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Drive-In Renaissance

During the crisis, the Jesup Drive-In gets renewed attention

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JAMIE HICKOX first met her husband Ralph online in 2006. She was a former military spouse living in Hinesville, Ga., and he had resided in Jesup, Ga. since the mid-1980s.

Jamie says she fell in love with that small city of around 10,000 residents in December of that year when Ralph took her to its annual downtown Christmas Parade.

“I had never seen so many people who enjoyed being with each other as much as they enjoyed the parade in front of them,” she recalls. “It was my first exposure to Wayne County’s true ‘superpower’ — their sense of community.”

The two were married in February of 2007, and Jamie says there was “never a question of where we would live out our ‘happily ever after.’” Little did she know that within five years, the couple’s trajectory would take a quite unexpected and decidedly unorthodox turn. One that she credits to her husband’s adventurous nature and entrepreneurial spirit.

“Ralph is one of the most amazing visionaries I have ever met,” she avows. “He sees the big picture every day, where I see the organizational details. I do not know how to take the broken and repurpose it into something amazing. Ralph sees (something) amazing through the rust.”

She’s speaking of the historic Jesup Drive-In movie theater, which originally known as the “Family Drive-In” when it opened in 1948. It’s the oldest Drive-In in the state, and it’s been her family’s business since 2012.

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“Ralph came home one day and said, ‘Guess what we bought,’ and I said, ‘A new car?’ He said, ‘No, the Drive-In!’ A member of the family who’d owned it since the 1970s called him and said, ‘You’re the only one I know who can see what I see here.’ Ralph told me I would love it and that when the lights come on at night it’s just magic. That was my first exposure to the real Ralph. He was right. Our family bought the 10.5 acres and have been dedicated to its success since. He has preserved a state treasure.”

They key to making such an old and beloved slice of roadside Americana viable in the modern age was the incredibly expensive upgrade required to shift away from traditional 35mm film equipment toward digital projection.

That pricey, forced overhaul of the cinema industry proved a daunting task for virtually every independently owned theater in the USA, and wound up shutting down hundreds of smaller or struggling theaters which simply could not afford the cost or quickly raise the funds required to keep current with evolving technology.

That shift kicked into high gear not long after the Hickox family assumed ownership of the landmark, with their situation being even more vexing due to the unusual nature of screening films both outdoors (instead of in the controlled environment of a darkened auditorium, where ambient light and rain or fog are never concerns) and on truly giant screens as far as 200 feet away from the projectors.

“If it wasn’t for our family’s many layers of unrelated businesses which absorbed the cost of the changeover, I don’t know the Jesup Drive-In would have survived,” Jamie admits, adding that Ralph’s dedication to the challenge never wavered. “He ordered the equipment, I hyper-ventilated and we moved on.”

In the eight years she and Ralph have operated the Drive-In, it has become a central part of the lives of their entire family – all of whom have been involved in one way or another with its operations.

“Our youngest child, Wyatt, was three-years-old when we first purchased the theater and doesn’t remember life without it,” says Jamie. “He once asked one of his little playmates what they did at their Drive-In, assuming everyone must have one!”

“Our middle son Trey was the box office guy from 2012 to the end of summer in 2015 when he went to college, and our oldest son Alan says he has made more than 5,000 funnel cakes in the concession stand. Ralph’s daughter Maria has spent many nights under the stars with the grandchildren passing on the love of the Drive-In to another generation. Our parents have worked with us, our siblings, our children and our grandchildren. When the Drive-In is in need, it’s not difficult to find someone to answer the call.”

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While folks travel from all across the region to experience the old-fashioned, family-oriented fun that our area’s two remaining Drive-Ins (including Beaufort, S.C.’s Highway 21 Drive-In, just an hour away from downtown Savannah) continue to offer, Laurie says their largest number of patrons come from the folks who live and work on or near Ft. Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield.

She names the communal, neighborhood feel that Drive-Ins tend to engender as perhaps the main attraction, but also rightly notes the fact that they’re incredibly economical by nature. Whereas most any corporate-owned multiplex charges anywhere from $10 to $13 to see a single film at an evening show, “Folks from Savannah can make a short drive of a little more than an hour on a four-lane to see two first-run movies for $5 per person.”

That’s right. The Jesup Drive-in boasts two screens, each of which routinely shows two different mainstream-oriented double-features starting at dusk (around 8 p.m.) every Thursday through Sunday. All the selections are brand-new releases, and whichever pair of movies you choose to see is just $5 per person, both films included.

At that price, some patrons choose to show up and just see either one of the two films, while plenty stick around for both, making a late night of it. One screen is usually reserved for PG and G-Rated titles that are suitable for young children, while the other caters to older teenagers and adults, and may include R-Rated features.

If you’ve never been to a Drive-In before, it’s a wonderfully unique experience. When folks are not dealing with a health emergency like the current one, the atmosphere can sometimes seem more like a quiet and respectful block party than a night at the theater. “Most bring lawn chairs, or a baseball and gloves, frisbee, football, etc..., and have an hour of fun time before the sun goes down,” explains Jamie. “Then they climb in the car, or into a chair or up on the back of pick-up truck or SUV and watch a movie or two.”

Unlike the tinny, squawky low-fi sound that used to blare out of the old-fashioned metal outdoor speakers in earlier eras, for a couple of decades now, most Drive-Ins have broadcast high-fidelity stereo audio to audience members’ car stereos and portable boomboxes over low-wattage FM radio transmitters.

This means that nowadays if you have a kickin’ car audio system, you can sit inside your car (or, just outside of it with the windows open) and enjoy some pretty spectacular –and earth-shaking– bass to go along with the crystal-clear digital visuals onscreen.

Theatre owner/operator Jamie Hickox and family.
  • Theatre owner/operator Jamie Hickox and family.

Better yet, in the midst of this dispiriting and anxiety-inducing health crisis, Drive-Ins, by virtue of their open-air environment, semi-private layout and inherent social distancing (in that people get to choose exactly who they sit with and how close they are to one another) are the only public theaters which have been allowed to remain open during this time of self-isolation and mandatory quarantines – providing people with a particularly safe and fun way to still get out, see other people (from afar) and enjoy the communal experience of going to the movies without potentially risking their lives.

“Everything old is new again,” Jamie opines.

She and Ralph have even modified their Drive-In’s operating hours and business practices in light of the coronavirus outbreak to make it even easier and more accommodating to customers. The playground is closed, as is the walk-in dining room.

They’re also now staying open seven nights a week instead of just weekends, and allowing folks to order food from their concession stand by phone from their cars and have it delivered right to them, rather than having to come inside.

Don’t care for concession stand food, or feel more comfortable during this health crisis to prepare your own? Just pay an additional $5 fee per car, and they’ll allow you to bring in whatever food or drinks you’d like with you. Think of it as an indoor picnic. How cool is that?

Just make sure your vehicle’s running lights, headlights and tail lights don’t automatically turn on after dark when the engine is running! Most do, and that means they’ll shine on the screen, or shine in the eyes of the folks parked behind you, ruining the show either way.

“New cars have a terrible time getting all their exterior lights off,” Jamie laments. She recommends bringing a couple of thick black trash bags (or perhaps a couple of opaque tarps) and some tape or bungee cords with you to cover all your vehicle’s lights if you can’t manually disable them.

Finally, she and Ralph are asking folks to remain inside their cars instead of in lawn chairs until the ban on public gatherings is lifted. “At this point everyone seems to be so grateful to have a safe place out of their houses to enjoy entertainment that they are happy to comply with this new normal,” she says.

Hopefully, this uncomfortable situation will wind up causing some folks who have either never gone to a Drive-in –or perhaps have not been to one in ages– to try it out.

If so, Jamie says she knows they’ll return.

“Drive-Ins are uniquely American. We don’t have to do much convincing (to earn loyal customers), curiosity brings them and the experience keeps them coming back.”

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