The drive-in movie theater was already a vanishing breed, and now there is one less facility on the American landscape with the closing of the Bright Leaf in Mount Airy.
“I’m very, very sad,” owner Jason White said Wednesday as he prepared equipment for sale inside the diner area of the theater on U.S. 52-North which first opened in 1955. A self-professed film buff who also works as a Surry County deputy, White had bought the business in 2007 as a side venture, one that would prove successful.
And ironically, it was not the down economy that caused the lights of the Bright Leaf Drive-In to fade to black, but apparently a real estate/business decision.
Daisy Simmons, a Mount Airy resident who owns the 12-acre site containing the theater, said Wednesday that she decided to sell the property that has been in her family for decades. Simmons’ nephew, the late Don Davis, was a longtime operator of the Bright Leaf Drive-In.
Simmons said she no longer wants to deal with the obligations surrounding ownership of the site. “I’m a little bit older than I used to be,” she explained.
“She offered it to me,” said White, the theater operator, who added that he could not afford what is considered one of the most valuable pieces of commercial real estate in Mount Airy. He said Simmons advised him Wednesday that she was selling the property to Rogers Realty & Auction.
In the meantime, White — who leased the land — said the lease was up this month and that the owner did not wish to renew the agreement. The decision apparently caught White by surprise, as well as customers, who were seen trying to enter the theater last weekend only to find it closed.
“Sorry for any inconvenience this caused anyone,” says an apology posted on the theater’s Web site. “We had no warning ourselves.”
The theater presented its last shows during the weekend of March 12, a double feature including “Shutter Island” and “Up in the Air.”
Its closure will mean no more vehicle loads of families and dating couples who jammed the grounds on weekend nights during the warmer months. Many spread out blankets, sat in lawn chairs in the beds of pickups and otherwise transformed a trip to the Bright Leaf into a kind of tailgating party with the large outdoor screen looming over the proceedings.
“It was a good family atmosphere,” said White, who operated the business along with his wife, Nicole. The Bright Leaf specialized in first-run family movies, comedies and animated films that drew people from miles around, along with a diner offering what were billed as the “best hot dogs on Earth.”
“It’s irreplaceable,” Tourism Director Jessica Icenhour of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce said Wednesday of the Bright Leaf Drive-In.
“I don’t know how many people I’ve talked to — friends and visitors — who drive up from Winston-Salem on a monthly basis to go to the Bright Leaf.”
Icenhour said the drive-in was an important and unique component of Mount Airy’s “nighttime tourism” industry that attracted folks from around the region. In the Bright Leaf’s case, many came here for dinner and movies at the drive-in because there is no such facility in their area.
“There’s only a couple left in the state,” Icenhour said.
On Wednesday, White could recall only a handful of communities in North Carolina which still have drive-in theaters, including Eden, Kings Mountain and Albemarle.
He is holding out a slim hope that someone with the financial means to do so will buy the property and somehow keep the local drive-in theater tradition alive. As for what might eventually occupy the site, “I don’t have a clue.”
Over the past 20 years, the U.S. 52 corridor through Mount Airy has seen an increasing number of shopping center developments.
In the meantime, “We are selling everything,” according to the Bright Leaf Web site, “from the grill equipment, freezers, furniture.” White was to meet Wednesday with a theater operator from Virginia regarding his possible purchase of equipment.
White doesn’t know what he’ll do now with the time he had been devoting to the theater operation. “Playing with my family,” is at the top of the list for White, who has one small child and another on the way.
He said he appreciates all those who patronized the theater. “I’d just like to thank everybody.”
Contact Tom Joyce at email@example.com or at 719-1924.