Sunday October 31, 2010
Vacant drive-in burns
By Ed Kemp
The Beverly Drive-In on U.S. 49 stood as a Hattiesburg landmark for more than 60 years, no longer in the business of showing movies to the public, but still containing the promise that some future owner might snap up the property and crank up the projectors once again.
"There was a whole lot of people in this area who hoped that someone would buy that thing and put it into business as a movie theater," said Ursula Jones, vice president of the Hattiesburg Historical Society.
That hope went up in smoke Saturday morning.
A fire that started around 3 a.m. reduced the historic landmark to nothing but a smoldering memory. Hattiesburg firefighters gained control of the blaze by 4:15 a.m., but by then only the screen’s metal framework remained.
The cause of the blaze is not yet known.
Owner Suzette Hargroder, 57, stood and watched firefighters control the fire of a structure that held for her a double significance.
"We’re sad about it, because it was our home growing up and also our family’s business," said Hargroder speaking also for her sister and co-owner Beverly Cutrer, for whom the drive-in is named.
Their parents, Herb and Sue Hargroder, opened the Beverly Drive-In in 1948. It flourished during the heyday of drive-in movie theaters in the 1950s and ’60s, with a concession stand and a goofy golf course to supplement the entertainment on the screen.
The Hargroder family meanwhile lived in a three-bedroom house underneath the big screen. Suzette Hargroder said that running the drive-in was a full-time operation for the family. The drive-in showed two movies in three showings each day, seven days a week.
"You know how the post office says neither rain; nor sleet; nor snow?" said Hargroder. "For us, the show always had to go on."
Herb Hargroder died in 1980 and the drive-in closed seven years later. The Hargroders opened the theater 10 years later for special fundraisers for the Association of Retarded Citizens and then leased it to new management in 2001 for more extensive movie showings.
But severe damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina 2005 left the theater in a state of disrepair and threw its future of showing movies into grave doubt.
Russell Archer, review and compliance assistant at Mississippi Department of Archives and History, said at that time, rehabilitation of the structure could cost $250,000.
As a result, Suzette Hargroder and her sister decided to put the property up for sale as commercial real estate about three to four years ago, priced at $1,069,000 for the 10-acre land.
Along the way, the theater was put on the endangered site list by the Mississippi Heritage Trust in 2007 and was named a National Historic Landmark in 2008.
The property will remain on sale, Suzette Hargroder said, just now without the theater and the house.
Hattiesburg fire department spokeswoman Geneva Germany said that an investigation into the cause of the fire would probably not begin until Monday. Firefighters had determined that the site was too hot Saturday for investigator David McRaney to begin his probe.
Suzette Hargroder, who moved out of the house in 2008, said there was no electricity at the drive-in, ruling out the possibility of an electrical fire.
She suspects that the cause of the fire is tied to the building’s frequent intruders.
"People would break into the building all the time. I mean I could not keep them out," she said, "… so I’m thinking that people got cold last night and started a fire."
Suzette Hargroder said there was no property insurance – just liability insurance – on the land.
Saturday’s fire left local residents contemplating the void left in area history. There are only two drive-ins left in operation in Mississippi, one in Iuka, the other in Guntown.
Roberta Evans, 56, who works as assistant manager at CITGO across U.S. 49 from the drive-in, said she saw the flames as she drove to work Saturday morning to open up the store at 4:30. She said that the movie theater across the street was a frequent topic of conversation among customers.
The older people would talk about the memories they had," she said. "The younger kids would ask questions about it. It’s definitely a shame."
"It really devastated me," said longtime resident Lou Ginsberg, 80, a friend of both Herb and Sue Hargroder. "I haven’t been in it for years, but it’s just like a part of Hattiesburg is gone."
"We lose so much of our history, and we can’t get it back" said Jones, and added "No one’s going to come and build a drive-in theater here. It’s not going to happen."
A history of Beverly Drive-In
1948: Herb and Sue Hargroder open the Beverly Drive-In on U.S. 49. The first film shown was "Swell Guy," a movie featuring Ann Blyth and Sonny Tufts.
1951: Actor Charlton Heston visits, one of several famous actors to visit the drive-in.
1979: The Hargroders open a second screen which is then destroyed by Hurricane Frederic later that year.
1987: The drive-in closes and does not open again for 10 years.
1997: The theater opens on a limited basis to host fundraisers for the Association of Retarded Citizens.
2001: The drive-in is leased to new management and opens again for the general public.
2005: Damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina leaves the future of the drive-in in doubt.
2006-07: Suzette Hargroder and her sister Beverly Cutrer put the property up for sale. The theater is listed as an endangered historic place by the Mississippi Heritage Trust.
2008: The drive-in is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
2010: A fire destroys the theater.