Community Rallies to Save Hull’s Drive-in

Americana, Hometown Heroes, People, Traditions
on June 12, 2005

When the big screen at Hull’s Drive-in remained dark in the summer of 1999, moviegoers were disappointed. After all, Hull’s had been showing films off Route 11 north of Lexington, Va. (pop. 6,867), for more than 40 years.

“It was disheartening,” recalls Sam Newcomer, 51, a longtime fan of the drive-in theater. “I’m very nostalgic and this was something I could relate to my childhood—happy times. No matter what was going on, I felt I could come to Hull’s and slow down.”

The fate of the theater—owned and operated by Sebert Hull and his wife, Effie, for four decades—became uncertain when Hull died before the drive-in opened for its 1998 season. At first, locals were encouraged when Effie sold the business to W.D. Goad whose auto body shop is adjacent to the drive-in. Goad kept the drive-in going that summer, but the following year, the cost of needed technical upgrades prompted him to close the theater and look for a buyer who would run the business in the family-friendly way of Sebert Hull.

Enter Eric and Elise Sheffield. The Sheffields moved to Lexington in 1993 and Hull’s, Elise says, “was our weekend date.” In their 30s, the Sheffields had a new baby and Eric had started a woodworking business. The drive-in, with its $4-a-person, double-feature tickets (children under 12 free), was affordable entertainment.

In June 1999, the couple organized a meeting to see what could be done to keep the theater open. More than 50 people—from all walks of life—attended. Sharing a fondness for Mr. Hull and a love of the outdoor theater, they formed a non-profit organization called Hull’s Angels and re-opened the theater on July 7, 2000.

At first, the group leased the theater from Goad. But after two years of fund-raising, Hull’s Angels—today composed of 700 dues-paying members—amassed $75,000 to renovate and purchase America’s only community-owned drive-in theater. With an annual budget of $175,000, the drive-in pays the bills primarily through ticket and concession sales, but also raises money with $5 memberships, raffles, and the sale of T-shirts and hats.

“Mr. Hull had quite a following,” says Eric, who along with Elise are members of the elected board that administers the drive-in. “He was very down-home.”

Preserving that spirit is important. Though tickets were raised to $5, concession prices remain low with 75-cent popcorn and 75-cent sno-cones. On an average weekend, the theater sell 500 pounds of french fries, according to Frank Kulesza, part-time projectionist and executive director of the citizens’ board running the drive-in. The staff at Hull’s is a mix of paid and volunteer workers. Board members often are behind the concessions counter on busy weekends, which can see up to 315 cars spread across the venue’s five acres.

Hull’s still shows mostly family-appropriate movies and on summer nights, kids, some already in pajamas, play and catch lightning bugs on the grass in front of the screen.

Newcomer, who greets moviegoers while manning the ticket booth, says the drive-in is much the same as it’s always been. He recalls his aunt piling a bunch of kids into the car and taking them—and him—to the drive-in. “It was how I knew it was summer, when the drive-in opened.”

Theater board member Peggy Payne, 47, recalls the decision to save Hull’s as an outpouring of community determination. “I’ve often since thought of Margaret Mead, who said: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’”

But it is a familiar bit of the world the people of Lexington have saved. At dusk, Kulesza announces over the microphone: “Okay, folks, it’s show time. Who wants a movie? Let’s hear those horns.” A chorus of honks and beeps rise from the grassy berms and into the starlit sky and, with a flip of a switch, the giant outdoor screen lights up once again.