New Hampshire’s 3 drive-ins get renewed attention as ‘social distancing’ venues

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The Northfield Drive-In will next reopen under new management, having been sold by Keene’s Shakour family to the drive-in’s neighbors, Steven and Julia Wiggin of Winchester. Photo/Michael Moore, Sentinal Staff

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As New Hampshire’s three drive-in movie theaters prepare for their 2020 seasons, they are experiencing a resurgence in their popularity and importance, but not just for movies. 

“I’ve got high schools wanting to do graduation there because I can do social separation. Also, I am getting calls from bands wanting to do concerts. I’ve gotten calls from comedy acts, all sorts of things,” Milford Drive-In owner Barry Scharmett said. “People are coming out of the woodwork. I understand that people need money, and it is what it is, but I’ve never had so many phone calls in my life.”

Under state guidelines, drive-ins are able to open after May 11, but can only admit half the amount of cars they normally would. Scharmett, who usually opens the Milford Drive-In in April, is opening as soon as he can, this Friday. The state shut down did not affect the Northfield Drive-In in Winchester that traditionally opens on Memorial Day. 

Steven and Julia Wiggin purchased the Northfield Drive-in from longtime owner Mitchell Shakour just three weeks ago. The Wiggins are hoping to accommodate as many graduations as they can before their Memorial Day weekend opening. Additionally, they hope to fit in a Girl Scouts awards night, church services on Sunday mornings and possibly a Gay Pride movie night, since it’s likely parades will be out of the question in June, which is Gay Pride month.

“The whole purpose of buying the drive-in has completely snow-balled and morphed into a community service project and we both have service hearts and we both are happy to be helping any service organization we can so we can help them celebrate,” Julia Wiggin said. She’s received inquiries from as far as 60 miles away. “It just shows that there is a great demand for this kind of venue.”

The Weirs Drive-In in Weirs Beach said in a Facebook post on May 1 it is also planning on a Memorial Day weekend opening and will be observing state guidelines on Covid-19. In addition to coronavirus, the drive-in is also affected by construction to the bridge on Route 3 in Weirs Beach. The construction project, which was delayed by the pandemic, is causing an 18-mile detour. 

“We would open sooner but there is this bridge. It’s under construction by the State. We have to wait on the construction to wrap up before we can open,” the post said. “As you might expect, there will be COVID rules this year. We have a couple of weeks for the picture to get clearer as things start to open. We’ll wait on posting the changes until then.”

Because of the pandemic, studios aren’t releasing new movies, so opening night will be a film that has already hit the big screen, possibly something from the “Disney vault,” Scharmett said. He’s not sure what audience turnout will be.

“I have no idea. To me, it’s a 50/50 crapshoot because there is nothing new. Everything we are going to play is old. With this pandemic a good percent of March, April, May and June movies have been shifted to different months and some to next year,” he said.

By Tuesday, Scharmett had announced his double features “Onward” paired with “The Call of the Wild” and “Invisible Man” and “The Hunt.” Tickets, at $30 per vehicle, are currently being sold on the Milford Drive-In website. 

During coronavirus, drive-in movie theaters are reportedly seeing a revival, especially in warmer states, like California, where movie theaters remain shuttered but the outdoor venues have been allowed to open.

“According to my son and Facebook, it’s out of control,” Scharmett said of attendance at drive-ins in other states. With schools, sports and summer activities canceled, drive-ins may fill the void of family activities for many. “I personally think it’s going to be well received.”

The Milford Drive-In will be showing double features on both of its screens as usual, Scharmett said. Admission is $30 per car and can be purchased online after the movie lineup is announced. To comply with the state guidelines, staff will be outfitted with face coverings and gloves and cars will be parked further apart. Scharmett is also altering the concession stand so moviegoers can buy food from outside. 

The moviegoers will have to sit in or near their cars, he said. When they are outside of their cars they will be asked to wear a mask or face covering.

The Northfield Drive-In property sits in both Winchester and Northfield, Massachusetts, with its entrance on Route 63 in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, but is a Winchester-based business, Wiggin said. An important distinction right now since Massachusetts is not allowing the opening of drive-ins at this time.

Traditionally, the Northfield Drive-In opens on Memorial Day weekend. Wiggin said she and her husband are working hard to keep that as the opening date this year. However, the date could be pushed out one weekend because they are so busy right now, updating the drive-in’s concession stand to current fire and health codes, adding high-speed Internet and a touchless pay system, and organizing non-movie events.

“We are concentrating on all of the commencement exercises and all of the celebratory awards that are happening,” she said.

Right now, graduation for Pioneer Regional School in Northfield, Massachusetts, is scheduled to take place at the Northfield Drive-In, Wiggin said. More graduation ceremonies could be booked soon. 

“I have just over a dozen inquiries,” Wiggins said. “This is everything from the 6th grade to 8th-grade commencement, to the 12th-grade graduation.”

These may be day time or evening events, she said, but she wants to accommodate the community as much as she can before opening for the movie season. She said the drive-in might also be a good fit for the Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts silver award and gold award ceremony. “I am looking forward to being able to do more than the graduations at this time. The Girl Scout awards are very significant and we want to honor the scouts with a full ceremony.”

While patrons can’t yet buy tickets online, Wiggin is currently updating the property’s internet speeds so that a new touchless pay system — an upgrade from the former cash-only businesses —  will work.

“We have been advised to not take cash,” she said.

The Northfield Drive-In also plans to have an online food ordering app for the concession stand and an order form — for those without smartphones — so that while social distancing guidelines are in place audience members can stay with their car and drive-in staff “runners” can bring food orders directly to them.

“We’re still working on this entire system,” she said. “We are going to try to accommodate as best as we can, ‘cause one of the fun things about going to the drive-in is the fried dough and corndogs.”

Wiggin said the Northfield Drive-In is slashing its ticket prices in half for the first part of the summer because they will only be running one movie a night. That’s because sanitizing the drive-in’s bathrooms after each use will be a lot of work for employees, she said. The theatre will definitely be open by early June, Wiggins said. 

“We’ll start posting as soon as we have some really good information and when we have a lineup,” she said.  “And we look forward to welcoming people, graduates as well as moviegoers.”

New Hampshire’s drive-ins are all updating information on their Facebook pages and websites:

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Meghan Pierce

Meghan Pierce is founder and editor of Monadnock Beat.