Prior to the pandemic, I’d been to a drive-in maybe five times. One of my earliest memories is being a terrified, fascinated, and bored three-year-old in my mom’s VW Bug, watching 2001: A Space Odyssey at an Atlanta drive-in in 1968. In 2014, my wife and I saw Guardians of the Galaxy (perfect drive-in movie) at a Massachusetts drive-in. That was the first time I used the car radio for audio. In the space between those events, I saw others, but the edges of those memories are starting to curl.
Since May, by contrast, I have spent six evenings with my family at various New York State drive-ins. Two of those were double features. We and everyone else took the social-distancing protocols very, very seriously. Yet it was fun. We’ll be doing it again.
These nights out have been mostly wonderful, especially early on, when we’d been in severe lockdown for months, ever more desperate for safe contact, and trying to figure out ways to responsibly escape the horrors, if only for a few hours.
As I’d hoped, the collective experience, even if the movie is not great (or bad) has routinely made us all giddy, energized, and hopeful. We’ve been compelled to repeat the experience, and to proselytize its greatness.
As we venture out more, it becomes clearer the movie we watch is almost secondary. It’s about getting out of the house, taking a road trip (the closest drive-in to our Phoenicia home is 45 minutes away), and being around both friends and strangers, without the paralyzing fear of illness.
Of course there’s always a twinge of concern no matter how much you follow protocols, but the open-air drive-in, frankly, feels safer than the supermarket. The drive-in is socially distanced by design, with fellow moviegoers either within the confines of their cars, or seated on lawn chairs in front of – or sometimes atop – their automobiles at least ten feet away.
My family and I attended our first 2020 drive-in late May, the first weekend it was legal to do so in New York State. We are movie buffs and night owls, so we’re predisposed to the experience. Our son Jack is a filmmaker, even more of a lover of the cinema experience than his parents, which is saying something. He wanted to see his future.
We drove an hour and 40 minutes – there and back – to the Warwick Drive-In in Orange County to see Trolls World Tour. We tried to attend on a Saturday, but it sold out. We barely made it under the wire before Sunday’s tickets were gone, too.
Warwick Drive-In, like all the others, was protocol-heavy. The dystopian look of it was not lost on us, but again, just seeing other people – albeit socially distanced, and masked – was oddly thrilling. Masked workers scanned ticket printouts held up from the car. We found our space with the help of a masked attendant, tore open our microwave popcorn, and sat in the car watching a pretty bad kids’ movie, enjoying ourselves immensely.
We had arrived early, in the gloaming, so I got out to stretch and look around at the hundred or so audience members, not all of them families. An unspoken sense of community pervaded the dusk, lots of waving at faraway strangers to whom we now felt more connected. The distinctive ambiance of crowd sound – usually a common aspect of modern life, in malls, theaters, restaurants, clubs, etc. – was intoxicating.
Movies we’ve seen since Warwick: Jaws, Field of Dreams, Harold & Maude, The Big Lebowski, Jurassic Park, Moonrise Kingdom, and Diggers, an indie presented by Woodstock Film Festival.
Because these theaters cannot get first-run movies, the experience takes me back to the days of repertory cinemas, an era in full swing when I was in my teens and twenties. I daresay a few films will now get second chances to reach audiences. And the mom ‘n’ pop theaters at Hyde Park, Greenville, Coxsackie, Poughkeepsie and Warwick, once threatened by the corporate multiplex, are thriving.
Some day, theaters will reopen. It’s just a question of when. When that happens, I pledge never again to take for granted these drive-ins, which now rank among the most favorite movie-going experiences of my life.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.