Most people of a certain age have a drive-in movie memory. It might be the first time your parents took you and you fell asleep under a blanket in the back seat. Or, when you were a little older and you were complicit in sneaking people into the drive-in in the trunk of a car. Or maybe you worked at a drive-in, selling popcorn (or you were tasked with checking on steamy windows).
And now, with the pandemic putting indoor movie theaters temporarily out of business, the popularity of drive-in movie theaters is back—and a whole new generation is being introduced to the concept of watching a flick from the comfort of your car.
“The pandemic has put a spotlight on drive-in movie theaters as they’ve literally become the only show in town,” says April Wright, who has created a documentary called Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie (available locally at Bengies Drive-In in Maryland). “When first built, they were a gathering place for the community and now they are again with drive-ins showing films and hosting other events such as graduations, church services, stand-up comedy, concerts and weddings.”
Virginia had more than 140 drive-ins at one time and today only six remain. Nearby Maryland has one drive-in, down from about 42 at one time. Thanks to the region’s weather, the outdoor theaters generally open from spring through fall, rain or clear, although they may have other events through the rest of the year.
One of the closest to Northern Virginia is Hull’s Drive-In, outside of Lexington. Sebert W. Hull operated Hull’s Drive-In from 1957 until he passed away in 1998. Rather than letting it close, local residents created “Hull’s Angels” and saved the movie venue from destruction. The first nonprofit, community-run drive-in theater in the country, it reopened for a full season in 2000—and is now seeing a resurgence in moviegoers.
This year, under the shadow of the pandemic, Hull’s didn’t open for the first two months of its regular season. Now, operating within CDC and state guidelines, “We’re still only selling to 50% capacity,” says Lauren Summers, executive director of Hull’s, who notes that because new releases have slowed down, classic movies are a big part of the lineup. Open four nights a week, “We’re full most nights, which we weren’t last year. We’re seeing children and even adults who’ve never been to a drive-in. They’re coming from all over the state and some are even spending the night at local hotels. People are thankful to have something to do and some place to go outside their homes.”
Today’s drive-in is a little different from the one of your youth. The movies are digital and the sound comes through your car radio (or bring a portable radio). Temporarily, playgrounds are closed, most tickets are purchased online, parking is spaced, you order your food online or, depending on which drive-in, you may be able to bring outside food, and bathrooms are either closed or limited to one or two people at a time. Most theaters require face masks and social distancing when out of your car.
Jim Kopp, owner of the Family Drive-In Theatre in Stephens City since 2010, says, “The most positive thing [about the coronavirus quarantine] is that people are now aware that drive-in theaters still exist. The news media has said it’s a ‘safe environment to watch movies’ and we’ve started getting a lot of new folks. And I hope they become regular patrons.”
Although Family has had online ticketing for a while, Kopp says it is now able to “pull [moviegoers] from the DC area that are 80 miles away because people realize they don’t have to drive one and a half to three hours and then not be able to buy a ticket. We see people with license plates from Texas, California and in between. They could be military, but we’re right off Interstate 81, so people can research and ask, ‘Where’s the nearest drive-in?’ and find us.”
Safe Silver Screen
Check out these classic drive-in theaters for a socially distanced night out this fall:
- Family Drive-In, Stephens City; thefamilydriveintheatre.com
- Goochland Drive-In Theater, Hadensville; goochlanddriveintheater.com
- Hull’s Drive-In, Lexington; hullsdrivein.com
- Bengies Drive-In, Middle River; bengies.com