The Moonlite Theatre opened for business in 1949 and is forever memorialized by the Turner Nichols song titled “Moonlight Drive-in.” The Moonlite was one of the oldest drive-in theatres in the country prior to its closure in 2013. After a short-lived attempt to reopen the iconic Abington establishment in 2016, the theater closed again and the property is currently listed for sale. The original 65-foot tall screen, ticket booth, concession stand, pole speakers, and neon roadside signage remain and the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an example of post-World War II entertainment and commercial architecture.
Backstory and Context
In 1933, Richard Hollingshead, Jr. patented and opened American’s first drive-in theatre in Camden, NJ. While the concept of a drive-in theatre took a few years to catch on, once it did, America witnessed an explosion of these entertainment venues. By 1949, 820 theatres existed across the country, mostly due in part to the post-World War II popularity of the automobile and the affordability drive-in theatres offered to baby-boom families. Cheap admission fares meant that entire families could participate in America’s popular culture trend. Drive-in theatres peaked in the mid- 20th Century with 4,063 operating in 1958. Shortly thereafter, the industry began to decline. The fall of this American entertainment institution is largely due to the spread of television, smaller families and cars, and larger multiplex theatres in the 1980s.
Abingdon, VA received its first drive-in theatre in the summer of 1949 when T. D. Fields opened the Moonlite Theatre. Fitted with a double-sided neon roadside marquee, 454 reverse-incline parking spots, and a projector screen that measured 65 feet tall, the Moonlite became an entertainment hub for Southwest Virginia. This drive-in theatre was so popular that it became the subject of two Country and Western songs, the most famous being sung by Turner Nichols titled “Moonlight Drive-in.” The Moonlite served Southwest Virginia for 64 years until it closed in 2013, followed by a brief re-opening in 2016 that lasted less than a year. The theatre is presently in the middle of a lawsuit regarding renovations and is listed for sale.The Moonlite Theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places and Virginia Landmarks in the summer of 2007, due in part to its historic integrity and mid-century commercial architecture, becoming one of the first drive-in theatres in the United States to receive such a designation. It is one of the oldest surviving drive-in theatres in the country, and its original 65-foot tall screen, ticket booth, concession stand, pole speakers, and neon roadside signage all still exist.
Pulice, Michael J. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. Virginia Department of Historic Resources. August 8, 2007. September 13, 2018. https://www.dhr.Virginia.gov/VLR_to_transfer/PDFNoms/095-5256_Moonlite_Drive-in_2007_DRAFT_nomination.pdf.
Moonlite Theatre. Virginia Main Street Communities. September 13, 2018. https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/vamainstreet/moon.htm.