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Local icon may soon vanish

By Jared Felkins jfelkins@lebanondemocrat.com • Updated Jan 16, 2014 at 11:40 PM

A trip to Lebanon’s Snow White Drive In harkens back to a time of sock hops, fast cars, poodle skirts, white T-shirts beneath black leather jackets, juke boxes, Elvis Presley, Hula Hoops and everyone liking Ike. 

In fact, the same year Dwight Eisenhower succeeded Harry Truman as the 34th president, the 25th Academy Awards were televised for the first time, the U.S. developed a hydrogen bomb and the first color television went on sale, the Snow White Drive In opened in Lebanon. That year was 1953, and current owner Billy Wyatt doesn’t want to see the doors close anytime soon. 

“It’s my life right now,” Wyatt said. “We have families who come in and tell their children and grandchildren they came here as children.”

But the Snow White Drive In as everyone knows it may soon come crashing down. While Wyatt owns the business, local developer Greg Dugdale owns the property the iconic drive-in sits on near the edge of town on West Main Street. 

According to Dugdale, a deal could go through that would mean the current Snow White Drive In be demolished to allow for another business to be built in its place. 

“I’m under contract with the property, but I’m not at liberty to discuss the details,” Dugdale said. “There’s a ton of due diligence. It’s far from sold. This property is not sold at this point.”

Don’t be confused, however. Wyatt and Dugdale aren’t at odds with one another. Each considers the other a friend and understands that it’s business, regardless of the outcome.  

“I’m as big a patron as anyone of Snow White, and I’m good friends with Billy,” said Dugdale, who has owned the property for about five years. “We are going to do everything we can to keep the business going. Hopefully the business can survive. The building is nearing its end regardless of whether this deal goes through or not.

“It’s like getting a 1952 automobile out of the garage and driving a route from here to Knoxville every day. It eventually gets tough to do. But this conversation may be moot. This deal is not done by any stretch of the imagination.”

Wyatt has owned the Snow White for about four years now, but it’s been in his family – on and off – for about 23 years. He said Jimmy Reed owned it when Wyatt’s mother, Ann Birdwell, was manager there, and his sister was a waitress. Birdwell bought the business and had it for about 12 years before selling it to someone from Mt. Juliet, who then sold it to a Lebanon man a year later. 

A year after that, it closed for about two years before Birdwell bought it back, and eventually Wyatt bought it from her. 

“Since I’ve had it, we’ve just about doubled business,” Wyatt said. “We have people come here from all over.”

Wyatt, his wife, Cathy, and his two sisters now run the Snow White that employs around 15 with a few more hired each summer when business picks up. 

But it’s the memories the Snow White bring back for folks that make it special for Wyatt. 

“We had a man a couple of years ago who wanted to reserve the concrete table outside,” Wyatt said. “It was Valentine’s Day and was kind of cold out. He said, ‘You don’t understand. This is where I proposed to my wife 50 years ago today.’ I told him to go right ahead.

“We have something like that happen here just about every day.”

Wyatt said movies have been shot at the historic drive in, along with music videos that have included the likes of Keith Urban and the Black Willies, among others. 

“I’ve had people from Australia, Ireland, everywhere who contact us online wanting a T-shirt,” Wyatt said. “Apparently the drive-ins are big there, because there aren’t many any more.”

The Snow White is also a place where veterans can eat for free with their military ID. In fact, Wyatt has done quite a bit for veterans, holding car shows at the drive in during the summer to raise money for various veterans’ causes. The Snow White also collects shoes and coats for homeless veterans in the winter months. 

Last year, AMVETS, a veterans’ advocacy group, presented Wyatt with its Silver Bayonet award – its highest civilian honor. 

So the question remains as to what would happen to the Snow White Drive In should Dugdale’s business deal be completed. 

“He has offered to build me a spot behind there in the back,” said Wyatt. “I’ve been approached with some other possible locations from some other business people in town.”

Wyatt’s lease is up in April, and from there, he hopes Dugdale will let him go month to month until a final decision is made on the building. 

“Buildings only have a certain amount of life regardless of how well liked they are,” Dugdale said. “You have to ask the question of whether you like the building or the business more. If you ask me, I like the business. 

“Whether I do a transaction or not, it’s probably nearing the end of its useful life.” 

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