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Starlite brightens the night again 

And an elegy for the Carolina

Just over a year ago, on Aug. 22, 2004, the screen of the Starlite, the Triangle's only drive-in movie theater, burned to the ground when a too-hot lawnmower was parked inside the enclosure behind the screen that doubled as a storage shed. It was an improbable end to an institution with more than a half-century's history, a venue that had thrived in the American Graffiti heyday of drive-in culture, a 1970s slide into dirty movies and "passion pit" status, and even Hurricane Fran in 1996. This Saturday, however, the Starlite screen will again flicker with light, with a grand re-opening presentation of The Dukes of Hazzard. Fittingly, a locally owned General Lee--a 1969 Dodge Charger--from the original TV series will occupy a place of honor.

Immediately after last year's fire, theater owner Bob Groves and the theater's most dedicated fans swung into action. Boston transplant Robert Cirillo put up a save-the-Starlite Web site (www.starlitedurham.com) and he began organizing fundraising activities. Although donations reached about $7,000, that was still far short of the estimated $28,000 needed to rebuild the screen. After innumerable delays, financing was secured. The finishing touches of the 42 feet high, 72 feet wide, sheet metal and timber structure are being applied this week.

The Starlite, one of over 400 drive-ins operating today across the country, is located on East Club Boulevard on the outskirts of Durham, in an area that has not received the benediction of real estate developers. I visited the Starlite last Saturday as the weekly flea market was closing down. Though the market officially runs until 4 p.m., vendors were packing their wares before noon on this brutally hot day. Inside the squat, cinder block office, I met Cirillo, a pleasant and enthusiastic man in his late 30s.

Cirillo is an unabashed booster of drive-ins. "It appeals to nostalgia, but they're also an alternative to our disenchantment with the traditional multiplex experience."

Under the stewardship of Bob Groves, who took over the facility in 1988 and assumed full ownership in 1989, the Starlite stopped showing porn and began a family-friendly policy of showing only G, PG and PG-13-rated films. Cirillo noted that the Starlite is also far friendlier to family finances than a night out at the multiplex. A car with two parents and two children can park in front of the screen for $14, and the hot dogs are $1.50. Even the drinks are cheap: For the approximate price of a small multiplex soda, $3, Starlite will sell a "jumbo."

Although much of the venue looks familiar, Cirillo pointed out several changes that will be made to the theater's business. The space set aside for video sales will likely be used for a video arcade, he says. More notable, however, is that Groves' longstanding auxiliary business in gun-selling will be downplayed. "We're significantly scaling back that part of the business," Cirillo stresses gently as he flicks a cigarette ash into a tray set upon a display case of ammunition, also noting that the principal clients are law-enforcement personnel.

While some area hipsters may cherish the Starlite for its surly Southern authenticity, Cirillo seems to be exercising some active or passive influence to soften the atmosphere. As it is, the main room still has several gun shop greetings posted near the door such as "Welcome to America. Now speak English or leave. "

The theater makes little or nothing from ticket sales, since movie studios typically demand 90 percent of new release grosses. Gesturing to the hamburger grill that occupies one side of the room, Cirillo notes wryly that drive-ins are restaurants that happen to show movies.

Cirillo lives in Hillsborough with his wife, daughter and dog. He has been a friend, volunteer and contributor to the reconstruction effort and says he has no financial investment in the Starlite.

Cirillo is a drive-in buff who is well versed in the history of the form. He's done title searches in an effort to reconstruct the checkered history of Starlite, and he plans to resurrect the old sequentially blinking marquee.

Although Cirillo is certainly a fan of the bread and butter drive-in fare, he also has a taste for art house offerings such as the recent, sublime The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, and he hopes to bring occasional helpings of that sensibility to the Starlite. "With the closing of the Carolina in Chapel Hill, there may be room to bring in independent films from [semi-indie] distributors like Fox Searchlight and Focus Features," he says.

Although the theater is re-opening this Saturday, the reconstruction is still in the first of three phases. Outdoor movies will be shown every night except Wednesday well into the fall, gradually moving to weekends only, and will resume early next spring.

While the re-opening of the Starlite is a symbol of preserving the area's cinematic history, the July closing of the Carolina Theatre in Chapel Hill marked the end of an era. When the Carolina closed late last month in the middle of a smash opening week run of March of the Penguins, it left Raleigh's Rialto Theater as the Triangle's remaining single-screen holdout.

On Sunday, I paid a visit to Bruce Stone, erstwhile owner of the Carolina who, with his wife Mary Jo, still operates the Chelsea and the Varsity. I encountered Stone at the ticket booth of the Chelsea, located in the Timberlyne shopping complex on Weaver Dairy Road, as he wrestled with one of the innumerable headaches of small-business ownership.

With his typical good-natured dyspepsia, he asked, "Are you here to fix my ticket printer?"

Later, Stone reflected on the demise of the 275-seat Carolina, a venue that was never particularly profitable and was subsidized by the busier traffic at the Varsity and the Chelsea. "The single-screen operation wasn't really that sustainable," he said. "We haven't had a lease for over two years. We'd been operating on an ad hoc month-to-month basis with the landlord [Joe Riddle of Riddle Properties]," Stone said.

Stone and his wife had been discussing shuttering the theater for some time, and in early July, contrary to News and Observer reports, Riddle's interest in renovating the property finally coincided with the Stones' willingness to close. Although Riddle has some well-publicized legal troubles stemming from a felony drug arrest in June, Stone shrugged it off as a coincidence, noting that the landlord is actively seeking new tenants.

Still, area film fans have been baffled by the decision, since that property, located on the southeast corner of Franklin and Columbia, is largely vacant. With the departure of the Carolina Theatre, the remaining tenants are Top of the Hill and some UNC offices on the second floor. Stone, for his part, speculated that Riddle wants to merge the space taken by the theater with his other vacant ground floor space.

All in all, Stone seems to have few regrets about the demise of the theater, giving off the air of someone happy to unburden himself of time-consuming ventures. Still, the loss is to be mourned, since it means one fewer art house screen for the Triangle.

Alone among the area's movie impresarios, Stone is of the old-school film generation that came of age in the glory days of the black and white European artistry of Bergman and Fellini, with the likes of the feuding critics Kael and Sarris to explain it all. He moved to the Triangle in the 1980s, taught literature in Orange County schools and published three well-reviewed novels. One of them, Half Nelson, Full Nelson, was published by what was then Harper & Row and optioned for a movie.

In 1990 Stone and his wife opened the Chelsea for business, choosing the name for its association with the New York and London neighborhoods, the alliteration with "Chapel Hill," and because it would appear in phone books before the other theaters in the area. "There were some crass commercial motives there, too," Stone says with a smile.

But the film business is notoriously an uneasy compromise between aesthetic purity and commerce, and even high-minded, lefty theater operators have to acknowledge it. And for Stone, it was time to bow to the realities of time and money and close the Carolina, a theater he and his wife have owned since 1993.

  • And an elegy for the Carolina

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