The drive-ins of yesteryear start a new season

The Hyde Park Drive-in. (photo by Dion Ogust)

Been hoping to see a movie not from one’s couch? Several drive-ins within the Hudson Valley will be reopening this Friday, May 22, as part of the first wave of lockdown relief … with strict health protocols in place.

The Hyde Park Drive-In on Route 9 across from FDR and Eleanor’s old pad since 1950 will offer up Sonic the Hedgehog and Grease beginning at dusk. The sister Overlook Drive-In, operating since 1955 on Degarmo Road in Poughkeepsie, will kick off Friday with Trolls World Tour and Invisible Man.

Four Brothers Drive In Theater in Armenia, which opened in 2013 and reopened last weekend with the Trolls movie and Harley Quinn: Birds Of Prey, will start running Jumanji: The Next Level and Ford V Ferrari on May 22.

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The four-screen Hiway Drive In on Route 9W beween Catskill and Coxsackie, which has prided itself as being “not a movie, it’s a movie experience” since 1951, opens May 22 with screenings of Bad Boys for Life and Bloodshot, Onward and The Call of the Wild, The Invisible Man and The Hunt, and the Trolls and Hedgehog movies, all starting at dusk.

Fair Oaks Drive In on Bloomingburg Road outside Middletown in Orange County opens Friday with Onward and the Sonic movie on one screen, and Raiders of The Lost Ark and Bad News Bears on the other.

To date, the hipster-oriented Greenville Drive-In located in a beautiful Catskill Mountains-backdropped setting with gourmet food and crafts beers in Greene County has not set a reopening dates. Why not?

The owners say they are aware they could reopen, but they will not be doing so. “We are still working on Best Practice Procedures to keep our guests and our staff safe,” wrote Greenville Drive-Ins owners Dwight Grimm and Leigh Van Swall, who bought and renovated the place five years ago. “These procedures are dependent on delayed supplies and detailed official guidance. When we have what we need on hand, we will gently re-open to the public. We hope that is in the not-too-distant future. As soon as we know when we’re opening, we will let you know, The best news about today’s announcement is that it means we will be able to host the various graduation swe have scheduled for June and July. Both of us thank you for your continued support. Please know that like most drive-ins we are a mom-and-pop operation.”

To date, graduations have been announced by Westchester County’s North Salem High School for Four Brothers, for Hyde Park High at their drive-in, for 35-plus school districts in southern New York and northern New Jersey at the Warwick Drive-in in southern Orange County, and a number of Greene County high schools at the Greenville Drive-in.

To date, Four Brothers – which owner John Stefanopoulous tried to keep open after being declared a non-essential business by governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive orders in late March – has posted the most comprehensive protocols for use under Covid 19 precautions. Among them: online ticket purchases to ensure a limited capacity, the maintenance of six-foot distancing and wearing of masks when exited from one’s vehicle (which is not advised), online food orders and car-hop deliveries, masks and gloves on all drive-in employees, no use of lawn chairs or outdoor seating (except in the bed of one’s own pickup), and strict enforcement of all rules.

It’s all a far cry from the drive-ins so many of us remember.

A sign on the old snack bar at the Hyde Park Drive-in. (photo by Dion Ogust)

Mind your own business

“I remember being a kid and always being very interested in the couples making out in the cars next to me. One time someone actually knocked on the window and told me to mind my own business,” noted HudsonValley One editor Deb Alexsa. “To this day, I am still a people-watcher, although I have learned to be a little more discreet. It was always the same routine – put our PJs on at home, head to the drive-in, put the speaker in the window to make sure it worked (I can still hear the crackle sounds it made),play on the playground, get food from the snack bar, and wait for the first feature. I hardly ever stayed awake for the main event — my sister and I always fell asleep in the back of our station wagon. As I got older, I couldn’t wait to be asked on a date to the drive-in and be one of those couples I used to stare at. I missed the main event during those times as well.”

Ulster Publishing advertising director Genia Wickwire had similar memories: “Always wearing your pajamas. Of course my mom was broke so when we went in we always had to hide under the blankets so they wouldn’t charge her for us. Back then there was always a playground underneath the screen, so you always hoped to get their early enough to play first.”

I remember being dragged to all-night singing cowboy and Marx Brothers extravaganzas, and falling asleep while my father instructed us kids how to appreciate 2001: A Space Odyssey from right under the giant screen, bugs crawling all over us. Later I learned to love a few of the last remaining mountain drive-ins in Hunter and Middleburgh. You could always take one’s dog to a drive-in, I learned, for those pre-married times one couldn’t find a date.

The next generation

The first drive-ins opened in the early days of silent films. Sound problems plagued those early drive-ins, but then the idea of individual car speakers came about in 1941. According to records, a 1947 total of 155 drive-ins nationwide increased to 4151 by 1951, then even more by the early 1960s, when theater perks grew to include playgrounds, miniature golf, swimming pools, and even bars where allowed.

That was a golden age. Cars got smaller, home watching grew as VCRs came into existence, and drive-in real estate got swallowed by shopping centers and malls. The remaining drive-ins shifted to whatever could draw a crowd, including slasher films, oldies and porn.

More recently, drive-ins have become the ghostly sites of other big activities, from the car lots of Route 28 and lower Route 32, of 9W near Middlehope and various sites around Kingston, to farther-afield flea markets and weekend antique fairs.

Those that have survived have had to afford the new digital systems required by film distributors. A lack of new films being distributed is now facing the entire entertainment industry.

“Originally built by the Klein Brothers, the Hi-Waywas eventually acquired and operated by the Babcock family, who continued to expand, improve, and operate the drive-in,” reads the landing page, now, for Greene County’s drive-in on Route 9W. “And while the Hi-Way Drive-In movie theatre remains open, the Babcocks are now looking forward to retiring when the drive-in is acquired by the next generation of outdoor movie theatre owner-operators.”

A broker’s number is provided.

Meanwhile, over in Amenia at the newest drive-in in the region, Stephanoupolos writes, “We are a boutique cinema in pursuit of magic, designed for those who want grand entertainment, premium foods … and to be inspired!”

Added to its Covid 19 page is a message: “Normalcy coming soon.”

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