FLORENCE DRIVE-IN MOVIE THEATERS: Palmetto owner had connections to Hollywood
Between 1946 and 1952 there were no fewer than four drive-in movie theaters in Florence. The Florence Drive-In, The Ace (Bright Leaf), The Circle, and last but not least, the Palmetto Drive-In Theater.
The Palmetto was located on the north side of the Darlington Highway (U.S. 52/West Lucas Street), near the intersection with Cashua Drive, at the present site of the Efird Chrysler car dealership.
The Ace and Circle drive-ins were already well established, and the Palmetto was further away from town. However, it offered some competition for the Circle because its location attracted customers from Darlington.
Although many people still remember the Palmetto, they may be surprised to learn the story of its owner, W. Henry Smith, and his deeper connection with drive-in culture and Southern American cinema in the 1970s.
Smith was born in Darlington. Out of high school, he joined the Navy where he learned to be an electrician and after his service, he got a job with the power company back home.
Smith was also a musician, playing guitar with a country music group called the Dixie Hot Shots, who performed frequently at venues like the old Army Air Base Theater and other dance halls around Florence in the late 1940s. Unfortunately, the music stopped when Smith was electrocuted in a work accident which cost him, literally, an arm and a leg.
Smith did not let his injury keep him down. After recovering, he saw an opportunity to get into the theater business. During its first four years in operation the Palmetto was jointly owned and managed by Mr. Sam Neil of Darlington.
Like the other drive-ins in Florence, the Palmetto had a central concessions stand and projector booth. The audio was played through individual speakers mounted to posts beside each parking spot. The speaker posts are still visible today, sticking up out of the ground in the wooded area behind the Efird dealership property.
In 1956, Smith bought out Neil’s share of the partnership. Over the next twenty-two years, Smith ran the Palmetto Drive-In as a successful family business.
Smith enjoyed being the first drive-in in Florence to offer certain films, and heavily promoted whenever movies had their “FIRST DRIVE-IN SHOWING” at his theater. Although he did not know it at the time, the Palmetto would soon premier Smith’s own films.
The Palmetto certainly played its share of comedies, romances, and Elvis movies, but in the mid-1960s the pulp film market began to explode with schlock horror, sci-fi, and skin flicks which made the rounds through America’s rural drive-in circuit.
These popular low budget movies featured lesser known talent than blockbuster Hollywood features and were quickly consumed by young (but not too young) audiences.
Smith clearly had a love of these types of films and began to show them frequently at the Palmetto.
As the father of three young daughters, Smith was sensitive to age-appropriateness, and when concerned about a particular movie, he would include the disclaimer, “Children will not enjoy or understand it.”
Around this same time, Smith took a trip to New York, where he met director Albert Viola, who had worked on the films One Naked Night, and A Woman in Love. The two men became friends and in 1970, collaborated to make a sequence of surprisingly popular Southern movies.
The first film was called Preacherman, a story of a con-man preacher who grifts the Southern countryside, taking advantage of the good townsfolk for their money and women. Due to the film’s success, Smith and Viola formed their own production company, the Preacherman Corporation. Over the next six years, they produced four more films, including a sequel to Preacherman and other “hick flicks” like Redneck Miller and Truckin’ Man (AKA Trucker’s Woman).
Perhaps their best known film is 1974’s Hot Summer in Barefoot County, a comedy written by Smith about a city cop who goes undercover to bust a moonshining operation run by a country woman and her three nubile daughters. Smith also composed the musical score.
Hot Summer became a cult classic, and still makes steady appearances at Southern film festivals. In 2007, director Quentin Tarantino cited it as an early inspiration.
Tarantino, who first saw the movie at a local drive-in in Tennessee, said, “Hot Summer in Barefoot County not only is a fun movie, but it’s a terrific example of regional filmmaking,” emphasizing that the film’s sincerity and charm could not have been accomplished by a Hollywood studio.
Smith would have agreed. Although modern audiences might only see his films for the unintentional humor of their dated characterizations and low-budget effects, Smith and Viola saw local amateur talent as an “untapped resource,” and hoped that their own projects would inspire greater interest in regional filmmaking in the South.
Like other Preacherman Corp. films, Hot Summer premiered in Florence at the Palmetto Drive-In Theater.
The Palmetto Drive-In, and the films he wrote and produced, were labors of love for Smith. Whatever profits he earned didn’t make him rich. Despite the loss of his arm and leg, Smith supplemented his income by teaching a scuba diving certification course while his wife Nell ran a pastry shop at the Florence Mall.
After Smith’s death in 1978, his family tried to keep the Palmetto Drive-In alive. However, the age of drive-in theaters was coming to an end. The Ace and Circle drive-ins had already come and gone, and the Palmetto finally closed its gates in 1979.
With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing movie theaters to close their doors to the public, there has been an increased interest in drive-in movies. The Julia 4 Cinema and Magnolia Mall have both set up big screens in their parking lots and shown drive-in movies. Large crowds have attended many of the events.
Inspired by the increased interest in drive-in movies Stephen Motte, curator of the Florence County Museum, has written a series of articles detailing the history of drive-in movie theaters in Florence. This is the third in a series of three articles.