Moviegoers watch Left Behind at the drive-in. It had been in its original site for more than 40 years before Wal-Mart came along.
CLEARWATER - It's 7:30 p.m., the sun is about to set and most of the ground is still showing. Ideally, weeds and grass on the mostly dirt field would be hidden by rows of cars by now, but the Drive-In Cinema is as empty as an old theater showing black-and-whites on a weekday afternoon.
Fred Hanks stands at the gate entrance with survey cards and envelopes to hand out. Drivers get in free but are encouraged to put donations in the envelopes. Money goes to Drive-In Ministries, a Christian group that shows spiritual films around the world.
Tonight's feature is Left Behind, starring Kirk Cameron. It's an apocalyptic flick, a spinoff of the bestselling Christian book series by the same name.
Never mind that few people go to drive-ins anymore or that Christian films, like the blockbuster The Passion of the Christ, are showing in mainstream theaters with air conditioning, cushioned seats and Raisinets.
Never mind that Drive-In Ministries shut down its big screen on U.S. 19 about four years ago in the face of meager turnouts. Hanks, a volunteer, thought the drive-in was worth reviving - this time on an obscure tract off Ulmerton Road, just beyond what looks like an equipment junkyard.
"It's going to take a little while to get them used to the idea again, I'm sure," Hanks says, waiting at the gate.
Finally two women and a little girl drive up, equipped with lawn chairs and a bucket of Albertsons chicken. Then another car, a Ford van, and another.
The night sky sets in, and Hanks begins to smile.
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A Christian drive-in?
It was Terry Lytle's idea, back when he was a pastor in 1951 at Devil's Lake resort in Michigan. Black-and-white TV was just becoming popular, and more people were going to see movies.
Lytle was 22 and looking for a way to attract nonbelievers. He figured he could lure them to the drive-in and show religious films that spoke to their souls.
"Right off the bat, everybody looked at me and said, "What is wrong with this preacher?' They thought I was a kook."
And that was from his fellow preachers. Back then, Christians thought movie-watching was too "worldly" for churchgoers. Some disagreed with religious independents who put their message on film.
"We lived in a different world than we live in now," Lytle said. "Now, the churches are going to see The Passion."
People came out of curiosity, Lytle said. He would show films made by the Moody Bible Institute about creation science, or movies by Billy Graham and other Christian groups. Lytle and his wife, Olive, had volunteers walk the grounds to make sure moviegoers remained chaste.
At the end of the film, he would tell the crowd about Jesus, how they could meet him in heaven if they would only believe. Over the years, he said, thousands have been converted to Christianity at his drive-ins.
By 1958, Lytle was looking for a second location where he could show movies year-round. He thought of Florida and set up on U.S. 19.
Allen Nye was a student at St. Petersburg High School in the 1960s when ministry workers would get jocks at local schools to promote going to the Christian drive-in. The athletes would announce over the intercom that they had gone to the drive-in and seen "a really cool movie," Nye said. Nye became a fan of Christian classics like Billy Graham's The Restless Ones or The Cross and the Switchblade, starring Pat Boone and Erik Estrada (before CHiPs).
For more than 40 years, the drive-in was a popular place for believers. Then times changed and crowds dwindled. Some nights, only a dozen or so people showed up, Nye said. Drive-In sold the land to Wal-Mart in 2000, and the store opened there a year later.
The ministry focused on international expansion, taking its big screens on the road. RVs and trucks were equipped with big screens and became traveling Christian theaters stopping for performances in neighborhoods and at churches. Today, Drive-In shows Christian movies around the country on its mobile trucks and has mobile sites in Ukraine, Guatemala, Nigeria, India and Mexico.
Hanks, 61, is a former pastor who became interested in Drive-In Ministries after meeting Lytle at a church 16 years ago. He works full time installing cable for Bright House, but he hopes to get back into full-time ministry soon. Meanwhile, he spends his free time organizing Drive-In's mobile operations in the United States and often preaches during Sunday drive-in services at a building the group purchased for its headquarters on 40th Street. There, worshipers stay in their cars and listen to music and a sermon.
But it just didn't seem right to Hanks and other ministry leaders that the Tampa Bay area should be without the old movie drive-in that was once so successful. They decided this year to get the drive-in going again, with Hanks running things. It would open every Friday at 7:30 on a lot at the headquarters site. Hanks sent out e-mails and letters to churches and the media about the reopening, on May 7. Then he waited, hoping to rekindle a tradition.
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"It's a gathering of the brethren and the sistren," says Gail Grossi of Pinellas Park, who was a regular at the old drive-in on U.S. 19. "It's pretty much like church, but it's not pushed on you."
A biker with a Harley-Davidson tag on her car, Grossi says this is where she meets up with other believers. "At church, if you go in rags, they don't want you," she says. "Here, you can come in your blue jeans."
Tonight is the first Christian drive-in experience for Cindy Edwards, her friend Crystal Smiley and Smiley's 8-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.
Most movies today are too violent, Edwards says. "I don't want my kids seeing that stuff." But the movie lineup at this drive-in is something the whole family can take part in, she says.
"It's wonderful," Smiley says. "It's a family evening."
About a dozen kids sit in front of a smaller screen off to the side, watching an animated Christian film. Small bags of Cracker Jack, M&Ms, Snickers and buttered popcorn and canned sodas in a cooler are on sale for 50 cents. Deanne Fitch takes awhile to decide which snacks to buy for her six children, who are with her and her husband, Craig.
There's a cool breeze tonight, so a few of the two dozen adults have left their cramped vans, SUVs and old-model cars for the drive-in's orange and yellow chairs. They watch as Cameron and other B-list actors discover that they have been left behind to endure a period of evil and tribulation on Earth.
By 10:15, the credits are rolling. Hanks appears on a lighted stage beside the screen. In the film, some people didn't go to heaven because they didn't believe.
"That's what it's all about," going to heaven, he says, urging anyone who is not a Christian to repeat a prayer: "Dear God, I want to go to heaven when I die . . ."
If they would like, the ministry will send them more information about Jesus.
God bless you, he tells the crowd. "It's good to have you here at the drive-in." Sharon Tubbs can be reached at 727 892-2253 or firstname.lastname@example.org