very least, and sometimes a full-fledged grill. They make most of their money by selling food and drinks.
- The only thing that should be playing from your radio during the movie is the radio frequency for the movie.
- Outdoor games and the playgrounds are only for use before the first movie begins.
- Place all outdoor chairs between your vehicle and the movie screen. Don’t block the driving lane for traffic or people.
- Drive-in theaters are a family affair. Leave the alcohol and bad language at home. They will be waiting for you when you get back.
- Don’t idle your car engine during the movie. Your car’s battery should be able to run the radio for a two-hour movie. If you’re afraid of draining the battery, consider bringing a portable radio to use instead.
- Don’t use the wireless key fob to lock your vehicle. Most vehicles will beep the horn and flash the headlights when locking the doors remotely. Instead, just use the door lock controls inside the driver door.