Wherever he goes, without fail, someone recognizes William Booker’s distinctive voice. And if you’ve been to the Moonlite Drive-In Theatre in Abingdon, chances are you’ve heard him say, ‘Welcome to the Moonlite Drive-In and movies under the stars.’ As the sun starts to set, he’ll play two versions of a song titled "Moonlite Drive-In" and, as darkness surrounds the screen, you might even hear an Elvis story or two.
"If you’re a Moonlite fan, there is no explanation necessary. And if you aren’t a Moonlite fan, there’s no need to talk about it," William Booker said.
For you yet-to be fans, Booker worked for Elvis for two and a half months before the King’s death. As he likes to say, ‘he had Elvis’ back.’ He went on the road with him, spent time at Graceland and says he felt the magic that surrounded Elvis. Booker speaks highly of the legend and, in tribute to the superstar, each night Booker plays one of his songs.
Booker bought the Moonlite Drive-In from Walter Mays for $575,000 in 1992, paying more than 10 times its original price tag of $45,000 and almost triple what Mays paid for it in 1964. He had met Mays years earlier after getting caught trying to sneak in. Booker ‘agreed right quick’ he would pick up the trash at the drive-in for two weeks in return for May’s not telling his mama.
Those two weeks were the start of working summers for Mays, learning the movie theater business from him. When Mays was ready to retire Booker bought the place.
"Once I got into projection booth, it was love at first sight," the self-professed night owl recalls.
The first movie he played was "Sister Act," daring to raise the admission price from $2.50 to $4 a head.
Both a blessing and a curse, the Moonlite Drive-In Theatre is one of three drive-ins listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It's a blessing in that it means the Moonlite is part of a program to preserve and protect America’s historic resources, a curse in that wading through the rules and regulations regarding restoration are difficult at best and getting the Moonlite back to the condition of its heyday means spending money, big money. Things must be restored to their original condition, not just repaired, and Booker says the price tag for that is in the millions of dollars.
And it isn’t just the deteriorating facade, marquee or economy that jeopardizes the Moonlite’s future, but rather the movie industry and its distribution system that may darken the Moonlite.
"Yeah, I’m worried. I’m very worried," Booker laments. "They say 90 percent of all theater’s will be digital by next year. We’re going to have to buy a $200,000 projector and right now I don’t have that kind of money." Sadly he adds, "We hope they phase it in."
In 1949, 454 cars could park next to posts, grab a speaker and hang it onto the car window. At one time, the entertainment complex consisted of putt-putt golf, the Moonlite Grill and, of course, the outdoor screen. Sixty-three years later, only the drive-in exists.
More than anything Booker just wants to encourage everyone to come out.
"One of the good things about the Moonlite is that if someone with big hair sits in front of you, you don’t have to move," Booker jokes. You’ll see PJ-clad kids atop blankets on the ground, backed in pickups with chairs and boom boxes in the bed, older couples wistful about the past, and, yeah, young adults in the last row making out.
"Although I own it, it’s your theater too. We have something very unique, so please help me keep it open," Booker petitioned.
The Moonlite Theatre is located at 17555 Old Lee Highway, near Interstate 81, exit 13. Call 276-628-7881 for movie times and showings.
As Booker concludes, "On behalf of Moonlite and the entire staff, we would like to thank you for coming out tonight and hope you join us again for movies under the stars."