The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Sunday Profile

September 8, 2013

Meadow Bridge Drive-In welcomes the whole family

MEADOW BRIDGE — It’s show night, and the phone in the concession stand of the Meadow Bridge Drive-In Theater is ringing off the hook with pizza orders and questions. The gates haven’t even officially opened yet and trucks are already parked outside, waiting to roll in and get a prime spot on the lawn.

In tiny Meadow Bridge, where the only gas station in town closes at 9 p.m., the drive-in is the sole source of entertainment, community, and food on summertime weekend nights. The popular and beloved institution is a business, but it’s also a community gathering place.

“The kids in Meadow Bridge don’t have anything else to do. They beg us not to close in the fall,” says owner Howard McClanahan.

Some nights cars are lined up on Route 20 clear to Lochbridge Road, an unlikely place for a traffic jam in rural Fayette and Summers counties.

One regular brings a love seat in the back of his truck. The youngsters hang out in “teenage corner.” And Ronnie and Carolyn Garten bring their three dogs — dressed in sundresses and licking an ice cream cone — to share the fun.

“It’s like a picnic at night. And it’s a tradition,” says McClanahan.

“It’s family time, something different for all of us to enjoy,” says Stephanie Stover, who drove almost two hours from Clear Creek with her husband and three children to watch a Saturday night double feature that included the animated film “The Smurfs.”

The theater shows a lot of family films these days. But in the summertime of 1976, the movie selection was a little more diverse.

Then, naughtier flicks like “Delinquent Schoolgirls” and “All the Young Wives and How They Love” played alongside Disney’s “Peter Pan” and “Taxi Driver.”

Meadow Bridge Drive-In was built in 1953 by Ned Garten of Meadow Creek. Afterward, the Thomas Theaters company ran it. Then one of the shareholders purchased the location outright.

Word on the street was that the theater was going to turn X-rated because its screen faced away from the road. That’s when McClanahan stepped in and decided to make an offer.

He was no stranger to the business. Besides enjoying movies there as a kid, he had also worked there off and on since he was young. He ran the projector and his mom worked in the concession stand. When he came back from the Army, he built a house for his family right across the street from the theater.

While managing the theater with his wife, he also worked several other jobs until his retirement in 2001. Now the theater is his main work.

Work at the drive-in has always been a family affair. As a teen, McClanahan’s daughter, Melinda Burdette, swept up popcorn, sold tickets, and made pizzas as her friends watched movies outside. Her mother, Lucy, works there too, as did her grandmother. Now, her son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law are starting to learn the ropes.

McClanahan has had several offers on the theater over the years, but he prefers to keep it in the family.

“I don’t know what I’d do if we didn’t have this place. Plus, I have this problem — when I buy something, I never get rid of it,” he says.

When Burdette was growing up, a drive-in was still an “everyday thing,” she says. There were others in Beckley, Charmco  and Pipestem (the latter still exists). But these days, she understands the theater’s uniqueness and says it gives her a sense of pride to provide a service to the community.

“It’s nice to know you’ve got something that people want to come to and enjoy and have a family experience. It’s good we’re able to do that for the people,” she says.

Social media have helped grow the audience. A friend created a Facebook page and website for the theater. The website gets between 300 and 400 hits per week and between 700-800 on the weekend, says McClanahan.

People don’t just come for the movies. Pizzas at the concession stand fly out of the oven and are the business’s best money-maker. Specialties include chicken ranch pizza and dessert pizza. The wait can be long, so light-up “pizza pagers” let you know when your pie is ready.

On one particularly busy Saturday, 190 cars came through the gates. Concession stand helper Rachel Stephens — also a deputy with the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office — made 30 pizzas to prep for the show and they were gone before the theater even officially opened.

“It felt like I made pizzas for days,” she said.

A huge change for the drive-in came this year as McClanahan switched from a 35 mm film projector original to the theater to a Dolby Digital projector that cost more than he paid for the theater itself.

“The film companies said we’d have to change or they couldn’t provide us with film anymore. I was scared to death because I couldn’t hardly use a computer,” he says.

But he figured out the digital system just fine, and he’s pleased with the results. Both the picture quality and sound have improved tremendously, he says.

He negotiates with the film companies directly, which is unusual. Most theaters have brokers. The companies take a licensing fee that amounts to 60 percent of what he takes in each night.

The drive-in’s original screen fell down in a tornado in the 1960s. The current 30 x 60 aluminum screen sustained some damage during last summer’s derecho windstorm, but it was fixed with the help of a friend and the theater managed to remain closed for only one week.

“We’ve been blessed. If we need help, people from the community will come and help us clean up,” says McClanahan.

He gestures toward a young man floating around the concession stand before the show who regularly volunteers to weed eat the property.

“He’ll come in here and fill up the cooler when he sees it needs it. And the community keeps it clean. We only pick up about a Kroger bag full of trash at night,” says McClanahan.

The Meadow Bridge Drive In is typically open from the last weekend in May to the end of September. Shows are usually on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. Tickets are $7 per person and kids 4 and under are free.

For showtimes and more information, find the Meadow Bridge Drive-In Theater group on Facebook, go to http://meadowbridgedrivein.blogspot.com/, or call 304-484-7878.

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com

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