The drive-in, relic of yesterday, finds itself suited to now
By JAKE COYLE
AP Film Writer
The drive-in theater, long a dwindling nostalgia act in a multiplex world, is experiencing a momentary return to prominence.
With nearly all of the nation’s movie theaters shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic, some drive-in owners think they’re in a unique position to give moviegoers a chance to do something out of the house while keeping distance from others. This weekend, some drive-ins aren’t the only show in town. They’re the only show in the country.
The Showboat Drive-In Theater in Hockley, Texas, about a 30-minute drive outside Houston, normally sees ticket sales go down about 40% on a weekend when they don’t have any new movies. Last weekend, they saw a 40% increase, says the theater’s owner, Andrew Thomas. Usually open weekends, Thomas has kept screenings going through the week.
“Obviously this isn’t the way you’d want it to occur, but I’m excited for the idea that there may be a new generation of people that will get to experience going to a drive-in theater and — I was going to say catch the bug,” said Thomas, laughing. “Maybe some other turn of phrase.”
There are just over 300 drive-ins left in the country. They constitute a small, oft-forgotten flicker in today’s movie ecosystem that hardly competes with the megawatt glare of the megaplex and the nation’s 5,500 indoor theaters. But through decades of disruption and change in American life, they have managed to survive. They’ve somehow clung to life as relics of past Americana only to find themselves, for a brief moment anyway, uniquely suited to today
Not many drive-ins are open. It’s a seasonal business to begin with, with many drive-ins not planning to open until April. John Vincent, president of the United Drive-in Theater Owner Association, estimates about 5-10% were open as of last weekend, and some of those are closing due to the pandemic. In states like California and New York, restrictions on movement and gathering are being ramped up that mandate closures. As infections rise in other parts of the country, Vincent suspects the drive-in’s window is already closing.
“We’d love the drive-ins to shine but this is probably not the moment,” said Vincent, who owns Wellfleet Cinemas on Cape Cod.
However long it lasts, the drive-in is for now, in certain parts of the country, one of the only remaining refuges of public entertainment — of getting out the house to do something while still staying inside your car. At the Paramount Drive-in near Los Angeles, Forrest and Erin McBride figured a drive-in movie was a responsible way to celebrate their anniversary.
“We were like, what can we do? Everything’s closed,” said Forrest before a showing of “Onward” on Thursday night. “We were like, ‘Well, a drive-in theater is kind of like a self-quarantined movie date.’”
Aman Patel, a 25-year-old from Los Angeles, attended his first drive-in with his roommate and friends. “I always wanted to do it,” said Patel.
Drive-ins aren’t without their own virus concerns. Concessions and restrooms, in particular, still pose issues. All owners interviewed for this article said they were spacing out cars, reworking how customers could order food (sometimes via text messages) and limiting restroom occupancy.
Chris Curtis, owner of the Blue Moon Drive-in in Guin, Alabama, said he was doing something that has long been anathema to drive-ins: allowing outside food and drink in. “In fact, we suggest it,” reads the Blue Moon’s Facebook page. Like indoor theaters, drive-ins make their money almost entirely by concessions.
“We’re just trying to pay the power bill and the water bill and get through this, and give the community something to do at a time when there’s not a whole lot to do,” said Curtis, who’s owned the Blue Moon for 24 years. “It’s not about the movies anymore. It’s about having something to do.”
Curtis is concerned that too many people could show up this weekend, given the responses he’s gotten. To keep the Blue Moon uncrowded, Curtis launched online ticketing for the first time. “I don’t want people driving from long distances just to see that we’re sold out,” he said.
There are few movies left for drive-ins to play. For now, they can still screen recent releases like “Onward” and “The Hunt,” but those movies are already available on various digital platforms as studios have funneled their films to homes due to the virus. Earlier this week, all of the nation’s movie chains shuttered following federal guidelines that urged against gatherings of more than 10 people. The studios have cleared out their release calendars into May.
Those postponements have extended all the way to major summer releases, including Marvel’s “Black Widow” (previously slated for May 1). Eating into spring releases will be hard enough for drive-ins, but summer is when they sell most of their tickets. Owners say that if they manage to remain open in the coming weeks, they could potentially play older films (though those cost almost as much as new releases to play).
“We don’t know how long we’re going to have to live this way,” said Thomas. “Everybody’s wrestling with what it is going to be like in the middle of the summer when normally everyone is high-fiving and having a good time because the box office is going crazy. It’s when you go: This is why I got into this business.”
Drive-ins could also improvise in other ways. Lisa Boaz, who with her husband has operated the Monetta Drive-in in Monetta, South Carolina, since 1999, said they’ve been contacted by churches interested in using the drive-in for Sunday services. Parishioners would listen to sermons from their cars through the drive-in’s FM-radio transmitters.
“We’re kind of playing it by ear right now,” said Boaz.
THURSDAY MARCH 28, 1940
Merchandise, the value of which was placed at $1,000, was stolen from the McRoberts Commissary recently. Among the articles taken were shells, cartridges, radios, cigars, cigarettes, candy, men’s clothing, ladies’ underwear, shotguns and shoes.
Bids are now being requested for the construction of the proposed Post Office for Jenkins. All bids from prospective contractors are scheduled to be opened public in Washington, D.C. on April 26. Plans and specifications call for a one-story building of Colonial design to be erected on the south side of Main Street, between Little Elkhorn Creek and Lakeside Drive.
“Gone With The Wind” is playing at the Novo Theatre in Cumberland. Reserved seats are available.
“Just as our farmers were getting underway on their farming, especially the gardens, ‘lo and behold!’ a snow-covered the fresh set cabbage and fresh planted potatoes,” says the Smoot Creek News. “We have decided to wait longer on Mother Nature from now on.”
A bill which outlaws the handling of snakes in religious ceremonies was passed by the Kentucky General Assembly last week. In the bill fines ranging from $50 to $100 are imposed.
The Faculty “Trojans” came out on top in the intra-class basketball tournament at Jenkins High from March 5 to March 15. In a hard game in the finals the Trojans defeated the Senior Pole Cats by a score of 44-42. This was the first tournament of its kind in the history of Jenkins High.
THURSDAY MARCH 30, 1950
Robert Collins was sworn in as Letcher County Judge this week by Circuit Judge Sam Ward to succeed the late G. Bennett Adams who died last Tuesday. Mr. Collins is a former state representative and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for sheriff last year.
Effective rock-dusting and other precautions are proposed for the No. 1 mine of the H. Lewis Coal Company about six miles northwest of Whitesburg in an original coal-mine inspection report issued this week by the Bureau of Mines. The mine employed nine men and produced 55 tons of coal a day when it was examined in February.
Sgt. First Class William H. Wade, son of Mrs. Margie Keel of Millstone, has just participated in a parade at Otsu, Japan, at which Company D and one platoon of Company B, 35th Infantry Regiment, received the President Unit citation for an action which took place in the Philippines during the war.
A $6,000-damage suit was filed in Letcher Circuit Court by Burdine Webb of Sergent against the Elkhorn Junior Coal Company. The company operates mines at Thornton. Webb alleges that the coal company destroyed his 112-year-old water well by pumping poisonous water on the ground surface and into the well.
The new Alene Theatre in Whitesburg will be opened within the next few days, according to Mr. Sam Isaac, manager of the Kentucky Theatre. Mr. Isaac says the delay in opening has been due to the fact that a new sound system, which was placed on the market only this week, has been secured for the Alene.
Robert Collins, 24, of Sandlick Road, was killed in a mine accident at the Holbrook and Duncil mine on Camp Branch Wednesday of last week. He is survived by his wife.
THURSDAY MARCH 31, 1960
Despite the rugged mountain terrain of the countryside, Letcher County schools suffered small loss of time during the recent severe weather, according to Supt. W.B. Hall. The average loss was six days although some schools lost more. Hemphill School will have to make up 12 days, Hall said. Letcher schools will make up lost days by later closings, and extra or Saturday sessions will not be necessary as appears the case elsewhere in the state.
Bones found in a cairn beneath a cliff on the top of Lusk Mountain on Line Fork some weeks ago have been found to be Indians by Dr. Charles Snow of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky. The bones were identified as a woman about 28 years old, a man, and a girl of 14 or 15 years old. The age of the bones is estimated to be 300 to 600 years. The bones were discovered by 16-year-old Carlos Holbrook, son of Mr. and Mrs. Pat Holbrook, who lives in the William Lusk home a mile up Line Fork. Carlos found a skull and returned with Robert Caudill, Ulvah mail carrier, and they dug up the rest of the cache.
Chances for an airport in Letcher County brightened this week with a visit and words of encouragement from Ed LaFontaine of the state Department of Aeronautics. LaFontaine said the state definitely is interested in helping to build an airport in Letcher County, adding that this area has a high priority in the state’s airport development plans.
Airman First Class James A. Fields, 23, son of Mr. and Mrs. John H. Fields of Littcarr, was killed in a head-on collision near Coleman, Texas on March 13. Airman Fields was returning to Dyress Air Base, Abilene, Texas, after visiting his wife, the former Sandra Fudge, Vernon, Texas, and their two children.
Boys who are interested in become Boy Scouts and their parents will meet tonight at the Graham Memorial Presbyterian Church to charter a new troop of Scouts.
THURSDAY MARCH 26, 1970
Whitesburg faces possible disciplinary action from the Kentucky Water Pollution Control Commission after city officials failed to attend a hearing in Frankfort. Following a near-total breakdown in the Whitesburg sewage collection and treatment system last spring, the commission ordered Whitesburg to cease polluting the Kentucky River and to take steps to repair the system. Starting June 1, 1969, monthly progress reports were supposed to be filed by the city with the commission. The pollution agency cited Whitesburg for the hearing after several months went by with no reports.
Officials are investigating the possibility of arson in a fire, which destroyed the 979 Community Center on Mud Creek in Floyd County. The center housed the Hawkeye Press, which had been critical of county officers in Floyd County.
South Central Bell Telephone Company announced it plans to install equipment for direct dialing in Letcher and other eastern Kentucky counties by mid-1971.
“Truman Blair, son of Lillie Blair, has returned from Vietnam,” writes Blair Branch correspondent Callie Blair. “We are all so happy for him and his loved ones. He has a sweet baby, five months old. I am sure he was happy to see it. We’re real glad you’re home, Truman.”
THURSDAY MARCH 27, 1980
Chances for state assistance to build a new Whitesburg High School took a turn for the better when the state House of Representatives passed an amendment to Gov. John Y. Brown’s proposed $9.5 billion state budget, adding $2 million per year to the School Building Authority. The House also approved a bill, which would require SBA to give greater emphasis to those school districts that have suffered catastrophes.
Virginia Harris Combs, a former teacher at Whitesburg High School and daughter of one of the early principals, has written a letter to the editor of The Mountain Eagle pleading for the preservation of the school building, which the county school board is planning to demolish. She suggested that instead of wrecking the building, which was damaged last year by nearby blasting, the community might seek to get the structure on the national list of historic buildings to be preserved and then repair it for use as a club building or something else of benefit to the community.
The Whitesburg boys’ and girls’ track teams are sponsoring a disco dance at West Whitesburg Elementary on March 29. Music will be provided by Tony Ison and his Disco Machine.
“Coal Miner’s Daughter” starring Sissy Spacek starts Friday at Isaac’s Alene Theatre in Whitesburg. The late show is “Blood Orgy of the She Devils.”
WEDNESDAY MARCH 28, 1990
Letcher County benefited from the Kentucky legislature this session, which passed a $5.5 million appropriation for work on US 119, a $4.5 million commitment for a lodge at Carr Creek Lake, and a revolving loan fund for drinking water treatment projects in the Kentucky River Area Development District.
Sandlick residents soon may be paying less for homeowners’ insurance. Sandlick Fire Chief Carroll Smith said the Insurance Services Office has inspected his department and improve its fire classification from class 10 to class 9. “It amounts to a 20 percent to 60 percent decrease in people’s insurance premiums,” said Smith.
Army Private First Class Ronnie L. Creech Jr. has participated in the NATOsponsored exercise, Return of Forces to Germany ’90. Creech, a cavalry scout with the 4th Cavalry, West Germany, is a son of Ronnie L. and Barbara A. Creech of Blackey, and is a 1987 graduate of Letcher High School.
A home run and three runs batted in by senior shortstop Danny Collier and six-hit pitching by brother Clay Collier keyed the Letcher Eagles’ 8-6 victory over visiting Hazard.
WEDNESDAY MARCH 22, 2000
Police have recovered more stolen vehicles believed to be related to a “chop shop” operation in Letcher County. Kentucky State Police, acting on information from an informant, recovered a rollback car hauler at Fishpond Lake Road and a John Deere 450 bulldozer from near the Millstone Baptist Church. Detectives were also searching property belonging to Wilford Niece.
Double 12 Leasing Inc., a local, family-owned freight company in operation since 1989, is increasing the size of its tractor-trailer fleet from 12 to 45. The company expects to add more than 30 new jobs.
“This is Friday, March 17,” writes Ice correspondent Sara C. Ison. “The forecast is for snow flurries and the temperature is dropping down. Just maybe they will miss us and we will get rain.”
Willie and Lillian Amburgey of Johnson Fork at Premium, are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. A reception given by their family will be held March 25.
WEDNESDAY MARCH 24, 2010
The historic health-care reform bill signed into law by President Obama includes provisions that will make the process of obtaining black lung benefits easier for miners who qualify. Amendments inserted into the bill last year by U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia reverse major changes to the black lung eligibility process made in 1981 during Ronald Reagan’s administration.
The Shelby Valley Wildcats from Pike County won the KHSAA Boys’ Sweet 16 Tournament. The Wildcats’ coach, Jason Booher, is the son-in-law of Central head football coach Hillard Howard and Howard’s wife, Marsha Frazier Howard, whose late father, Clyde Frazier, found Frazier’s Farmer Supply in Whitesburg.
Mike Meehan of Nesbitt Engineering told the Whitesburg City Council that the old Daniel Boone Hotel building will need a lot of work before it can be used in any of the several capacities that Mayor James Wiley Craft has said he would like to see after the building is redone.
An Easter egg hunt will be held April 3 at Kingscreek Community Park. The event will include inflatables and snacks.