Back in their heyday, drive-in movie theaters meant parents could pile the kids in the back of the station wagon and head out to see a flick on a nice summer night, hooking the scratchy metal speaker on the car window, collecting popcorn and Cokes from the concession stand, and maybe playing a few holes of mini-golf to boot … all without making much of a dent in the pocketbook.
At the height of their popularity in the 1950s, America had 4,500 drive-in screens. Today, that number has dipped to less than 350, with Ohio hanging on to 23 or 24. This summer, though, drive-ins are seeing a new surge in popularity, as families everywhere seek ways to get out of the house after months of staying in.
It’s not just movies, either. Drive-in owners are getting creative and making their unique venues work for everything from high school graduations to concerts to corporate meetings.
“There’s an allure to the drive-in movie — it’s classic, it’s fun, there’s a novelty to it,” says Dave Filipi, director of film/video at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus. “With everything going on this year, it’s one way people can go out in public and still maintain a level of social distancing.”
With the Ohio governor’s green light, drive-in theaters were able to reopen in May, as long as they followed certain precautions. It offered moviegoers a safe alternative amid the pandemic, when many other forms of entertainment remained closed.
“We’ve had nothing but praise about being open,” says Walt Effinger, who, with his wife, Cathie, owns the Skyview Drive-In just outside of Lancaster. “It gives the public a place to go, to be outside and away from their homes, to enjoy a movie.”
Effinger says the Skyview made some changes before opening the gates. “We got things in place for the safety of our employees and customers. We follow social distancing guidelines and are only allowing one vehicle at each speaker post instead of two,” he says. “Usually we can hold close to 500 cars, but we’re operating now at 50% capacity.”
In northwest Ohio, Field of Dreams Drive-In, near Liberty Center, is “definitely seeing an increase in new customers,” says Callan Bauer, VP of operations for Saunders Theater Properties. “People are excited to try us out. They don’t have to get out of the car for anything. They can even order from the concession stand from their phones and the food will be delivered right to their car.”
Bauer started working at the drive-in at age 14, when her parents opened their first theater “literally in our backyard,” she says. “Now we have seven outdoor screens in three drive-in theaters.”
She says there’s a certain magic to the drive-in movie. “It’s a cool experience to watch people come in and have such a good time. It’s a family-affordable place where they can experience something out of the ordinary. Plus, we have the best popcorn ever.”
The biggest challenge during the pandemic, drive-in owners say, is the lag in the release of new movies as Hollywood has been forced to suspend some operations. “That’s an obstacle,” Bauer says, “but we’re showing classic films and old favorites. The most popular double feature has been Grease and Footloose, and people loved seeing Jaws and Jurassic Park together.”
Deb Sherman, who owns Aut-O-Rama Twin Drive-In near North Ridgeville with her five children, says new movies like Mulan and Tenet are on the horizon. Meanwhile, audiences are enjoying old-school classics like The Wizard of Oz and Twister together or Goonies and Back to the Future.
Beyond movies, drive-ins are hosting a number of special events. Tricounty Rural Electric Cooperative even rented Field of Dreams for its annual meeting in September. That seemed like the perfect solution for the gathering usually held in a local school, according to General Manager Brett Perkins.
“We’ve invited our members to the drive-in, which can handle 250 cars,” he said. “We’ll welcome everyone ‘live’ — broadcasting on the screen and through their car radios — and play our prerecorded speeches on the big screen. We’ll offer typical movie treats like popcorn and boxed candy … and they can all stay for a family-friendly movie, too.”
Bauer says the drive-in has hosted several high school graduation ceremonies. “We loved their creativity. Some of the high schools recorded videos of each student getting their diploma and then showed them on our big screen. Some included prerecorded speeches, and one had their high school choir singing ‘together.’ It was very cool.”
Concerts are a hit, too. “Garth Brooks did a prerecorded concert that was shown at 300 drive-in theaters around the world; you could only watch it at a drive-in,” Bauer says. “We also present live concerts with local and regional bands. People can stay in their cars and enjoy the music.”
Most folks, though, still just love the drive-in for its retro appeal. “I used to go pretty regularly in college,” Filipi says. “It’s a different setting. It’s informal. You can bring a carload of friends or put the kids in their pajamas and let them fall asleep in the back seat. There’s some romance and nostalgia to the whole experience.”