Atlanta’s Starlight Drive-In Celebrates 70 years

Forget stepping back in time – Atlantans can drive back in time every day of the week at the Starlight.

The nostalgic drive-in theater has been an ITP mainstay long before there was a perimeter to be inside: 2019 marks the 70th year of cinematic magic for the Starlight Drive-In on Moreland Avenue in Atlanta.

“It’s just like any other movie theater,” general manager Ralph Nardoni told Georgia Voice. “It is a first-run venue, which means it’s playing all the current movies as they come out.”

As of press time, “It: Chapter Two,” “Rambo: Last Blood” and “Hustlers” were among the titles playing at the drive-in’s four screens. Moviegoers flock to Starlight in the evenings for their showings between 45 and 90 minutes before showtime; flock to the snack bar for a soda, popcorn and candy bars; then snuggle into their vehicles and tune into the theater’s FM broadcast station. Most tickets are double-headers, meaning the nostalgia even includes the price of admission: kids watch for $1, and ages 9 and up can see two movies for $9.

Randy-Ashley Jackson-Dawkins, an Atlanta resident who identifies as a lady gay and queer lesbian, first learned of the Starlight from her girlfriend – now wife – who planned a date for them there.

“I remember going to drive-ins in the ’80s and it was always so much fun. I love being snuggled up in the car with my love or tailgating with friends and food,” she said. “I love the open air and community feel. … My last time at Starlight was for a friend’s birthday. She brought a grill and tons of food. We ate, laughed, talked to strangers and made memories.”

She recommends the hot dogs at the snack stand.


Days of drive-ins past

New Jersey was home to the first patented drive-in theater, which opened in June 1933. According to a piece by the New York Film Academy, or NYFA, it was created “as a solution for people unable to comfortably fit into smaller movie theater seats,” and was advertised as a place where “the whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.”

By the height of their popularity in the ’50s and ’60s, there were more than 4,000 drive-in theaters in the US.

“They maintained popularity as both a space for families to spend time with each other as well as an affordable date night option,” the NYFA piece states.

As the 1970s and its oil crisis rolled around, however, drive-ins began to lose their appeal: they were weather-dependent; Americans wanted to save money on gas; and the VCR was invented, making the original “Netflix and chill” an appealing way to watch movies at home.

Commercial development was also on the horizon, and many drive-ins were shuttered, sold and demolished to make way for malls or other corporate architecture.

Yet the Starlight, unlike similar theaters in Atlanta, survived. Starlight originally had multiple owners, one of whom was out West involved in several other theaters and flea markets. He kept it after the other owners took a step back.

“The other thing that kept it going was the land value at the Starlight is relatively low, so there were no options for development. It was profitable enough to keep the operations going,” Nardoni said. “An instrumental part was being able to start a flea market there which is a daytime use for the property.”

In its early days, Starlight had a single “massive” screen, per its website, and in 1956 added a second screen and changed its name to the Starlight Twin. Going along with an industry trend of having multiple screens – both at drive-ins and sit-in theaters – in 1983 four screens were added, and daytime use for a regular swap meet began. Today, Starlight has a fully upgraded digital production system so fans “now enjoy double-features with the sharpest, brightest picture and crystal-clear sound broadcast right to their car stereo.”

“When you’re in your vehicle you’re in your own little realm,” Nardoni said. “It’s almost like watching TV except you’re not actually in your own home. It’s a way of getting out and just be very casual.”

Given the choice, Jackson-Dawkins said she’d pick a drive-in “100 percent” over a modern sit-in theater any time.

“There’s nothing like being curled up on an air mattress on the back of a pick-up truck, watching a great movie with friends,” she said.