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|Archives of Nolan's Pop Culture Review|
One year ago this month, the projector lights of Jacksonville’s last drive-in movie theater, The Playtime, went dark for the final time. It was a sad passing that left Florida, once one of the most plentiful states for outdoor theaters, down to just six drive-ins. Over the years, the rising cost of land and the availability of other forms of entertainment have forced the drive-ins, which once numbered in the tens of thousands across the country, to near extinction. Fortunately, there are still a few drive-ins, like the Silver Moon in Lakeland, Florida that refuse to let the tradition die – their motto is “Over fifty years and here to stay”.
The city of Lakeland is rich in Southern history with a number of recognized historic sites, although it is probably best known as the spring training home of the Detroit Tigers for over seventy years. On the west end of US Highway 92, amongst industrial buildings and trailer parks, sits a small two screen drive-in theater that looks right at home with its sleepy surroundings. The Silver Moon was opened over sixty years ago in April of 1948. Back then it only had one screen but the basic layout was very similar to what still stands today. It has changed hands several times over the years but the current owner, Harold Spears, has been with the Silver Moon since 1958.
The theater’s main screen is a traditional cinder block design with an office built into the rear side. It had to be rebuilt in 1950 after a tornado damaged it and nearly killed the manager who was inside when it struck. Around this same time, the original snack bar was closed and a new one was built in a more central location. In 1985, the large lot was divided and a second billboard style screen was added opposite the main one.
The Silver Moon is a drive-in that caters to modern theater audiences while still providing a rush for those looking for a nostalgia fix. The films are all first run movies but you can see a double feature for only $4.00 a person, less than half the cost of a regular adult admission to one show at a “hard top” theater these days. The lots are equipped with radio sound but you can still find rows metal speakers wired to poles for the true drive-in purist. The projection system remains the traditional 35mm format but the new xenon arc bulbs from the projectors throw a bright sharp image onto the giant screens.
On the night my wife Cindy and I decided to visit the Silver Moon, two new first run features had just opened on each screen. Both lots were at least two thirds full, indicating an attendance of about 200 cars. We got there early and I wandered around the grounds to get a few photos and appreciate the atmosphere while the sounds of 50’s and 60’s rock tunes filled the lot. As other patrons began to arrive, it became obvious that this drive-in is extremely popular with smokers and dog owners. Many people arrived in pick-up trucks and SUVs which they parked facing away from the screen so they could sit in the rear of the vehicles. Some patrons enjoyed a cigarette in the open air while others walked their dogs up and down the parking rows, often stopping to visit with other pet owners or people they recognized from previous visits to the drive-in.
Walking into the snack bar at the Silver Moon is like entering a museum that happens to serve food. The walls are lined with vintage handbills and advertisements from the theater’s many years in business. On one end of the refreshment counter sits a display case filled with historic artifacts related to film projection including reels, lenses, and instruction manuals. Patrons stopping in for a bucket of popcorn, box of candy, or even a cold draft beer, can’t help leaving with a sense of the theater’s history. This snack bar even sells t-shirts and hats to commemorate the Silver Moon’s sixty years in business.
Following the first feature on our screen, the audience was treated to a medley of classic drive-in intermission films that really made this feel like a trip back in time. It is obvious that the staff of the Silver Moon care about providing their customers with the best experience possible as this is one of the cleanest and well maintained outdoor theaters I have ever visited. Owner Harold Spears says that he has been approached multiple times by real estate developers interested in purchasing the land but he has no desire to close the Silver Moon. Thankfully there are still a few people like him around to protect Florida’s few remaining drive-ins.