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When we mention the drive-in movies in a group of people, the stories begin. It seems most people have fond memories of going to the drive-in. They have memories as children, playing in the playground under the big screen and trips to the concession stand before the first cartoon. They recall being in their pajamas in the back seat of the family station wagon and usually falling asleep during the first few minutes of the feature film.
They remember going to the drive-in as a teenager. They remember the dates, although they often forget the date’s name. They recall the steamy windows… say no more.
Mr. M.C. Burnett
A few drive-in theaters remain. Parents tell us about taking their children to see the latest animated feature, and sharing their drive-in memories with the younger generation.
Those who went to the drive-in, back in the day, remember the idiot who forgot to turn off his headlights, honking the horn when the film broke, and mosquito coils. Mostly, they smile and remember how much fun it was to go to the drive-in.
What we seldom hear are the stories of the people who ran those grand outdoor places of entertainment. Recently, we had the good fortune of spending a warm summer afternoon with a man who managed drive-ins in the Charleston area. He and his son shared their memories of working at the Swamp Fox Drive-In located in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.
Bud Burnett had arranged for us to meet and interview his father, Mr. M.C. Burnett. Bud’s wife offered us coffee and fresh baked gingerbread as we settled into our chairs in their home in Goose Creek. Mr. M.C. Burnett, who is 84 years old, greeted us warmly and assured us he didn’t remember much, but would share what he could.
We started by asking the obvious question, “How did you get started in the drive-in business?” M.C. Burnett smiled and began to tell us some wonderful and personal stories.
M.C.: Chuck Gant, who used to live across the street said, “You want to work part-time?” And, I said, “Yep!” I was still in the Navy, but I was getting out so I worked part-time. They trained me to work at the Gateway Drive-In.
When they opened up the Gateway, they didn’t even have sewage lines out there. There was nothing out there. The drive-in was by a marsh. Later, they built a mall and the bank was right behind my screen. I had a two-by-six board across a little stream and I would cross that to take the deposits to the bank.
When I retired from the Navy, I was working at the Shore Patrol Headquarters at 525 East Bay Street. I worked at the Magnolia Drive-In when I retired from the Navy. They wanted to put me over there because they knew I would run it right.
I got a letter from Consolidated Theaters, who ran the drive-ins, saying there was a twenty dollar mistake in my accounts six months earlier. I said, “How can that be? You check them don’t you?” They said, “We don’t check your figures because they’re never wrong.” One time when I was working at the Magnolia, I was making my bank deposit one night and I opened the deposit chute and there was a deposit bag that hadn’t gone down. I wrote down the number on the bag and pushed it on down the chute. Later the bank told me it was the weekend deposits from the Lobsteer Inn restaurant. I guess I could have taken it and retired, but I didn’t. I worked at the Magnolia until the man at the Gateway left and I went to work there.
We charged per person, but once in awhile we charged by the carload. I had a guy try to slip in one night. I was standing up at the box office. You could always tell when someone was slipping in. It was freezing cold. I told this guy who was selling tickets for me, “Go slow, I’m going inside.” This guy parked real quick in the back so I wouldn’t see him. I walked over and stood there a little while and then I tapped on the trunk of the car. I heard the guy inside say, “Hurry up, get me out of here. I’m about to freeze to death.”
I was walking around checking the parking lot one night. We had trash cans mounted on the light poles down low so people getting out of their cars wouldn’t throw their trash on the ground. I heard a noise and I looked down. There was an old possum with his tail wrapped around the pole and the rest of him hanging down in that trash can. He was looking around for something to eat.
Bud: How about the time you got on the front page of the newspaper because those two boys tried to rob you?”
M.C.: I was filling in at the North 52 Drive-In for somebody who was off for the weekend. I was sitting in the box office when these two young fellows with scarves around their heads came in and said, “I want that box over there and I want your wallet.” The mistake he made though was when his partner walked in front of him, I knocked the flying hell out of him. He throwed the money right down and I got their gun and everything. The company I worked for, wrote me a letter. They said, “Give them the money. You’re worth more to us alive than dead.” I wrote them back and said, “I wasn’t worried about your cashbox but I wasn’t giving them my wallet.”
I didn’t take personal calls at work. There was this fellow we will call “Wally” who was the projectionist at the Gateway. His wife was always calling him at work. She was what some folks would describe as a “jealous woman” and she called him almost every hour to check on him. One time she called and I told her Wally couldn’t come to the phone right now because he’s in the projection booth with some blonde headed woman. Well, she was here from Goose Creek to the Gateway in fifteen minutes. She was all over him wanting to know who that blond woman was.
Bud: My mother and her brother ran Ideal Printing Company. They printed book matches with the “Swamp Fox Drive-In” on them and the match books were the actual tickets to get in the drive-in. When I worked in the box office, ticket prices were $5.00 a car load. I think the lowest was $2.50 a car load. It was a far cry from the ticket prices at the Magnolia Drive-In back in the 1950s when it was forty cents a car load.
The building under the screen was the concession stand, a store room and the manager’s office. We kept the letters for the marquee in the store room. There was another room with the popcorn machine and sinks. From there, you walked out of that room and you were behind the counter of the concession stand. You could walk out of the concession stand and you were directly under the screen. The restrooms were on the right and left.
M.C.: I built the box office at the Swamp Fox Drive-In. When Consolidated Theaters took it over, the old box office was in terrible shape. I got a price for bricks to build a new one and called the fellow at Consolidated Theaters. He said, “Go ahead and order them.” So, when the bricks came, I laid them and built the new box office myself. I called the fellow and told him it was finished. He came over and looked all around and asked, “Who built that?” I told him, “I did.” I knew how to do that because I was a boiler technician in the Navy.
Bud: My first job, when I was about twelve years old, was projectionist at the Swamp Fox Drive-In. When I was very young, there was a man at the Magnolia Drive-In who ran the projectors. I’ll never forget him as long as I live. His name was Mr. Leapheart. They called him the little man with the big heart. He taught me how to do the change-overs of the projectors. The movies came in twenty-minute reels. You had one projector set up and watched for the cue marks on the screen so you knew when to switch projectors.
When the film came in I had to inspect it and fill out an inspection report. If you got a torn up film and sent it back without reporting it, the company would bill you for the film. You had to check each reel to make sure it was in the right order. If you didn’t you might show the reels in the wrong order.
M.C.: Did I tell you about the old oak tree? It was at the Swamp Fox Drive-In. It was a huge oak tree that hung over the back two or three ranks. Seven or eight cars could park under it. Some young people would come early so they could park under that oak tree. The moonlight behind it was beautiful. They loved to park under that oak tree and watch the movie.
We had speakers at first. Then, later, you could pick up the sound on the radio.
Bud: The speaker posts were set in concrete tear drops. Sometimes people would back over the posts and we would have to replace them. Sometimes we had to replace the speakers. The speakers were made of aluminum and they were attached to the posts with a steel cable. One of my jobs was to replace bad speakers. I’d throw six or eight of those speakers over my shoulder and drop them on the first row and work my way to the back. I had to be really careful because wasps and hornets would build nests inside the speaker. When I unscrewed one of those speakers and lifted the top off, I held it away because, if there were wasps inside, they would fly out of there and eat you alive.
M.C.: Sometimes the police would drive in and sit for awhile and watch the movie. I liked that because if you needed a law enforcement officer you could just announce, “If there’s a policeman here, would you come to the concession stand?” We used to issue them passes but we got a new police chief and he wouldn’t allow it.
Bud: John Holly’s dog was a Great Dane and he lived in an old car next to the Swamp Fox Drive-In. His name was JD which stood for “Junkyard Dog” and he was a big dog. He looked like Marmaduke from the cartoons. He wouldn’t bother anybody. Every night at the theater, he would go to the first car on the first row and sit right outside their window and just beg. He would just stare until they threw him a piece of popcorn or some pizza. Then, he would go to the next car in line and do it all over again. Sometimes he would wait outside the concession stand.
M.C.: One night, JD came up to the box office. He was carrying a six-pack of beer in his mouth. He just dropped that six-pack of Budweiser at the box office. I just said, “Good dog!”
The films were booked out of Charlotte, North Carolina. They would call and give us choices of films. Then they would give us the rental cost. That’s why the drive-ins went out of business. The cost went up. A film cost $700 or $800 a night. When you were paying out $700 and you were only taking in $200, it doesn’t take long to figure out the math doesn’t work.
When the drive-in closed we weren’t making any money. Sometimes the electric bill was more that what we made on ticket sales. As the leases ran out, the drive-ins just closed down.
Mr. M.C. Burnett was a gift. Having him and his son share their memories
of the drive-ins gave us a new appreciation of them. We had heard so
many happy stories from people who remembered going to the drive-in.
We are grateful to Bud Burnett for arranging the interview with his
father. I think the best thing we learned from them was how much fun
they had running a drive-in.
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