One couple's prescription for rejuvenating an aging drive-in theater: sell guns. That's right, guns.
Neon lights flicker on the rusting screen tower. A minivan crawls down the gravel path and over the gas-station hose, whose clank-clank alerts Bob Groves that there's another carload waiting to see Harry Potter. After collecting the admission, Groves heads past the concession stand with its jars of pickled eggs and kosher dills to help a woman waiting with her husband and daughter.
"Do you have one that's smaller?" the woman asks. "I just want something I can put in my pocketbook." Groves brings a black case from his office, opens it, and takes out a .32 Beretta Tomcat. "Your best bet is to try 'em out," he says, advising the woman to return during daylight hours to test a few models at the North Carolina drive-in's private shooting range.
Welcome to the Starlite Drive-In, Durham's version of the gun-and-reel shop.
Since the 1970s, drive-ins -- particularly single-screeners like the Starlite -- have fallen prey to urban sprawl, skyrocketing land values, multiplexes with stadium seating, and VCRs. North Carolina once had 200 drive-ins; 9 survive. Built in the late 1930s, the Starlite is the Research Triangle's last ozoner.
THE LAST PICTURE SHOW: Research Triangle's lone drive-in survives by selling guns alongside the Gummi Bears.
Credit Groves and longtime girlfriend Kathy Bednarz with the entrepreneurial smarts for keeping the Starlite running as a year-round business. The pair took over the 11-acre theater in 1987 but struggled to keep box-office receipts apace with expenses, especially in the winter. Over the years, the two schemed up the gun shop -- essentially two display cases of firearms, ammo, and accessories -- and a 1,300-title video-rental store. The side businesses share space with the box office, projection booth, and concession stand in a squat cinder-block building. In an odd synergy, each draws customers to the others. (The couple also rent flea-market space to vendors on weekends, following a tradition begun by the theater's previous owners.)
There's something appealingly loosey-goosey about the Starlite. Halloween 4 rests next to The Sound of Music on a video shelf. Two teens scanning titles pause to pet Blackie, the theater's amiable German shepherd/security guard. Outside, in a weekly ritual, an elderly couple buss in the back of the theater lot during the first show, then move to the front to watch the second show.
Groves, 51, has been a drive-in devotee since age 13, when he filled potholes at a Maryland theater. "It gets in your blood," he says. "Like a circus." He starts the Starlite's 1930s-era Century projector, a 9mm Beretta tucked into his holster, and watches the machine's light cleave the darkness.