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Entertainment Starved Audiences Return to Auto Theatres

By Staff | Apr 29, 2020

“Let’s go out to the drive in theater” in the 50s and 60s were a family and teen alternative to indoor theaters. Prices were lower (often opening a picture three to four weeks after the indoor debut), there were double and triple features, by the car load prices and dusk to dawn showings, and playgrounds.

Families and teens populated the drive ins during their heyday during the 50s and 60s. Families liked less expensive pricing than downtown and the teens had a front and/or back car seat for making out and more.

Screen fare dipped into adult (R) rated movies. Cycles included cheerleaders, nurses, and fairy tale characters like Alice partially naked in Wonderland. These films had “hard” R and X (full nudity) too but they generally played the then traditionally “adult” theaters.

The Tri State Drive-In, Chesapeake, Ohio, showed films with boobs and butts visible, but no frontal nudity. Those films were shown at indoor adult cinemas that generally operated in larger cities often out of former burlesque venues. For those not knowledgeable, “burlesque” emphasized costumes and dance. Costumes came off but pasties covered portions of breasts and bikini bottoms stayed on.

At one time 4,000 drive ins rolled movies after dark but the vast parking lots were snapped up by big box stores and malls. Only about 300 drive ins operate in the US today, many open weekends only and closed during cold snowy months.”

As blockbusters and tentpoles started dominating the megaplex cinemas, drive ins switched to “first run” thriving on Smokey and the Bandit and Clint Eastwood, B action films, cheerleaders, naughty college co-eds, sexy nurses, along with bloody Christopher Lee horrors and “Last House on the Left.”

COVID-19 has shuttered cinemas, indoor and outdoor. But some drive ins have bucked the “closed” restrictions by adapting.

The Los Angeles Times reported in early April that ” owners of drive-ins in California, Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri said that they remain open, with several reporting increases in business in recent days. Operators said they were mindful of restrictions on large gatherings and would close if a mandate required them to do so.”

Some did. But others fought for exemptions to government ordered non-essential business shut downs.

The Milton Freewater drive in situated in Oregon has received clearance from the county health department to open under “spacing” requirements. The approval came after the drive in hosted a community Easter service.

Strict rules and reduced capacity are in place. You can’t get out of your car except for an emergency bathroom run. No hanging out and conversing. Only 100 cars per night.

As New York begins sliding down the COVID-19 peak, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced April 20 that Empire State Development is looking into making drive-ins an exception to the state mandate that all non-essential businesses must be closed.

“Where is the public safety issue? It’s a drive-in theater. You’re in the car with the same people,” said Governor Cuomo during his daily briefing.

Paul Dean, owner of the Vintage Drive-In in Avon, said, “This would be an avenue for people to come out and be safe and watch a movie from their car with their family.” He says if the drive-in can be opened, they would admit fewer cars in order to allow for more space between each car. Concession stands would implement safe social distancing practices as well.

Dean says watching a movie at a drive-in isn’t the same from streaming movies at home. He adds that more people attend drive-in movie theaters than they did ten years ago.

“It’s more popular than ever right now. People are always looking for ways to spend time with their families,” said Dean.

Since new film release dates have been pushed back the drive in will screen classics and titles released in late winter.

Water Gardens Cinema 6 in Arizona has come up with the most “out of the box” solution. The large parking lot provided space. They already had projectors. And the community pitched in to construct two screens. The hybrid Water Gardens two screen drive in operates nightly to keep its employees on the job. The manager anticipates additional make shift drive ins to open.

General Manager Kyle Larsen has received such an overwhelming response that he’s mulling whether to keep the two exterior screens as a permanent extension.

Keeping “out of box” thinking on the table, malls have large lots and, for instance, Pullman Square has two parking garages with rooftops. Park Place Stadium in Charleston is built inside a city parking garage. Perhaps, Gov. Justice and forward thinking mayors could work together with the health departments to allow some rooftop movies to light up the sky.

This article was written on April 20. The COVID-19 landscape is ever changing.

Tony Rutherford is a film reviewer for HuntingtonNews.net and a member of the Huntington Regional Film Commission.