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Economy places historic Moonlite Theater in peril

Sharon Hayes • Nov 4, 2009 at 12:00 AM

ABINGDON — The curtain may soon close on the Moonlite Theater after more than a half century in operation.

Owner William O. Booker recently closed the historic drive-in for the season and is asking for the public’s help to open it again next year. The sign on the marquee reads: “Help Save the Moonlite.”

“I know everybody’s going through hard times. But I can’t keep spending $50,000 every year to keep it open,” Booker said.

Since the early 1950s, the Abingdon drive-in has attracted movie-goers throughout the region, from Wytheville to Morristown. It’s considered a Virginia state historic landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Booker started working at the Moonlite in 1970 as an usher and eventually bought the theater in 1992. He said the facility survived tough economic times in the 1970s and 1980s when drive-ins lost popularity among theater-goers.

The 1990s were better for business. But this latest economic downturn, coupled with increased competition from new theater complexes in Abingdon and Bristol, have been tough on the drive-in, Booker said.

He pointed out the theater was featured a few years ago in a USA Today article, which mentioned that there weren’t many theaters in the area.

“The next thing I know, a 14-plex pops up seven miles toward Bristol and a 12-plex pops up in Abingdon,” Booker said. “It didn’t help.”

All the while, Booker has kept admission prices low, charging just $5 for two movies.

But the decline in attendance has been hard to overcome. And parts of the theater have fallen into disrepair.

Booker noted that the marquee itself needs some work.

“But I’ve been trying to save every nickel I can to stay open as long as I can,” he said.

“It’s just a bad time right now financially. We’ve got to keep pushing and keep going and keep trying.”

Booker said he plans to contact state and federal legislators for help and is hoping the public will chip in as well.

For more information on the Moonlite or how you can help contact Booker at 335-8395.

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