Drive-in theaters: One post-pandemic way of coming together while staying apart

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Drive-ins, like a parking lot full of private theaters. Photo/Christopher P. Michel, Creative Commons

Ask someone who experienced speaker boxes, mosquito coils, and memories of the intermission video in the background while Danny Zuko from the film “Grease” croons, “Sandy” in his best falsetto, and you are bound to witness a familiar warm wistful expression. And what of that sparkling technicolor memory of the refreshment video? It was created in 1957 and is still playing on drive-in screens to this day. When hot dogs and cups of soda are dancing larger than life on a 45-foot-tall screen, it’s almost impossible not to make your way to the concession stand.

When was the last time you went to the drive-in? Whether you are snuggled in a car, making yourself comfortable in a flatbed, or sitting in the back of an SUV, there is nothing quite like witnessing summer’s sunset at dusk, enjoying a film on a balmy evening, blanketed under a sky full of stars. A universally enjoyable experience, it’s difficult to believe that the current generation’s familiarity is possibly only through film. 

Milford Drive-In has been family-owned for more than 50 years.

After a long winter’s nap, along with socially distanced precautions of the pandemic, it seems the drive-in may be returning as a way of coming together while still being apart. Last year, the necessary response to COVID not only gave the remaining drive-in theatres a well-deserved shot in the arm as a safer alternative to enjoy an evening out, but also created new opportunities for introduction. In 2020 Wal-Mart utilized 160 properties as theatres. A parking lot at the fairgrounds which hosts the Big E, in West Springfield, MA, has been converted to a drive-in theatre for the 2021 season and husband-and-wife-team Ayana-Stafford and Siree Morris owners of Newark Moonlight Cinema, in Newark, NJ, shrewdly re-utilized the site of the former Newark Bears Baseball Stadium as a drive-in theatre.

“We had more business. That was a result of COVID. But it’s not like we haven’t been steady. We got a bunch of new patrons that have never been to a drive-in before, mainly because of COVID,” says owner/operator Barry Scharmett of the Milford Drive-In Theater, whose family has owned Milford Drive-In for over 50 years. Outside of films, Scharmett has shown live boxing, sporting events, and recorded concerts. ”We’ve done concerts in the past, and we haven’t done live concerts. I’m actually looking into doing some live concerts,” says Scharmett.

Although the pandemic may be the primary reason for the drive-in’s return, political and social turmoil may also be contributing factors toward a desire for nostalgia, with the innate need to find comfort in the uncomfortable. 

NH is home to three drive-in movie theaters – Milford Drive-in the Weirs Beach Drive-In and Northfield Drive-in.

And comfortable, it is. The drive-in was specifically born out of the need for comfort. Due to her frame, Richard Hollingshead Jr,’s mother was uncomfortable in traditional movie palaces. In 1933, Hollingshead created a way for his mother to enjoy films at home. Sheets were hung between two trees and a projector placed on the roof of a car. By the second half of the 20th century, the drive-in saw its peak with over 4,000 established operations nationwide. A little over 300 original drive-ins remain in the United States. New Hampshire is the home to three, The Milford Drive-In, Weirs Drive-In Theater, and Northfield Drive-In Theater. Casual comfort, convenience, and an obsession with cars fueled the drive-in’s growth, as parents could pile the family and Fido in the back seat to enjoy an entertaining, affordable night out. “Well, besides being a family environment, a safe family environment…they come in, and they’ll have dinner together. So it makes it a nice family outing, says Scharmett.”   

Whether flip-flops or footie pajamas, the youngest of children can attend, and with the backing of fervent anticipation, full bellies, explosive energy, and sugar-crashes there is a fair chance the kids will be in dreamland by the second show. Currently, the drive-in is being shared with the contemporary age. When asked about the reaction of first-timers, Scharmett states “It’s wonderful, it’s a wonderful reaction. You know, most kids are excited. Most kids have no clue what to expect. So it’s a great experience for them. Plus, they’re outdoors, they can run around. Kids, in general, make noise. You’re not gonna keep them quiet. So that’s the other advantage, parents don’t have to keep them quiet like in the cinema.”

Northfield Drive-In Theater Hinsdale, New Hampshire

Inquiring about the attendance of the season, Scharmett explains, “Everything is going to be opened up. I don’t know to what capacity. So with everything opening up, it may be a different season. You know, it’s all gonna depend upon, basically, what is allowed. So there’s no way to tell.”  Although Scharmett isn’t certain, with COVID still a contentious factor, attendance has the potential to once again create a well-deserved boost in business. 

During the ‘80s drive-ins began disappearing for multiple reasons but ultimately their demise was due to their valuable acreage as developers were able to devise contracts that were profitable for themselves as well as for drive-in owners.

It’s not as much about the film as the experience itself, and although COVID contributed to this retro-resurgence, let’s hope its relaxed ease, sentimental enchantment and sharing carefree memories with the ones we cherish, can continue to fuel its momentum.  An evening worthy of its summer magic, if you or a member of your family haven’t been to the drive-in, be sure to add it to your immediate bucket list. Polish your falsetto, remember the mosquito repellent and hurry, dusk approaches.

Below: “Stranded at the Drive-In” from “Grease”

Who remembers the dancing popcorn during the “intermission” reel?