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INTERVIEW: Starlight Drive-In manager Jim Stacey prepares for theater’s Drive-Invasion and 60th anniversary party

Cars lined up to get into the drive-in theater in 2000. AJC file photo

When I turn 60, I want a party something like Starlight Six Drive-in’s birthday bash: live music, B-movies, tons of food, all kinds of relaxed, fun people having a relaxed, fun time.

Sunday’s Drive-Invasion — Starlight Six’s 10th such celebration — will have all that, plus the knowledge that everyone can use the Labor Day holiday to recover.

I talked with Jim Stacey, the drive-in’s general manager, to get a sense of where the movie lot has been, where it’s headed and how it has survived so long. Stacey saw movies there as a kid, loved coming back as an adult and has worked there for 10 years now. These days, he does everything you expect a theater manager to do, plus lawn care.

Want to go? Starlight Six Drive-Invasion, 11 a.m. Sept. 6 at the drive-in, 2000 Moreland Ave., Atlanta. $28, children ages 9 and younger are $5. 404-627-5786, www.starlightdrivein.com. Ticket info.

Sneaking a kiss during "Girl Happy" at the Starlight in 2000. AJC file photo

What goes into managing a drive-in? What are your responsibilities?
Uh, everything. The job is so all-inclusive, I live here. I actually live on the lot. It’s a 40-acre piece of land. It’s like having a farm. There’s always something going on. It’s not different than having a farm right in the middle of the city. The drive-in looks a lot like a park — we have a lot of arborist upkeep.

The drive-in is turning 60 —will there be birthday cake?
No, everybody brings out so much food, people have been cooking all week to show off their best barbecue. You can just walk around and graze. It’ll be astounding.

What are you doing to celebrate?
The drive-in turned 60 back in April, on April 2. We showed movies. We did what we always do. That’s celebration enough. This place stays open against all odds. It’s perfect for me, because I’m that kind of guy. I want anachronism to win. We’re an independent, so that’s important to me as well, the independent spirit of the drive-in — the people who came, the family outings it represents, the history, all these things Atlanta seems to lose sometimes. I’m a native Atlantan, so I’ve seen many things just disappear and nobody blinked an eye.

Long-time manager Ron Bacon and his wife Marilyn, a box office cashier, posed in front of the Starlight sign in 1988. Showing then: "The Blob","Coming to America" and "Roger Rabbit." AJC file photo

We seem to write stories about the death of the drive-in every five years or so.
That’s the prevailing thing, not just the AJC — it’s industry-wide. But there are new drive-ins opening as we speak. We’ve got families opening them, the Tiger Drive-in in North Georgia. It’s a little one, a grass lot that her mom and dad ran in the 1970s that she re-opened. We’re seeing things like that.

What’s your busiest season?
The best time to come is spring or summer. Weather’s nice and the kids are out of school — that’s when we’re crazy busy. Once it starts to get a little chilly, we’ll drop off some. We’ll have certain times in winter when we’re busy — people love to come see movies on Christmas night. We do go down to three screens in the high of winter.

So how is business?
We had a rough year last year. Gas prices didn’t help. This year, we’ve had the best in three years. I think it just comes down to being a damn good deal, good foo, good facilities, good people. We love the drive-in and it shows. We have an incredible pool of supporters. It’s different on the West Coast [where Starlight owns several drive-ins] — they’re more into the flea market investment. We have a great, strong, classic-movie, B-movie, horror-movie, hard-core drive-in support. People are rabid here.

Who are these drive-in fans?
The drive-in is classic, classic, classic melting pot. Every type of person comes through these gates. I’ll have a $50 hoopdie next to a Lamborghini. It’s not joke. As long as you don’t bother your neighbor, drop your hot coals in my woods, you can watch what you wanna watch. You’re free to be who you are.

How has the theater changed over time?
Very little. The only thing that really change is we’ve added some screens and they took out the swing sets and playground as America became more litigious. It hearkens back to a time in America a little more independent. You can pay seven bucks to see two movies, get a 30-ounce popcorn for $4. I don’t know anywhere else you can do that.

What are your favorite drive-in movies?
Hands down, B-monster movies. That’s what a the drive-in is to me. Horror movies, “Godzilla”, “Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” But our normal operations are all first-run. The classic features are special events. There’s a whole genre from when they thought it was down-and-out, low-class entertainment, and there were artists who decided it was a perfect place. They created a whole genre of entertainment that had a never existed before. Incredibly American, incredibly independent, incredibly fulfilling.

Starlight Drive-in, 1958. Photo from Georgia State University Library's Pullen Collection.

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