When the Pleasant Valley Drive-In of Barkhamsted opened for the season on the second Friday in May, owner Donna McGrane was worried because it was pouring rain. “But we were packed!” she says. On the following night, “There was a crazy blinding blizzard. We sold out!”
What’s going on here? It’s the pandemic, of course. Everybody’s going nuts while tied down at home, especially parents with young kids. So why not get out and see a movie in a setting that provides social-distancing protection? There you are in your car with your family, enjoying a night out. Just like old times.
Across the country, while most indoor movie theaters remained closed — Connecticut’s indoor theaters were cleared to open June 20 — many of the nation’s 305 remaining drive-ins are reporting big crowds rivaling their heyday in the 1950s. Connecticut’s surviving drive-ins are part of that trend, with the Mansfield Drive-In also seeing good crowds. (The state’s third drive-in, in Southington, has yet to open.)
McGrane, who has operated her rural drive-in since 1996 (it got started in 1947), says it doesn’t seem to matter that the movie studios have delayed releasing many of their new offerings. “It’s slim pickings,” she says. “But I’ll show Titanic and I can do a Guardians of the Galaxy weekend. I can get anything that’s older.”
The Mansfield Drive-In, which has three screens, opened May 20, with early fare including old favorites: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (it sold out) and The Goonies.
Like Pleasant Valley, the Mansfield Drive-In can allow only half of its usual car volume, and they must be parked farther apart. But owner Michael Jungden says, “We’re hoping to make a decent profit. It’s better to be open than not open.”
Asked about the supply of movies, Jungden says: “It’s terrible! We’ll do a lot of retro. I’ll try to get Grease and American Graffiti, movies that fit in with the drive-in theme. We’ll do whatever we’ve got to do. But I’ll be able to show a few [released] within the last month.” He adds, “I think we’ll be fine. People love drive-ins. And they want to get out of the house.”
But customers at Mansfield will notice things are done differently. Jungden says he now emphasizes advance online sales. He notes it’s easier and safer for his staff to scan a cellphone rather than dealing with cash. Jungden is also moving away from double features because bathrooms tend to get congested during intermission. “With single features, at the end of the movie they’ll just start their cars and leave.”
But he also brought in port-o-potties as another way to cut down on lines at the bathrooms.
As for food concessions, Jungden says, “It’s all take-out; online ordering, delivered to your car.” The food bags are hung on the poles between vehicles.
McGrane, whose theater has always been more old-fashioned, says, “I’m not doing advance sales. We only take cash. First come, first served.” (She can now accommodate only 175 vehicles. Get there early!)
At the Pleasant Valley food stand there is one window for ordering and a second window for pick-ups. Customers must wear masks whenever they’re not in or next to their cars. But as of May 20 they were allowed to get out of their vehicles if they want to sit in front of them.
Asked about the effect of COVID-19 on her business, McGrane replies, “It’s sad to say, but it is helping. So many people are now finding out about our drive-in. People who didn’t know we existed are now finding us. I’m sad about the way the world is becoming. But I’m really optimistic about the future of my business.”
The Southington Drive-In, however, has not opened and so is missing out on all of this. Unlike Pleasant Valley and Mansfield, the Southington theater sits on town land and is controlled by town officials and the Plainville-Southington Regional Health District.
In mid-May, Shane Lockwood, who directs that health district, put out a press release bearing this sad news for the many customers of the drive-in: “It is prudent to keep the Southington Drive-In closed for June and July.” It’s hoped that the number of COVID-19 cases in Connecticut will be “minimal to non-existent” by late July, allowing for an August opening, he says.
Dawn Miceli, one of the four volunteers overseeing the drive-in, notes that the operation is nonprofit and relies on volunteers from local civic groups to staff it. Those volunteers at the ticket booth take cash only and thus could be exposed to the virus. The Southington Drive-In is “a social experience under the stars. Everybody’s milling around the pavilion and tailgating outside of their cars,” Miceli says.
She is optimistic the theater can open in early August and keep going through the end of September, thus maintaining a Saturday-night tradition that began there in 2010. Before that, the drive-in on the site was a commercial enterprise.
Connecticut residents who live near the Rhode Island border also have the option of going to the Misquamicut Drive-In Theater in Westerly. Another nonprofit, it opened May 15 with Jaws (what else?) and quickly sold out. Tickets are sold online only and just 50 cars are admitted.
Pop-up drive-in movie theaters are also happening in Connecticut. Olde Mistick Village has started one and Wethersfield’s River: A Waterfront Restaurant and Bar got the town’s permission to show movies in its large parking lot.
Connecticut’s 3 drive-ins
228 Stafford Road, Mansfield Center
Operates seven days a week; movies start at about 8 p.m.
Pleasant Valley Drive-In
47 River Road, Barkhamsted
Operates Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with Thursdays expected to be added. Movies start at about 8:30 p.m.
995 Meriden Waterbury Turnpike, Southington
No movies scheduled until August at the earliest. Showings are Saturday nights only.