Drive-ins have officially resurrected as popular entertainment as people all over the United States have realized the power of an attraction with built in social distancing. The Mendon Twin Drive-In in Mendon, Massachusetts, is just one location of many that offers guests a safe night out for some big screen movie magic and a chance to forget about the chaos of a world around them plagued by the coronavirus.

The Mendon Twin Drive-In, which opened in 1954, operates two screens that each show a double feature every night of the week. After purchasing a ticket, guests pull their cars into one of the two lots, depending on which movies they selected, and set up their viewing spaces. Many choose to equip their vehicles with pillows and blankets to get comfortable for the screenings, while others bring lawn chairs for a more outdoor experience. Once situated, customers can head to the concessions where they can choose from an array of classic snack shack foods and movie classics, like pizza, hot dogs, popcorn and candy. There is also an ice cream window, and a Beer Garden that serves alcoholic beverages with picnic tables spaced to social distance regulations.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mendon Twin Drive-In has been extremely successful this season. The location is typically open from March until the first snowfall, but it experienced a delayed opening in May this season, and since then has operated at half capacity to adhere to new COVID-19 guidelines. Other changes included blocking off every other parking spot, having only employees handle the food as opposed to a usual buffet style grab-and-go, and spacing out lines for concessions and restroom use to follow the six-foot guidelines. “The biggest change was the social distancing rules,” said Lot Manager Ivan Duprey, but for the most part, the experience is the same.

Minden Twin Drive in

The Mendon Twin Drive-in in Mendon Mass. operates at 50% capacity since every other stall is left vacant for social distancing due to Covid-19

The Drine-in attracts guests with classic films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Harry Potter. According to night manager Alex Haynes even some B movies and “cult classics like Evil Dead,” have drawn bigger crowds than they expected. Even at half capacity, Haynes, noticed a definite rise in the number of weeknight guests between this season and last. Usually after Labor Day, they only screen movies on the weekends, but this year they have been considering remaining open all week until winter in response to a rise in attendance to shows on weeknights. This would especially accommodate local kids who are dealing with school closings and online classes and need to escape from their houses on weeknights to blow off some steam as well as many working-class people who are doing their jobs from home and just need a breath of fresh air — literally.

For veteran guests, the concept feels akin to how it has always been with the simple addition of a mask policy when outside of your vehicle. Local college student, Tayla Randall, was glad to have a place to go after she and her friends began their online schooling from home this semester. “It’s great! Very enjoyable and fun for all sorts of ages. I love being able to see people getting creative while they watch,” said Randall as she looked toward a family of kids cuddled up in the bed of a red truck. In a time of constant turmoil where so many forms of entertainment are rapidly changing, the drive-in benefits from nostalgia and normalcy. Even those who had never been to a drive-in pre-pandemic are now learning the joys of dinner and a movie under the stars. Duprey, estimates “about 20% of guests are total newcomers” to the scene. People are discovering the advantages of the drive-in as a safe pandemic activity.

Minden Twin Drive-in Beer Garden

Cold beer on a warm summer night at the drive-in harkens back to an earlier America where parents with rambunctious children could enjoy a movie in their big American car.

Every year, the Mendon Twin Drive-In plays fan favorites with double features of Grease and Dirty Dancing, and an equally strong Blockbuster duo of Jaws and Jurassic Park, but this year movies are not the only thing the drive-in hosts. Massive space combined with audio streamed through car radios, food services, and a large screen to project onto makes drive-ins suitable for hosting a plethora of events including concerts, graduations, church services and even weddings.

Casa Del Mar

The Mendon Twin Drive-In hosted a Metallica concert where a recorded live show was projected on the big screen. Fans could enjoy an intimate concert experience during a time when live concerts would otherwise be cancelled due to the inability to guarantee social distancing. They also hosted the Sutton High School graduation. As long as they follow state guidelines, they are able to host parties and events. They usually host a Rocky Horror Picture show, a Wine and Country Fest, and an event they call the Ungrateful Dead where they project the most recent Grateful Dead concert, and they hope to be able to host all of those events this year.

The history of the drive-in is an interesting one. It was first able to appeal to car lovers in 1933 because it gave them the option of a new exclusive way of watching movies, especially in the bench style seats of old car models. The outdoor aspect made the experience much more family friendly in the sense that children would not have to sit silently still in a small theater. In the 1950s, the concept of drive-ins really took off, and is even now seen as an unmistakably recognizable symbol of Americana. Today, there are only about four hundred drive-in movie theatres still operating in the United States as opposed to a whopping four thousand that existed in the 50s.

Early drive-ins

Big cars with bench seats made drive-ins comfortable places to watch a film in the 1950s

After the steep drop-off in acclaim for drive-ins, they are now back in the spotlight. Since the beginning of the shut down in 2020, companies have been forced to reinvent their business to accommodate public health and safety while also staying afloat financially. As many different businesses go under, drive-ins have been able to remain a successful form of entertainment by providing a safe break from strict quarantine. Doc’s Drive-In in Buda, Texas has even hosted two successful weddings and Walmart has created 160 pop-up locations for movie screenings in their Supercenter parking lots all the way through October.

For a West Coast opportunity, Street Food Cinema in Los Angeles, California launched in 2012 pairing outdoor movie screenings with food trucks. In order to adapt to the changes brought on by the pandemic, the company transitioned into SFC Drive-In in June 2020 in order to adapt their business into a more socially distanced style. There are many locations throughout Los Angeles, including Malibu Canyon where they obtained a permit from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to put up a screen and operate at King Gillette Ranch for a limited time. The Malibu Canyon park offers modern movies and Academy Award winning pictures such as Coco, Get Out, and La La Land. One movie is shown each night that the location is open, which is limited to one weekend in August, and two weekends in September. As a pop-up location, the movie showings allow Los Angeles residents to venture out of their houses and still have a safe night. There are Street Food Cinema Drive-In locations in Glendale, Orange County, Ontario and even Simi Valley at the Brandeis Bardin Campus, that offer a variety of different films. It has been a huge success.

Car turned into a bar

Best seat in the house? At least it’s close to the refreshments.

The increased popularity, and therefore profit, of drive-ins makes it possible to show movies further into autumn. In New York City, Skyline drive-in is the place to go. There are also successful Northwestern spots like Spud Drive-in Theatre in Driggs, Idaho where guests have a great view of the stars and locations as far Southeast as Silver Moon Drive-In Theatre in Lakeland, Florida. More drive-in inspired events are beginning to gain traction as businesses adjust to the new normal. Nowadays, an event that allows people to stay in their own cars is an ideal model to assure the maintenance of social distance. Expanding on this concept, Urban Legends Haunt has paired with the Orange County Fair and Event Center in Costa Mesa, Southern California to offer a drive-thru version of a haunting experience. Every Wednesday through Sunday throughout October fans of all things spooky can enjoy this innovative spin to Halloween. Guests remain in their own vehicles as they drive through an immersive set full of live performances, interactive shows, monsters, and light and sound shows with plenty of storytelling and special effects to make for one scary night. Since trick-or-treating will most likely not be an option this season, the Urban Legends Haunt created a safe way for Halloween horror fanatics to get their fix. Drive-in and drive-thru experiences are rising to the top for socially distant events and are providing people with new creative options of entertainment, so much so that the popularity of these avant-garde amusement opportunities may very well be here to stay long after the virus abates.

 

Kayla Frost is a Television, Radio and Film student in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.