Life in the Triangle

In 1999, my wife Kathy and I moved to The Triangle Area of North Carolina from California. Interesting area, the Triangle. Here are some of our experiences.


Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre, Henderson, NC - "Drive-in Movies" Review

Do you remember the old days when you'd take your sweetheart to the drive-in theater for a few hours of hugging and kissing? Or perhaps your memory of the drive-in is more likely to contain scenes of your children swinging on the swing set under the big screen.

Maybe your history contains a bit of both.

Anyway, today the drive-in theater has pretty much gone the way of the VCR - a distant memory of the bygone days.

Well, if you live in the Triangle region of North Carolina, you still can enjoy one of the last vestiges of what was once a Saturday evening staple in many of our pasts. Kathy and I live in Wake Forest, and the Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre in Henderson, NC, is just a short half hour drive from our front door. Here are our experiences from our first visit to this blast from the past, where we saw the latest Indiana Jones iteration, followed by a summary and details of the theater.

Welcome back to the Drive-in!

As soon as we drove up to the entrance we were thrown back to the days of hot, sticky summer nights when we saw that marquee on street level inviting us in to see no less than two movies for a price that's about what some pay for a single ticket at the megaplexes at your local shopping mall.

The Raleigh Road theater has a down-home atmosphere and a friendly, courteous staff. When we pulled in, we saw one of the ticket takers engaged in conversation with what appeared to be some regular attendees of this establishment.

In the drive-in theater's heyday, you would pull up to the dual speaker pole and hook one of those heavy, grey, crackly, monophonic speakers onto one of your windows. Not any more. The Raleigh Road theater uses state-of-the-art FM broadcasting to bring the movie into your car in as clear and robust stereo sound as your vehicle's sound system is capable of delivering. (However, they will let you borrow a radio if for whatever reason you cannot use one in your car.) You might not get much of an effect watching some weepy chick flick, but listening to Indiana Jones through our six speaker stereo adjusted to my specifications, (loud and bass-heavy,) was a blast and made the experience a much more personal one than that of the indoor theater.

They had signs for separate parking for cars versus taller vehicles such as SUVs and trucks. This helps to prevent today's popular taller vehicles from blocking the view of ordinary sedans and coupes; a point I found myself needing to emphasize to a family in an SUV who pulled into Row #1 in front of us, and who later left after our brief dialog. Of course you also had your usual cars pulling in backwards with lawn chairs set up to face the screen.

The Playground

No drive-in theater would be complete without a playground underneath that great big screen and the Raleigh Road theater was no exception. This arrangement contained swings and a jungle gym style playset with a roofed play area among other things geared towards the younger crowd. The playground was filled to capacity with kids tossing Frisbees and softballs, and there were even kids working a hula hoop and a pogo stick. A couple kids were throwing a football back and forth, and I suspected it was only a matter of time before that ball hit a car. But at the Raleigh Road theater, I imagine the driver of such a victim car would have just smiled and waved at the kids as they rushed to retrieve their errant ball. Of course there were the requisite pair of lovers smooching in a seating area within viewing range of the big screen.

The only thing I missed was that "twirl table," for lack of a better description, I remember from my youth. But other than that, this play area was amazingly reminiscent of the days of going to the drive-in, both as a kid and as a young adult.

The Bazaar

One thing this theater had that I do not remember from other drive-ins is a bazaar. After parking our vehicle we got out and walked towards the concession stand. Before we got there, two boys approached us selling punchballs, soccer balls and wristbands in support of cancer research. They also had tables with a bunch of people selling raffle tickets, shirts, and other items in further support of that worthy cause.

The Concession Stand - Visit One

Our first visit to the concession stand really emphasized that we were going to have a memory of a lifetime of the Raleigh Road theater. Once the line finally got us into the building, we were hit with the hustle and bustle we remember from our youth. They had an amazingly robust selection of food and soft drinks and a cashier with a dead-on memory of what everyone ordered and which patrons were waiting for which food items as the staff busily hurried to get all the orders filled. We ordered a hamburger, a hot dog, drinks, and popcorn. (Gotta have popcorn at the movies, right?)

Before the movie started

While we waited for the latest Indy flick to begin, I decided to take up the theater's website invitation to tour the projection room. There one of the staff members courteously showed me the "works" of the movie presentation system. When I saw the size of the horizontal platters on which the movie reels resided, (about three feet in diameter,) and the yards of film stretching across to and from the projector, I mused about how everything seemed so quaint, specially in these days of full featured films on a single compact disc. I can't imagine running this equipment in such a noisy, hot, and cramped environment.

Outside the projection room some kids had set up lawn chairs to watch the features. Only now, in an updated version of days remembered, this generation of youth listens to the movie through earbuds connected to portable FM radios tuned to the theater's movie station.

A staff member talked to us through a wireless mike to give announcements, such as the one to let us know this Saturday show, (over the Memorial Day weekend,) was the first sellout crowd in the three years they have been managing this theater. All 250 or so vehicle spots were taken.

The Concession Stand - Visit Two

While Kathy continued to enjoy the movie, I found myself making the requisite second visit to the concession stand for our mid-movie snack. It was at this time I noticed there was a second, mobile concession stand present. (Was that there all along, or did they wheel it in to handle the crowds!) Speaking of crowds, there was quite a line at both concession stands, and at both bathrooms.

Once inside the stand, which was still bustling as before, there were barefooted kids waiting to purchase their goodies. Where else but at an old-time drive-in can you let your twelve year old kid safely stand outside at 10:30 at night unattended with no shoes on? I got a drink and some Raisinets for Kathy and for myself an ice cream cone. (For me, no drive-in theater experience would be complete without a Nutty Buddy.) When I departed the stand, I heard a roar of laughter simultaneously emerging from the open windows of dozens of nearby cars over one of Indiana's antics, which brought back another wave of distant memories I thought had long past.


After the first feature ended, the theater showed intermission clips from the old days of drive-in. Think of the vintage scene in Grease of a gyrating hotdog in the background while Danny bemoaned in song his loss of Sandy and you'll know what I mean. They even had the classic one with cartoon characters entering the concession stand and leaving with armloads of goodies while a deep-voiced announcer counted off "Three Minutes Till Showtime," and a great big "3 MIN" displayed, presumably so people who are actually at the concession stand knew how much longer they had.

Intermission is also the time when the whole atmosphere changes at the drive-in. After two hours or so of sitting in your car pretty much undisturbed, now you have splashing across the screen headlights, shadows of walkers in front of the projector, and the perennial no-no laser pen, along with dozens of people walking past your car to get to the stands.

One other event the Raleigh Road theater had that I don't remember from the past was to play games during Intermission. We couldn't see from where our car was located, but they played some sort of game involving frozen t-shirts. The players stated their names and hometowns, (which invariably included Henderson and nearby Youngstown, further emphasizing that most of the patrons are probably locals.) They also announced that this was the sixteenth birthday of a local lad who had chosen the drive-in theater this evening to celebrate with his friends.

The next feature - almost

Kathy and I intended to leave without watching the second feature, but out of curiosity we stayed just to experience the transition. However, that transition got off to a few false starts, as there were some glitches in getting the next film up and running. As I generally enjoy "behind the scenes" moments when I can find them, I sauntered over to the projector room, expecting the door to be closed while they fixed the film. The door was open, and as this theater seems to have an "open door" policy with regards to their projection room, I imagined I'd hang outside and watch, at least till they chased me away. (They never did.) What started off with one guy madly working to refeed the footage turned into five guys, including the manager, all desperately trying to get the machine to cooperate. In the meantime, 16 year old birthday boy and his pals fretted over whether the second feature would be shown. After some reassurance from management, they resumed their 16 year old playful antics.

When it became evident that this was turning into a fiasco, I left to return to the car to prepare for our departure. As I walked to my car, I was reminded of yet another memory from our old days at the theater - cars honking their horns in dismay when there was no picture on the screen. However, I was most amused when I saw two kids sitting in chairs near the projector room. Wanting to be a part of the festivities, they shouted "Beep Beep," while the projection team worked fervently into the night. They giggled when they realized I had heard them.


Kathy and my experiences at Raleigh Road Outdoor Theater really made our Memorial Day Weekend something to remember. The drive-in is located at 3336 Raleigh Road on the left one mile after turning left onto Rte 1 Business exit off Highway 1 in Henderson. It is within a 60 minute commute to most of the Triangle via Hwy 85 or US-1, and within 90 minutes from more remote areas. Trust me, it is worth the trip.

Visit their website at to learn more. And be sure to call their Movieline at (252) 438-6959. If you're lucky, you may get one of their classic announcements that last about three minutes and will surely bring back memories. But don't bring your own food and drink! In order for Raleigh Road Outdoor Theater to keep providing old-time family entertainment for years to come, they depend on you making visits to their concession stand for much of their operating expenses.

If you want to experience once again the charm and pageantry of the drive-in theater, (or want to introduce the thrill to family members unfamiliar with the drive-in,) come to wonderful Henderson, NC and enjoy a blast from the past you and your family will never forget at Raleigh Road Outdoor Theater.


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