Two large projector screens glowing on a breezy evening, fifty parked cars filled with family, friends and lovers alike and steaming hot, homemade pizza are just a few novelties to look forward to at the Silver Moon Drive-In Theatre here in Lakeland.
The historic movie theatre opened April 14, 1948, and stands as the first, and now only, drive-in located in Lakeland. A close-knit team of five staff members work together with sweat, pride and passion to ensure the customers are happy and the business remains open.
This team includes the imaginative minds of Harold Spears, dedicated theatre owner, Judy Crews, box-office cashier, Charlie Rickman, manager, James Andrews, supervisor of Sun South Theaters, and Brenda Soper, Swap Shop manager.
Spears began as a manager trainee of the Carib Theatre located in Clearwater in 1954, working for Carl Floyd. He worked his way up through promotions, supervising and managing more than 50 theatres.
Spears currently serves as the president and CEO of Sun South Theatres, putting his all into this passion and making sure the drive-in remains an open attraction.
“The owner does not have this place to make money like it’s a corporation,” Andrews said. “He has it as a hobby. As long as it pays for itself, he’s fine. So we don’t have to worry about raising prices so high that people can’t come.”
The drive-in, located on 4100 New Tampa Hwy., can’t be missed after passing a giant birthday cake marking the Publix warehouses. During the day, it is a deserted parking lot of numbered spaces for cars to park during the film.
The parking spaces sit beside gray and yellow speaker poles which accent the two projector screens on opposite sides of the lot. There is a large overhang in the middle of the lot, a truck parked during the day.
Otherwise the lot is simply gray pavement, two large screens looking very lonesome and a few odd red, green and eggshell yellow-colored buildings.
The concession stand is empty, with a mannequin standing alone, snacks and drinks untouched. It seems like a ghost’s parking lot that someone would be afraid of in a horror flick. However, this empty lot has some great history in it when it comes to the films being shown on the projector screens.
“Silver Moon originally opened up as a single screen theatre with 35-millimeter film, and a lot of changes have been made in the way film is ran,” Andrews said. “The biggest recent change that is transitioning right now is digital. Film is being discontinued.”
In 1985, a second screen was added to display another feature and bring in more business. Customers were coming for the nostalgic feeling, the double features being offered and the old-style snack bar.
The snack bar currently contains everything from a hot dog to buttery popcorn, from nachos to cotton candy. To complement these food choices are Pepsi products, water, and cold beers, all for less than the price of a movie ticket at a conventional movie theatre.
Tickets at the Silver Moon cost $4 for adults and $1 for children, a tremendous difference from the average $9.50 matinee. It is a quirky place with its vintage snack bar, neon-lit signs and the theatre’s mannequin, Sylvia.
“It’s a family memory for a lot of [people] that come here,” Rickman said. “When new people find us, it’s a nostalgic thing. If you have kids, the drive-in’s perfect for you. If you go to an indoor theatre and the baby’s crying, you’re trying to watch the movie, we get a lot of those family people.”
With newer technology, projector managers such as Rickman and Andrews are facing easier, smaller ways of distributing the film and they are dealing with software instead of manually changing reels of film. It seems as if a vintage venue has received a modern update with the touch screen projectors digital quality with choices as high quality as IMAX or 3D.
“It was a big deal for us because we were comfortable,” Rickman said. “Once we got [digital] in…after the first week, we absolutely love it now. It’s taken us a lot of time, it’s given us a hundred times better quality and, I mean, we love it now.”
The drive-in is known for showing both first-run and second-run movies, meaning it screens movies released in theatres within the first week, as well as movies that have been out for a longer period of time in theatres such as the Cobb for a few weeks.
Beneath “SILVER MOON” is a list of the movies playing for that night to draw in hungry moviegoers.
Once a car passes through the clearance lane, there are two lanes for the driver to choose a movie. It’s got an old-time feel to it with the movie titles in large letters, one person distributing movie tickets and handing out a flyer with upcoming movies and special events.
Once a person has purchased his or her ticket, he or she can drive through the parking lot to choose a parking space to watch the movie.
Some moviegoers stay within the comfort and warmth of their car, tuning in to station 89.3 FM to hear the audio of the film. Others are more adventurous, sitting atop a pickup truck or the back of their Jeep.
Children giggle and yell while parents try to calm their kids. Seats are adjusted in a reclined position to watch the movie.
The dark blue-black sky shines with stars. The cool, breezy air rewards night owls for sticking it out in the hot sunlight during the day.
Inside the green-roofed building, fresh hot dogs are brewed while buttery popcorn pops and ice cold sodas are sold. Sylvia almost looks proud, showing off the customers the drive-in has attracted for the night.
Due to the attraction of locals and snowbirds, the drive-in tends to be busier during the summertime when kids are out of school. Customers will do anything to beat the heat—even bring a small blow-up pool in the back of a pickup truck to bathe in while enjoying a summer flick, as Andrews recalls.
“We’ve had some pretty crazy things around here,” Andrews said.
Through tough times, Spears’ goal is to keep the drive-in open, and to never give in to selling it because the land seems to be more valuable than the novelty of having such a theatre.
“There have been times when [the owner] puts his own money into keeping the drive-in open,” Rickman said. “As long as Mr. Spears is alive, this place will not close.”
The drive-in holds on strong with its summer family crowd coming for the movies, and its winter snowbird crowd driving in for the Swap Shop.
“Where other drive-ins were part of the corporation and the land became more valuable than the drive-in itself, it wasn’t that the drive-in couldn’t survive,” Andrews adds. “If somebody walks up to you and offers you a big chunk of money for the land, they’ll take it. So that’s the main thing, real estate value is what has killed the drive-in.”
Andrews and Rickman both agree with Spears, believing that this traditional site isn’t worth giving up for other companies to build their corporations upon.
Andrews also notes the dedication of the owner.
“He will come out here and work alongside you if he has to, even if you’re digging a ditch,” Andrews said. “We dug up a tree stump a couple weeks ago, and he was right out there with us. He’s one of the best people to work for. He’s a good man.”
Along with the theatre raking in Lakeland folk during the night and summers, its parking lot is transformed into what is known as the “Swap Shop,” which is popular on Saturdays and Sundays, especially during winter.
Snowbirds come for the shop in the winter, at its busiest time when the drive-in is at its slow season. Friday night triple feature includes a first feature, followed by a second feature, followed by the same first feature of the night.
“Vendors start rolling in just as soon as the credits roll on the movie,” Andrews said. “They start setting up their tables, and at about 5 a.m., the flea market is open and running full force.”
Also known as the flea market, the Swap Shop is open to the public, and vendors set up under the drive-in’s canopy to exchange goods or for customers to purchase items such as clothes, movies and tools.
As Rickman puts it, the market is like a “big yard sale.” Parking and admission is free for customers to enjoy browsing beneath the large overhang in the lot.
With its historical background and true retro feel, the Silver Moon Drive-In is a great find. Families can bring their children without worrying about noise levels, friends can pile up in cars to sit outside and enjoy a rom-com in the breezy night, or couples can come out for a romantic night away from everything else.
The snack bar is quick to satisfy the hunger of moviegoers and cheap enough to satisfy those with small wallets. For weekenders looking for something to do, the Swap Shop is sure to provide some entertaining afternoon shopping.
Overall, Silver Moon is a hidden gem for those wanting to get out and have some fun in the small city of Lakeland.