Amid the modern movie houses remains a monument to local motion picture history — the South Drive-In.
Central Ohio was once home to 17 drive-in theaters. But with the closings of the Kingman and 40 East a decade ago, the South High has the distinction of being the last drive-in theater in Columbus.
But this isn’t a eulogy.
Even as traditional theaters are struggling to compete with the ease and instant gratification of Netflix and Redbox, big screens are big business again. Audience interest in 3D films has declined in recent years, but ticket sales for large-format features are booming.
Though not exactly an IMAX experience, the South’s super-size screens make those puny multiplexes look like bed sheets and your flat-panel TV look like a postcard.
Tonight’s crowd is as mixed as the cars they drive – a pickup for every Prius, a muscle car for every minivan.
“It’s definitely more family-friendly, as is the price,” said Jason Harddarger of Columbus. He and his wife Carol have been coming here with their children for more than seven years. Adult admissions are comparable at $9, but children 11 and under are only a buck.
There are newbies, as well. Sixteen students from Dublin Coffman’s cross-country team are here to see Guardians of the Galaxy. Some had already seen the film, but none have been to the South before tonight. They said they were willing to caravan past several first-run theaters to see the space epic on a giant scale.
“I grew up in Illinois and went to my first drive-in movie when I was nine,” said Piper Hayward, the 17-year-old senior who organized the outing. “I wanted my friends to see how different the experience really is.”
The South’s gas-powered popcorn popper certainly beats the pre-popped alternatives you find elsewhere. But they also let audiences pack their own snacks. You can even bring your own grill, so long as the coals are cold before the film starts. (Just try bringing hotdogs and a Hibachi to any other theater in town).
Seating options are also up to you. Enjoy the quiet comfort of your car, cozy up under a blanket in the bed of your truck or just break out the lawn chairs. Audio is available from vintage speakers or through your vehicle’s radio. As for rain, refunds are rarely necessary – though there was that one time in 1973 when a tornado actually took out the main screen just as the movie was starting. Now that was 3D.
You also get two films for the price of one. The South has two screens, each showing a different film after sundown and a second movie on each after that.
“They open for sellers at 5 a.m., but I arrive around 3 a.m. every Saturday to get one of the best spots. I think folks come here because they can wheel and deal.”
But the South’s double feature isn’t just the second screening. On weekends and Wednesdays, it transforms into Central Ohio’s largest open-air flea market.
There are the usual suspects: crates of vinyl records, tools and trinkets, dubious DVDs and knock-off purses. But also the unexpected: wooden lobster traps, tube radios, old-school game consoles, golden age comics, and antique furniture.
Several farmers have set up stands near the entrance and holler like carnival barkers. “Cantaloupes, one dollar! Sweet corn, Three dollars a dozen!”
Joseph Ponder has been selling various wares at the South for three years. A former welterweight boxer-turned-writer originally from New York, his wits are still as quick as his jabs once were.
“They open for sellers at 5 a.m., but I arrive around 3 a.m. every Saturday to get one of the best spots,” he confessed. “I think folks come here because they can wheel and deal.”
It’s equal parts kitsch and collectibles, where hipsters and hillbillies mingle and you’re never quite sure if the mustaches and sideburns are ironic or sincere.
After a mile of meandering, I left with a tall stack of 78 records, a flashlight that looks like a Coke bottle, and a sack of tailgate tomatoes — all for less than I pay for a haircut.
If you come looking for something specific, you’ll likely leave disappointed. If you come looking for something interesting, you won’t leave empty-handed. •
South Drive-in and Flea Market is located at 3050 S High St. and is open until mid-November.