Movie House of Worship: Atlanta’s Starlight Six Drive-In

By  · Published on October 14th, 2012

photos by “Ferret111” via Flickr

“Movie House of Worship” is a regular feature spotlighting our favorite movie theaters around the world, those that are like temples of cinema catering to the most religious-like film geeks. This week, I’m celebrating a new local favorite of mine, which could probably be substituted with many other lasting drive-ins around the U.S. If you’d like to suggest or submit a place you regularly worship at the altar of cinema, please email our weekend editor.

Name: Starlight Six Drive-In

Location: 2000 Moreland Avenue SE, Atlanta, GA

Opened: 1947, as a single screen; became the Starlight Twin with the addition of a second screen in 1956; final four screens were added in 1983.

No. of screens: 6

Current first run titles: Each screen has two titles, and these can be watched as a two-for-one double feature. This week’s most perfect pairings are Frankenweenie and Paranorman, Argo and The Bourne Legacy, and Hotel Transylvania and Here Comes the Boom. The other three are Looper and Resident Evil: Retribution, Sinister and Dredd, and Taken 2 and End of Watch.

Repertory programming: During special annual events like the Drive Invasion (every Labor Day) and the Rock and Roll Monsterbash (each June), older movies hit the screens. This year’s Drive Invasion program included Blade Runner, Big Trouble in Little China, Blacula and H.O.T.S. This year’s Monsterbash had Planet of the Apes, Return of the Living Dead and a documentary on the making of the 1977 Island of Dr. Moreau.

Special Events: In addition to Drive Invasion and Rock and Roll Monsterbash, each of which is also an outdoor concert event featuring numerous bands in the daylight hours, there are other similar and smaller events held now and again, as well as special holiday celebrations. Last year, there was also an event involving the Footloose remake, since part of the movie was filmed here. And like most drive-in theaters, this one has a flea market during the day on weekends.

Why I worship here: I used to go to the drive-in all the time as a kid. My first movie experience was as an infant during the summer of 1977, when my family went to see Star Wars. So, this kind of cinema is very special to me. Of course, it’s not really a “house” of worship – more like an outdoor temple. I moved to Atlanta earlier this year and was dying to check out the Starlight, because there aren’t any drive-ins in the NYC area, that I know of, and it’s been at least 25–30 years (the local drive-in of my youth, in Milford, CT, was torn down in 1988, but I’m sure by then I hadn’t been there in years). Now that I have an infant son, it’s also a great way to get to the movies with my wife, while he sleeps in the back (and when he wakes and cries, he doesn’t bother anyone if we’ve got the windows open and aren’t right beside another vehicle). Last night, the kid had his first movie experience. Now, for all his life, Looper will be his Star Wars.

Why you should worship here: If you’re in the area, you should at least occasionally patronize the Starlight, if only to keep the place in business. As far as I can tell, it’s not under any threat at the moment, but obviously drive-ins are not as popular as they once were, and this is the only theater of the kind around. Currently drive-ins have kitsch and nostalgic appeal for a lot of us, but that interest could diminish. And next time the Starlight is in financial troubles, it won’t have X-rated features to depend on. I think it has been declared a landmark, though, so I guess it won’t be leveled to make room for Walmart anytime soon. Still, it’s a great time for parents, families, large groups, etc. And it’s a very different sort of religious experience for cinephiles than is the indoor cinema.

Recent screening of note: As I noted, I went last night with the wife and child, and actually it was my first time. We saw Looper but didn’t stay for Resident Evil – partly because we had to put the baby to bed, partly because my wife has no interest in those films like I do. Looper is probably not the best drive-in fare unless you’ve already seen it. As my wife said, this sort of venue is best for dumb action movies and other types that don’t require a lot of attention. But seeing as how being at the drive-in was like time travel for me, Looper was a very appropriate choice for the experience.

Devotion to the concessions: The snack bar has the typical fare and not too pricey, but I imagine it’s passed over a lot given that you can bring your own food and drink onto the premises. Not sneak in, either; it’s officially allowed. I hear they even permit barbecues for daytime tailgaiting (or used to?). We brought a bottle of wine. But I also had to buy a bucket of popcorn, both because it’s my favorite food and because I’m sure it’s another way to keep the place running. Oh, and they have the Atlanta staple King of Pops popsicles, which are amazing and great for summer nights at the drive-in.

Last word: There is a whole new generation (or two even) who haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing a drive-in theater. That’s like not experiencing an American flag or a hamburger. Just as will happen when regular movie theaters start disappearing and the only ones left are like artifacts of an ancient tradition but beloved by nostalgic and retro-minded individuals, this is where the drive-in seems to stand now. But the Starlight didn’t seem that kitschy to me. People just went to enjoy a movie in a way that they like to enjoy it – which included one woman sitting on the back door of her SUV yelling at the characters in Looper during the final act. It’s not like a museum. But if you don’t have one near you or you’ve just never been or haven’t been in a long time, make the time and effort when or if you pass through a place that does have a drive-in. It doesn’t have to be the Starlight in Atlanta. There’s also the Blue Starlite in Austin (which is more consistent with the old movies, I think) and more than 300 others across the country. So, go, recline your seat, put your feet up on the dash and enjoy the show set amidst the starry sky.

Once again, if you’d like to suggest or submit a place you regularly worship at the altar of cinema, please email our weekend editor.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.