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Graduation At The Last Drive-In Picture Show

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Courtesy of Gatesville High School and Amber Colson Photography
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A Gatesville High School graduate receives her diploma during a private, socially distanced ceremony with a small number of family and school faculty present.

From Texas Standard:

If this were any other school year, Gatesville High School principal Yancey Sanderson says he’d be spending a lot of face-to-face time with his senior class.

Back in March, no one at Gatesville High thought when they left for Spring Break they wouldn’t come back for the rest of the year.

“You go from being holistically involved in people’s families and their lives,” Sanderson said, “to being separated from that. And you miss that piece of it."

Gatesville is about 100 miles northwest of Austin. It’s a small town. The 180 kids graduating this year have likely been together since pre-K. Students, teachers and faculty are close-knit.

“If you asked me back in August what I was looking forward to most was graduation,” said Mason Edwards, Gatesville’s 2020 senior class president and salutatorian. “And walking across the stage and being in front of all of those people.”

Graduation night at Gatesville High is one of the biggest celebrations of the year for this small town. Family and friends usually pack the school’s 4,000-seat football stadium.

Edwards said his class was shocked when they found out their prom and graduation were going to be canceled.

Prom couldn’t be saved. But Gatesville school leaders would not give up on graduation night. As luck would have it, Gatesville has its very own drive-in movie theatre just down the road from the high school.

“When I was growing up in San Saba there was a drive-in movie theater there,” Gatesville High School principal Sanderson said. “And they are kind of a relic of small-town Texas. And luckily there are [a] few that still exist and Gatesville is one of the places that still has one.”

Gatesville’s Last Drive-In Picture Show has been around for 70 years. The theater changed its name back in the late 80s to be reminiscent of that of the iconic Texas film: “The Last Picture Show.”

But unlike the Royal theater featured in that 1971 movie, Gatesville’s one-screen drive-in is still open seven days a week, year-round. It’s not a huge venue. The screen’s pretty big though. It looms in front of a huge gravel lot with about 200 parking spots.

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Credit Courtesy of The Last Drive-In Picture Show in Gatesville.
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Next week, the Last Drive-In Picture Show will host virtual graduation for Gatesville High School seniors.

Gene Palmer’s first job at the Gatesville drive-in was helping people park their cars in those spots, back when the theater opened in 1950.

“Then I started working in the snack bar. And then projection. And I just… stayed on,” said Palmer.

Palmer and his family eventually bought the drive-in. He credits a lot of their success to staying family-focused. According to Palmer, they haven’t played an R-rated movie in Gatesville since the 1970s.

Drive-in movie theaters are making a bit of a comeback during the coronavirus pandemic because social distancing is literally baked into their business model. You view a movie on a giant screen from the comfort of your vehicle in a large parking lot. Sound is beamed in through a speaker system or a car radio. Gatesville’s drive-in has stayed open during the virus so residents would have something to do. And it’s been busy. Sometimes a little too busy for comfort.

“We always get people from out-of-town,” said Palmer. “But we didn’t think about the fact that when all of the other theaters closed up, they were going to come over to Gatesville to the drive-in.” 

Palmer’s family has limited the number of vehicles that can come into The Last Drive-In Picture Show. The snack bar provides to-go service only. And drive-in staff members wear face masks. Palmer says they’ve asked customers to wear masks when they interact with drive-in workers.

Other area high schools have approached Palmer and his family about having virtual graduations at the drive-in. For now, they’re going to help two local schools, tiny Valley Mills High School and Gatesville High.

“Of course, we’ll do it for Gatesville because it’s our town,” said Palmer. “They deserve something better than what’s happening to all of them.”

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Credit Courtesy of Gatesville High School and Amber Colson Photography
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A Gatesville High School graduate receives his diploma during a private, socially distanced ceremony with a small number of family and school faculty present. Gatesville High School principal Yancey Sanderson watches on from a podium on the stage.

For three weeks, the school district set up separate time slots for grads and their family to come to the school’s football stadium. Then last week, they filmed these private ceremonies of seniors getting their diploma. Some faculty were present, including principal Sanderson.

“There were a lot of tears shed,” said Sanderson. “From the students, from the parents. It was a special moment. It wasn’t a fake moment.”

Waco-based Clever Guys Media then edited the individually filmed ceremonies together.

The resulting video will be shown next week at Gatesville’s Last Drive-In Picture Show. Next Thursday, Gatesville seniors will each ride with one carload of family to a large parking lot across from the football field. From there, the cars will form a procession led by local police cars and fire trucks, and travel to the drive-in. They’ll park in front of that very large outdoor movie screen and tune into the drive-in’s radio station. And up on the screen, as dusk settles in, they’ll watch their very own high school graduation movie.

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Credit Courtesy of Gatesville High School and Amber Colson Photography
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Gatesville High School 2020 Senior Class President and Salutatorian Mason Edwards filmed his commencement speech last week in a socially distanced ceremony with a small number of family and school faculty present.

“I do think it will be a defining moment. I think that kind of separates us from other people and other classes,” said salutatorian Mason Edwards. "'You remember back in high school when we had to graduate over a screen in front of all those people because we couldn’t be within six feet of each other?’”

Gatesville High School said it does hope to have some form of an in-person graduation at its football stadium in July if social distancing guidelines have been lifted.

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