Like many twenty-six-year-olds, Chip Sawyer, a financial advisor for Publix Supermarkets with a master’s degree in Business Administration, has a side hustle—he owns two of Florida’s seven remaining drive-in movie theaters. The soft-spoken, curly-haired Sawyer inherited the Silver Moon and Joy-Lan Drive-ins after his grandfather’s death in 2017. I met him in his office behind the Silver Moon’s original, 1948 screen.
In His Grandfather’s Footsteps:
The financial advisor in Sawyer admitted that drive-in movie theaters are “not really a growth business.” A new drive-in hasn’t been built in Florida since the 1970s, but it’s a business Chip has grown up in. In high school, he started working in the box office, then moved to the concession stand, and eventually, he began closing the theater on Saturday nights and preparing it for the Sunday morning Swap-Shop. When Sawyer’s grandfather, Herold Speers (spelled just like Brittany, Chip told me) was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer in 2016, he began preparing his grandson to run the theaters on his own. “He never sat me down and gave me a lesson, but I watched how he did things to learn what’s right and wrong,” Sawyer said. “Sometimes the theater manager, still tells me ‘This is what your grandfather would do.’”
Speers worked for a cooperate theater company for forty years managing drive-ins. When they planned to sell the land under the Silver Moon and Joy-Lan in the 1990s, Speers bought theaters himself to save them from destruction. He kept the business running, and in Chip’s senior year of high school, guided the theaters through the conversion from film to digital projection—a final nail in the coffins of many drive-ins. “He worked almost until the day he died,” Sawyer recalled.
“Sometimes the theatre manager, still tells me ‘This is what your grandfather would do.’”
Three photos of the elder operator sit on a shelf behind Sawyer’s desk, propped against the backside of the white concrete screen. In the first photo, Herold is a young man, probably younger than Chip is now, in the last photo he’s a decade or two older and sporting sideburns, and in the middle photo his hair is groomed the same way he kept it in middle-age but white with time. This is probably the Herold Speers Chip remembers. He’s not emotional, but you can tell from the way Sawyer talks about Speers that he admired his grandfather. “It’s not the same without him,” he said.
Rain, And Other Challenges:
Outside, Chip walked me past the old ticket booth used for storage now. The new booth is stationed further down the driveway, so the line of cars doesn’t spill into the adjacent street and jam traffic. “On opening weekend of a new Marvel movie though…” Chip finished his sentence with a wave that suggested avoiding downtown Lakeland, Florida altogether in the summer superhero movie season.
We cut between two guard rails and popped out in front of the main screen. “Screen One” is surrounded by sheets of corrugated metal painted yellow and nailed to wooden posts. This shield helps block the screen from invading headlights. The city won’t let the Sawyer do anything more permanent because it sits so close traffic. Over seventy years, Lakeland has inched right up to the Silver Moon’s front door.
Sawyer looked up at the soggy, purple storm cloud slowly moving our way. Rain is bad for business. Back in his grandfather’s day, drive-in owners tried to fight the rain by making individual awnings they could distribute and attach to each windshield. Chip even bought one on eBay to see how they worked. He found out why the invention never really caught on. “It didn’t work, but I like old stuff,” he admitted.
“So, you’re interested in movie history?” I asked.
He hesitated, “I’m not really a movie guy.”
Sawyer must have seen my eyes light up at the obvious contradiction and my pen begin to furiously scribble down his every word. “Please don’t write that down.” He laughed. “I like movies, but I don’t really go to the walk-in. I went to see Solo because guests kept saying it was too dark on the screen here.”
I warned him I’d use the quote, but it makes sense that someone who grew up at a movie theater would be somewhat immune to the “magic” of the silver screen. My grandfather sold fossils and gems at craft shows and my years of loading and unloading liquor boxes full of fossilized fish left me completely unimpressed by the stuff. I use amethysts my grandfather would have sold for several hundred dollars as bookends. It’s hard to be impressed with something that’s always been with you. But Chip is a drive-in guy.
“I’m not really a movie guy.”
When he’s on vacation Sawyer seeks out drive-ins. He’s visited all the running theatres in Florida and few others in the South He’ll even sneak into abandoned drive-ins to see if he can figure out where the concession stand had been and how they projected their movies. Knowing he would inherit the business was even lingering in the back of his mind when he earned his MBA.
A Different Projection:
“Do you want to see the old projector?”
Chip may not be a “movie guy” but I have Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman tattooed to my wrist; I am a movie girl, so yes, yes I did want to see the old projector with all my dorky heart.
He led me to a waist-high platform sticking out from the parking lot between Screen One and the concession stand. On concession side was a tiny hobbit door closed with a padlock. “Watch your head.” Sawyer removed the lock and ducked into the subterranean projection booth. I followed.
A single, naked light bulb revealed a booking calendar from 1978 tacked to an empty metal box on the wall. A few other sundry items lay scattered on the floor and in the back, the projector—a metal machine taller than me and tinted blue, like an old battleship, stood at the ready, as though it had been used the day before. With a dusty finger, I tried to follow the path a reel of film would have taken through its mechanisms—satisfyingly comprehendible wheels, and cogs, and latches. I was giddy.
“It would be cool to display it or something, but I don’t know how we’d ever get it out.” Sawyer shrugged.
I snapped a few photos and Sawyer lead me to the new projection booth on top of the concession stand. Inside, James, the theatre manager warmed up the digital projectors, they hummed like rebooting computers. Their guts lay hidden in big black boxes, but it would take an IT degree to decipher their inner workings anyway.
“I have something I want you to do for me,” James said. “We have pictures of old drive-ins behind the concession stand, I need new ones. I want to show pictures of open theatres, so it’s not a cemetery.”
I promise to send the pictures, but it’s impossible to deny that Sawyer’s drive-ins are an endangered species. I asked him if he thought they’d be able to hold out much longer. Like the astute businessman he is, Sawyer went through the possible problems: the neighbors could complain as more people move into the area, but the drive-in was first, so there’s not much they could do. The city is always talking about expanding the road, but they’ve been talking about that for decades. “Who knows, self-driving cars might bring the end of driveins,” Sawyer mused. But for now, cars still line up under the neon sign to get a good spot on Friday nights, people still like the pizza, and Chip Sawyer will keep his grandfather’s drive-ins open as long as they do.
Plan Your Visit:
Admission: $5 for a double feature
Open seven days a week, year round