The old drive-in, built in 1952, had fallen into disrepair, its screen left bent and broken by a storm several years ago. The Calhoun County Commission delayed tearing it down in September 2010 after hearing a plea from Quarles’ son, Fred, for some time for the family to make the needed repairs.
County Commissioner Rudy Abbott said the demolition wasn’t what they had wanted. Many of the commissioners themselves have fond memories of the theater, but they just couldn’t ignore it any longer. Quarles said he doesn’t have hard feelings against the county government.
“They gave me a chance. I can’t blame the commissioners. I couldn’t get it fixed up,” he said.
The last seven years have been a rough period for Quarles. His eyesight is going. He has diabetes and he doesn’t drive anymore. Fixing up the drive-in was just not possible, he said, no matter how much he wished he could.
Every so often while telling his life story he’d stop mid-sentence, startled at the sound of crashing metal from outside. The bulldozer had reduced the silver screen to a sliver by 4 p.m. Thursday.
“There it goes. Part of it,” Quarles would say, and then he’d resume the narrative.
At 14, Quarles became a projectionist at his father’s theater in Ashville. On his army application he listed his hobbies as “motion pictures.” After the army and a few odd jobs, he operated several theaters in Gadsden.
After a falling out with a business partner, Quarles bought the Piedmont Drive-in in 1973. The family built a home above the concession stand, where he still lives with a grandson and grandchildren. Old newspaper articles about the drive-in hang on the walls in the living room. The movie projector sits idle on a stand in the projection booth in the yard.
Quarles played his last movie at the drive-in in 2005, just after his wife, Martha, died. They’d been married 55 years. His granddaughter leased the drive-in from him and the cars kept rolling in for a time, but in 2007 it closed for good.
He talked about the theater business, but mostly he talked about Martha, a woman he loved enough to chase all the way to Texas to marry. The couple went through a lot of bad times, but mostly good times, he said. She’d work in the concession stand downstairs while he ran the projector.
He talked about the drive-in as if it wasn’t finished just yet. If they’d only have left the giant poles that held up the screen, he said. Those are the most expensive things to have done.
Movies are in Cecil Quarles’ blood, and once it’s in, it never comes out.
“You couldn’t have gotten it out of me if you wanted to. I can’t stand it that my screen is gone,” he said.