EDEN — As the sun went down Friday night, the mood went up in this little city of 15,000.
Eden Drive-In, among the state’s most popular retro movie settings, cued the projector for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic had forced theaters to temporarily close, or, in the case of Eden Drive-In, delay their seasonal opening.
A ribbon of about 100 cars and trucks — many tricked out with mattress-lined flatbeds and barbecue grills — waited in line for gates to open at North Carolina’s oldest operating drive-in, built in 1949.
By the time the sun gave way to a violet and terra cotta dusk, the lot was filled to its limit, 200 vehicles, with all spaced 6 feet apart along a grassy terraced lot.
Arriving early to give your cash admission to ticket clerk Speedy White was key in order to secure a spot, and Luke Branham, 23, of Oak Ridge, prepared well.
“We were one of the first cars in line, and we got there at about 6 p.m.,’’ said Branham, a divinity school student who picked up pizza on the way to share with his movie date, fiancée Annika Downs, also of Oak Ridge.
“It was great,’’ Branham said Saturday morning. “It was a slice of normality. And getting out of the house and being able to see other people was fun, now that it’s been months.’’
Like other patrons, Branham and Downs stayed within their marked parking area and practiced social distancing protocols with friends.
Shuffling a deck outside their Jeep window, Branham passed the time before the flick vexing his sister Sidney Branham and her friend Stevie Holland with card tricks.
Eden Drive-in obtained a state waiver to open while indoor theaters remain closed under the state's stay-at-home order. The outdoor theater in Rockingham County made an impressive effort to patrol the grounds throughout the evening and enforce social distancing rules, patrons agreed.
“They had a bunch of people patrolling and making sure people were sitting in front of their cars, not in between. They did a really good job,’’ said Downs, who has had to plan her April 2021 wedding without being able to visit possible venues.
Matthew Ellington and Nancy Norwood, friends of the drive-in’s owner Tim Robertson, got in on the wholesome fun by marking 6-foot intervals for the line to the concession stand where frozen pickle pops are a perennial favorite.
Nearby, a tiny Jack Russell terrier puppy named “Kiki” had a bite of pizza from its family’s picnic.
Adam Marshall of Rockingham County tossed a football with a friend as toddlers rocked in booster seats brought out to the grass as theater chairs.
And they all got a hair-raising treat.
Nope, not a horror flick. Trolls.
The inaugural double-feature included, “Trolls World Tour,’’ an animated show starring the wee characters known for bright hair that stands straight up, and another animated film, “Onward,’’ which follows a young elf who learns he has magic and tries to fix a miscast spell in an effort to meet his father, who died when he was a baby.
“Trolls was so funny,’’ said Sidney Branham, an elementary education major at Appalachian State University. “My friend Stevie called me yesterday and we decided we might as well do something fun. And being outdoors and staying safe … we were so super-excited.
“It felt like sitting in a real movie theater. We had lawn chairs and sat out and enjoyed it.’’
Youngsters Kensley Harris and Raiden Bradford played in the twilight as Garland Chrisco and Leann White chatted by a pickup.
Children plopped down on mattresses in the beds of several trucks, and a patron dealt his granddaughter a hand of “Go Fish” before the flick.
The outing was a nostalgic experience to Sidney Branham, too.
“I hadn’t been to a drive-in since I was super, super tiny, so it was great!"