Growing up and visiting my grandparents in Blue Ridge, it was part of my summer routine to go to the Swan Drive-In Movie Theater. At the age of 7 in 1982, I watched “E.T.” at the Swan Drive-In. It was likely not the first movie that I watched there, but it is the first movie that I remember.
Over my life, I would make some great movie memories during my summers in Blue Ridge. My first date with my wife, many years later, included a movie and a funnel cake at the Swan Drive-In. It is still open, but many of Georgia’s drive-in-movie theaters have closed in modern times. Sugar Hill had a drive-in called the Buford Drive-In Movie Theater, which was located near where Bellagio Drive is off Cumming Highway today. Just like my own memories of the Swan Drive-In, Sugar Hill residents and visitors who were around between the 1950s and mid-1980s have fond memories of Sugar Hill’s drive-in movie theater.
The drive-in-movie theater concept was mostly an American phenomenon. Indoor movie theaters were commonplace in most cities in the United States prior to World War II, but the post-war boom of automobiles and car ownership created a perfect opportunity for outdoor movie theaters to thrive. Entire families, young and old, could now go see movies together. Parents of the Baby Boomer generation could bring toddlers and young children without disturbing other patrons, and a young couple on a date could enjoy a sense of privacy not available in an indoor movie theater.
The Buford Drive-In opened in the decade after World War II. Its original setup was simple: a screen, a concession building, parking spots and a movie projection building. Each month, a schedule was distributed to the surrounding community to advertise upcoming films. In October 1958, movies like “No Time for Sergeants” starring Andy Griffith showed on the outdoor screen. Movies with a military theme, even comedies, were popular in the 1950s. Other movies playing in Sugar Hill that October included “Paths of Glory” starring Kirk Douglas, “Run Silent, Run Deep” starring Clark Gable, and “Vertigo” starring James Stewart. On Oct. 30 and 31 of that year, a special was offered that included three horror films for the price of one. “Teenage Monster” and “She Demons” were two of the horror movies. The big headliner for 1959 at the Buford Drive-In was “The Ten Commandments,” which starred Charlton Heston. It ran for nearly a week from July 15 until July 19. Adults wanting to see Charlton Heston in his most iconic role were charged 90 cents, or the equivalent of around $9 in 2022. Children younger than 12 were admitted for free. Walt Disney’s “Bambi” was also shown during this month as part of a double feature. Over the decades, the Buford Drive-In would continue to bring great entertainment and American culture to the Sugar Hill community.
In the 1960s and on into the mid-1980s, residents of Sugar Hill and visitors to the Buford Drive-In would experience the classic drive-in-movie theater speaker system that would eventually modernize into a unique station on your radio dial. In these early years, speakers had to be placed in each car. Drivers would first pull into a parking spot next to a pole in the ground. The speakers were located between every two parking spots and attached by wire to the pole. Each speaker was removable and had a clip that allowed the driver or passenger of a car to attach it to their window. The window could be rolled up, which kept the inside of the car warm during the winter or cool during the summer. If you were in a car without air conditioning, you would just leave your car window down to allow some air circulation. On occasion, drivers would forget about the speaker being attached to their car and would pull out of the parking spot causing the wires to break free. Legends are often told that the Buford Drive-In had a box at its exit for patrons to return the speakers that accidentally became disconnected from the poles.
Drive-in movie theaters would remain popular and prevalent until the mid to late-1980s when traditional movie theaters came back into style. The Buford Drive-In closed around the same timeframe. It remained abandoned until 2004, when it was eventually demolished.
Drive-in movie theaters, in the last several years, have made a come-back in some communities like Blue Ridge. Even though the Buford Drive-In is physically gone, the memories of family outings and first dates still exist in the minds of many who watched a movie in Sugar Hill in their automobiles under the stars. Now, residents of Sugar Hill can watch movies at the Eagle Theatre or under the stars in The Bowl.
Brandon Hembree is mayor of Sugar Hill. He is a 20-year resident of the city, and he uses his interest in history to detail Sugar Hill’s rich past.