PHOTOGRAPHY CALEB TIMMERMAN
The first thing you notice as you pull up to the 411 Drive-In Theater (300 Country Road 265, Centre, Ala.) is the back of the big screen, looming up from behind the trees. The faded old marquis informs you what’s playing tonight as you get closer to the drive, and finally you see a small ticket both situated between the lanes that lead to each screen.
The cinema offerings tonight are listed again at the gate, with an arrow informing visitors which line leads to the desired picture. At the ticket booth the attendants are friendly and smiling. The price per carload is $15, if you have at least two people going to catch the show; this price is a welcome relief to the pocketbook, and is well justified for the unique experience of a drive-in movie. However, it is cash only at the gate.
Inside the grounds there are paved paths leading to the screens on either side of the snack bar, which is situated atop a small rise overlooking both parking areas. When you reach the lot, it’s as easy as choosing a spot to enjoy your movie. The spaces are well marked with white poles denoting each parking space, and the lot is terraced to ensure everyone has a good view of the screen.
Some back their pickups into their spaces and pop out camp chairs in the bed; one group of patrons even brings the dog along. Gone are the old speakers that would attach to the windows, now replaced by a digital audio broadcasting system. Simply tune your stereo to the channel listed on the snack bar menu handed out as you enter. They have a channel for each screen, and the audio comes through loud and clear. Also, say good-bye to the old 35mm projectors and reels. They have been replaced with high quality digital projectors, installed at the start of 2014’s summer season. In fact, not much is left of the old 411 Drive-In that some of you may remember; it’s been fully updated and the snack bar is new as well, though it’s closer to a full-blown restaurant than a hub for popcorn and coke.
After hearing a lot of talk about how good the food was, it is absolutely necessary to give it a try. The extensive menu on their website provided a good idea of what to expect. It’s immediately overwhelming with choices for every taste. They serve everything, from hand-patted burgers and hot dogs, to BBQ sandwiches and plates, nachos, pizza and bread sticks, hot wings, all kind of finger foods, and the movie-going staple, popcorn.
All of the food is made fresh to order. The Nathan’s hot dog is smothered in a mouthwatering, zesty homemade relish and a side of freshly cooked crinkle fries. It is a delicious choice, and there are nothing but good things to say about the hefty, freshly made burger ordered as well.
Some customers reportedly enjoy the food so much they pay admission just to get to the restaurant and skip the movie. The only menu item costing more than $9 was the extra-large 16-inch pizza, which includes the choice of three toppings. A regular soda is only $1.50, a massive bucket of popcorn is $6, and they even have ice cream by the pint. With prices like these, it makes it easy to take the whole family, or a car full of friends, out for a movie and dinner.
The restaurant is adorned with beautiful heart-pine paneling and a classic burger joint feel that will make you think you’ve stepped back in time a few decades. With a central counter and a bar top either side, the counter is set up to handle movie goers from both screens. The snack bar staff members are just as friendly as those who man the gate, joking and chatting with the folks waiting for their food. It is definitely a family atmosphere at this drive-in.
Rex Johnson, owner of this Alabama movie mainstay, offers some history of the 411 Drive-In. The outdoor theater was built in 1953 by Emory Johnson and featured a single screen and car side stereo speakers. Rex along with his brother Carl, worked there over the years until the 411 closed in the early ‘70s. Video cassettes and the VCR had arrived and drive-ins were taking a big hit all across the country.
The 411 was reopened briefly in the ‘80s but it sadly didn’t last. Fast forward 20 years and drive-in theaters seemed like a bygone relic of another time, but it didn’t stop Rex and Carl from reopening the 411 for their father who had retired from farming. In 2001 the 411 made its triumphant return with new digital projectors and sound that is piped straight to the vehicles’ speakers. Heartbreakingly, Emory passed away in 2004 after witnessing three more years of his legacy’s return to operation; however, the brothers kept the theater open to honor his memory.
Rex says he never expected it to last long, maybe a couple more years, as times had definitely changed. He definitely didn’t expect it to be a big money maker; but in 2008 they rebuilt the old screen, installed a second, and built the current restaurant on the site of the old snack shack.
Despite the seasonal nature of the business he says it’s paying the bills. Business has been on the rise lately, though. After starting a Facebook page last year which now boasts around 13,000 fans, they’ve seen a significant boost in movie goers. According to Rex’s social media manager, some weekend show time postings have reached as many as 62,000 people, and many patrons’ vehicles are displaying Georgia tags in the lot.
Even with the drive and late night return trips, people are traveling from all over the area to come catch a movie at the 411. Rex even goes so far as to say on some nights, when the lots are full, the pre-movie food rush can be almost overwhelming for the kitchen. Experienced 411 visitors will often show up early and call in their orders from their cars, or head straight for the restaurant on arrival to beat the crowds.
Now, it is time to settle in for the feature presentation. The view of the screen is fantastic, relaxing in the comfort of the truck with the windows cracked. The sounds of action and adventure waft through the speakers. Audio is delivered in perfect quality and the image was clear and crisp, even from near the back of the lot. For first time drive-in patrons it’s an experience that will surely be repeated.
Currently, the 411 Drive-In is open Friday through Sunday evenings, with gates opening at 6 p.m. central time and the show starting at 7 p.m. Each screen runs a double feature for the single price of admission so you can see two films if you’re up for the late night. Summers are the season for blockbusters, and the 411 ramps up with nightly showings all week long starting Memorial Day and continuing into August.
If you’re interested in catching a flick at the 411 stop by their website, 411drivein. com or look them up on Facebook to find out what’s playing and browse the full menu before you go.
For a list of what feature films are playing you can also call the movie line at 256-927-2855.