Artist, CBS focusing on drive-in

Friday, August 7, 2009
Gary Douglas, owner/operator of the Hi-way 50 Drive-In Theater, looks off in the distance while Mary Whyte (in purple) is interviewed by Martha Teichner at the Hi-way 50 Drive-In Theater just before sunset.

Hi-way 50 Drive-In Theater employees watched the gate as a light rain fell Saturday night when a film crew from the CBS Sunday Morning News program interviewed an artist about her project on jobs that are going away.

"Mary Whyte is doing a series of art pictures of jobs that are going away, like drive-ins," Wendy Ridley said from behind the concession counter at the drive-in theater on Fayetteville Highway while "Big Daddy" Gary Douglas, the drive-in's owner, was being interviewed in the projection room.

Ultimately, the show went on because enough people drove in to see the latest Harry Potter movie but, for a while, there was a question nobody asked, as if doing so would jinx the show. Douglas acknowledged the rental of video taped movies took a toll on the drive-in's previous owner, Gary Davis, but Douglas said people still want to go out and his place offers something that's becoming rare.

The CBS crew is retelling Whyte's story and decided to shoot some of it at the drive-in here because "It sounded like it would be pictorially interesting," according to network reporter Martha Teichner.

Saturday night's weather, watched so closely by theater staff to know if they'd be working that night, was "not exactly" part of the broadcast report, Teichner said. "Obviously, it affects the number of people coming to the movie. It's a fact, not a factor."

Whyte's medium is watercolor paintings and photos. She lives on a barrier island off the South Carolina coast near Charleston where she has an office and art gallery with her husband. Recently, she's been staying in a Lewisburg motel and was completing her sketches of the Hi-way 50 Drive-In Theater.

So, the story she plans to illustrate is about a vanishing lifestyle.

Hi-way 50 Drive-In employee Linda Self of Belfast went to a drive-in theater when she was a child in Alabama where there was a playground with a swing set in front of the movie screen, she said.

Here, customers have brought Frisbees, balls and other toys to play with before the show starts, Self says.

"If you go to an inside movie, everybody's got to be quiet," Self said, noting that's not true at a drive-in theater because customers see it in their own cars.

"There are so many things we're losing to modernization," she said.

Among many other images, Whyte said she's making pictures of a tobacco farmer and a shoeshine man.

Since he was five years old, the shoeshine man has been working near the lobby of a major hotel in New Orleans where he says his work is declining, Whyte said. The shoeshine man told her it's because people throw their shoes away, rather than have them shined.

"And people wear more tennis shoes," she reported.

"Everybody that I know remembers a drive-in theater in their hometown," Whyte said with an hint that the fate of the shoeshine man could befall a drive-in theater.

Douglas says, "It's amazing to me that there are people in this town who don't know it [his business] is here."

Whyte said, "If I can come all the way from an island off the coast of Charleston, S.C., they can go to the drive-in,".

Douglas says people from other cities and towns in the area come to Lewisburg because of his theater. They include residents of Nashville.

And it seems to be true. Heidi Feek, a waitress at Marcy Jo's Mealhouse in Pottsville, just west of Marshall County near two rock quarries, says she lives near Music Row. She and her Nashville friends come here when they want to see a movie in a drive-in theater. Feek was unaware of the drive-in at Estill Springs, Franklin County, between Winchester and Tullahoma.

Whyte found the Hi-way 50 Drive-In by searching the Internet. It was how she found other places for her book. The book's tentative title is "Working South." That may change, Whyte said. It might also be the title of her display of watercolor paintings during a tour of galleries. One might be in Nashville. The book is to be issued about the same time as the art tour. It could be in February 2011.

Andy Merlis, a CBS News producer for Sunday Morning, says, "I have no idea" when Martha Teichner's story on Whyte's project will be aired.

Whyte painted a beekeeper in Simpsonville, S.C. It's not so much of an occupation, Merlis said. It's more of a way of life.

Teichner said she came to know Whyte because she moved into the house across the street from the house Teichner's had on Seabrook Island.

The driving instructor at Teichner's school used the drive-in movie theater's lot as a safe place to let student drivers get used to the way cars are operated, she said. It's just another role that drive-ins have played in American life.

"If they don't already know it," Whyte said of Marshall County residents and the Hi-way 50 Drive-In Theater, "they should know that this is a generation of American history, right here."

She's documenting that and CBS is reporting on that record of what may well be a passing lifestyle.

It could happen, although while the Hi-Way 50 Drive-In shows one movie at a time, the drive-in at Estill Springs has three screens and each carload gets to watch a double feature.

As for the rain Saturday night, one Lewisburg firefighter said people just turn on the windshield wipers.

If the windshield fogs up, there's always the defroster, but then again, some couples don't care.