The first drive-in theater opened in New Jersey on June 6, 1933, nearly 85 years ago. According to Drive_Ins.com, during the 1950’s – the Golden Years for drive-ins – the number of drive-in theaters across the nation exploded, reaching a high of 4,000 theaters in 1958. The 70’s and 80’s saw a marked decline in the number of theaters, owing in part to the expanding home video market, and today there are only 336 drive-in theaters in existence – four of them in Georgia.
How wonderful that we in Blue Ridge are lucky enough to have one of those four theaters right here in town! I have many happy childhood memories of going to the Swan Drive-In with my sister and parents, and later as a teenager, piled into a car with a bunch of my friends. It is a pleasure to now be able to carry on that tradition with my twin boys, Logan and Grant.
The Swan Drive-In in Blue Ridge, Georgia was built in 1955 by Jack Jones, Sr. and W.H. Tilley, Jr.-known as “H.” Jack and H already owned the small town’s two theaters–the Rialto and the Royal, where ticket prices were 32 cents for adults and 15 cents for children and a Saturday matinee ran 25 cents for adults and ten cents for children. Because televisions were scarce up in the mountains, business was brisk at the two theaters.
Looking to serve an ever-growing audience hungry for movies, the two men seized on the idea of opening a drive-in theatre. This was no small feat in Blue Ridge, nestled as it is in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Tracts of land level enough and large enough to accommodate the special topographical needs of a drive-in were scarce as hen’s teeth. Undaunted, Jack and H were able to lease several acres from the City of Blue Ridge. There was still a considerable amount of grading and fill to be done and once the work had begun, they encountered unyielding rock that only dynamite would budge. Discouraged and almost ready to scrap the mission, they were encouraged to keep on going by the excavators that were working for them. Finally, with the task of excavating and grading behind them, Jack and H were able to move forward with the relatively simple tasks of wiring for sound, paving, and building the concession stand and box office.
One final-and formidable-obstacle stood between the two men and the completion of their dream: the erecting of the movie screen itself. After piecing the screen together on the ground, the men had to go all the way to Atlanta (no easy task in those days before the Georgia Mountain Parkway provided a quick and easy way to make the journey!) to get a crane tall enough and powerful enough to raise the screen. For $100, Jack and H were able to get a crane for hire from Atlanta Steel Erectors. As an excited throng of locals looked on nervously, the pieces of the screen were lifted and pieced together, until, finally, the last section was carefully lowered into place. The on-lookers let out a relieved whoop and, with that, Jack and H’s dream became a reality.
H Tilley was the one to come up with the name for the drive-in. Prior to taking part in the Omaha Beach Landing in the Normandy Invasion during World War II, H was stationed in England. While there, he came to admire the graceful and beautiful swans that swam in the ponds and lakes around the country. He thought SWAN would be the perfect name for his newest theatre. His partner, Jack, agreed–it would be an easy name to make into a neon sign.
The opening of the Swan Drive-In Theatre was a watershed event in Blue Ridge, as it served as a beacon, drawing people from small communities all across the North Georgia mountains. And it continues to do so to this day, 63 years later, where this weekend’s showing is the double-feature: “Peter Rabbit” and “Pacific Rim Uprising.”
Postscript: H Tilley sold his share of the business to Jack Jones in 1959, who continued to operate it for many years. Mr. Jones passed away in 1980. H Tilley is retired and still lives with his family in Blue Ridge. Steve Setser now operates the Swan Drive-In Theater. He began working there when he was 15, and finally bought it in 1989. I would like to offer a special thanks to Mrs. H (Blanch) Tilley for so graciously speaking with me about the beginnings of Blue Ridge’s Swan Drive-In.
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