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Show Time: When the Sun Goes Down

July 27, 2010

©2010 Robin Nelson

Henegar, AL — It was all Lanita’s idea, really.

“I grew up going to drive-ins with my momma and daddy, there were two or three of them where we lived in Gadsden,” recalls Lanita Price, who runs the Henagar Drive-in with her husband Stoney along a rural stretch of two-lane east of town. Decades ago, Alabama had dozens of drive-in theaters across the state. Now there are less than 400 across the U.S.

Stoney grew up not far from Henagar and had never been to a drive-in theater until his wife took him to one in Chattanooga, TN, about an hour away.  A few years later when Lanita brought up the idea of opening  their own, Stoney agreed.  An electrician by day, he bought an old 15-acre farm to build their dream. They also bought a house across the road to live in. They both work every night in the summer and every weekend the rest of the year, regardless of the weather.  She runs the concession stand, with help from several other ladies. He runs the projector. Weekends are usually double features. Every so often the lot will be totally filled, mostly with teens, when movies like this year’s “Twlight” was shown at midnight. “The kids that didn’t get in just sat on the grassy hill across the road. They could see it and hear it just fine, and walk over to go to the concession stand or the restrooms,” recalls Lanita. There were dozens of teens that came back a second and a third time that week, she said. “It was really wild when we had that running.”

“There’s not much to do in Henagar, we’re in a town of 5,500. There’s another four smaller towns around us, but not much in the way of entertainment,” she said. The nearest ‘walk-in’ theater is in Ft. Payne, about an hour away.

“Everyone here was all for us building it. We run movies every night during the summer. It keeps the kids up here on the mountain,” Lanita explained, speaking of Sand Mountain, which lies along the northwestern edge of the state. “Keeps ’em from going down into Scottsboro or Chattanooga, places where they could get into a lot of trouble.”

Henegar is almost a town that time passed by, a place that’s close to the way life once was. Folks here  know each other, or at least their families. Or they have friends who know the others.

Driving into the theater’s 250-car field puts one in front of Sally Holton, a jovial woman who  has been selling admission tickets since the place opened 11 years ago. $5 per person with a maximum of $15 per carload. Some cars, pickups  or vans have four, five, six or more riders eager for the night’s feature. Sally likely knows every ‘regular’ customer’s name that drives past her booth to give her their hard-earned cash. Not much profit on the movie, but the business does pretty well on the concession sales, as most customers come here for dinner as well as the movie. Especially the cheese fries. Or the patty melts. Or the hot dogs, loaded, and made with small-town care.

Sally Holton: selling admission and asking about the family

“We’re all pretty much like family here,” says Sally. “Folks around here don’t have a lot of money, but we’re affordable for a date night.” Sally typically asks everyone coming in how they’re doing and how their relatives are doing. The news isn’t always good. Sometimes the conversation lingers a bit longer than the transaction and the line backs up a bit.  That’s when  Stoney or Lanita might need to walk over to the ticket booth and get things moving. But no one’s offended. It is family, after all.

Stoney and Lanita Price: Showing Their Dream Nightly

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