Rarely has Becky Cassidy been so excited to see a movie, any movie.
“When I heard the drive-ins were opening it was this giant feeling of relief, to finally have something normal coming back,” said Cassidy, 23, of Windham. “We’ve been cooped up in the house for so long, I can’t wait to go.”
Four of Maine’s seven drive-in theaters are planning to open for the season this week – in Bridgton, Westbrook, Farmington and Hermon – giving people their first chance to go out and be entertained in two months. Maine residents’ excitement over the openings has been evident on social media and in strong online ticket sales. The first three shows at Farmington’s Narrow Gauge Drive-In are already sold out, about 45 carloads a night for Thursday, Friday and Saturday. When Bridgton Twin Drive-In posted on Facebook April 28 that it would open sometime in May, 1,300 people reacted and 590 shared the news. When Saco Drive-In posted its plans for a tentative May opening, 1,600 people reacted.
“There’s been a lot of excitement, a lot of anticipation. People keep calling and messaging me to ask when we’ll be open, what films we’ll play,” said Jeff Tevanian, manager of Prides Corner Drive-In in Westbrook. “We weren’t really anticipating the state would let us open this early, so it was a pleasant surprise.”
Indoor movies, concerts, comedy shows, plays and just about every other form of public entertainment remain shuttered because of the pandemic. But drive-ins were allowed to open May 1 as part of Gov. Janet Mills’ plan to restart the economy. With a state prohibition on gatherings of more than 50 people in place through July, it is unclear when most other entertainment venues might reopen.
The drive-in openings scheduled this week include Narrow Gauge Drive-In on Thursday, Bridgton Twin Drive-In and Bangor Drive-In in Hermon on Friday and Prides Corner Drive-In on Saturday. Saco Drive-In is planning to open May 22, while Skowhegan Drive-In and Skylite Drive-In in Madawaska have not yet announced plans. At each drive-in, patrons will be faced with new restrictions and procedures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Drive-ins didn’t open immediately on May 1 partly because they needed time to book films and make sure they could meet state restrictions. The state on April 29 issued a checklist of rules and procedures for drive-ins to follow when re-opening. Some of the measures include: having employees wear face coverings; limiting face-to-face transactions with online ticketing and phone concession orders; closing playgrounds and picnic areas; allowing lawn chairs but only in front of each vehicle and no closer than 6 feet from other parties; no bulk food items for sale; 6-foot physical distance for people waiting to pick up concessions; encouraging patrons to leave with their own trash.
The checklist includes regularly cleaning and disinfecting restrooms. Prides Corner and Bridgton Twin took that a step further and are asking patrons to use restrooms only for emergencies. Both theaters decided to play only one movie at a time, instead of their traditional double features, so it would be easier for people to go without a bathroom break. All of the Maine drive-in theaters have specific rules posted on their Facebook pages and websites, so it’s a good idea to check those before going.
Another challenge facing drive-ins is that Hollywood is not distributing new movies right now, since most indoor theaters are closed. Maine drive-ins have had to book movies for their opening that were released early this year or last year or are older classics. Bridgton Twin is playing the Disney/Pixar animated film “Onward,” which came out in March and the 2019 release “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” Prides Corner is playing the 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz” Saturday and Sunday, and the 1983 comedy “National Lampoon’s Vacation” next Wednesday and Thursday. Narrow Gauge is playing the Harrison Ford film “Call of the Wild,” released in February, while Bangor Drive-In is doing two double features: “Onward” and “Call of the Wild,” plus “The Hunt” and “The Invisible Man,” two R-rated films released earlier this year.
Not all states have allowed drive-ins to open yet. They are still shuttered in Massachusetts, for instance. But about 100 of the nation’s 305 drive-in theaters are now open or soon will be, said John Vincent Jr., president of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. Even though drive-ins are opening before so many other entertainment venues, the combination of having to operate at about half-capacity because of spacing rules and not being able to get hot new blockbuster films to attract audiences means they are not any “better off” than they normally would be, in terms of making money, he said.
“We’re just happy to be one of the first things to reopen,” said Vincent.
In Farmington, Narrow Gauge owner John Moore said he thinks his sell-outs are partly because of the very low price of $5 per car load up to six people, including free popcorn handed out at the ticket booth. He said the low price was made possible because his early season shows are being sponsored by Franklin Savings Bank. Bridgton and Prides Corner are both charging $15 a carload, lower than their rates in recent years. Both say they’ll sell some tickets in person as well as online.
Moore is also trying new things to help his business, including booking five live shows at his drive-in, May 22-25, featuring comedian Bob Marley. Marley will stand on a truck in front of the cars and perform with a wireless mic, which will allow people in their cars to hear him over their radios. Tickets are $25 and all the shows are sold out, according to the ticket-selling website Eventbrite. Other drive-ins, including Bridgton and Saco, are hosting high school graduation events this year.
John Tevanian, brother of Jeff and owner of the Bridgton drive-in, said he’s not sure how big of a crowd to expect this weekend for his theater’s opening. Even though people are eager to get out and do something, he’s just not sure what effect the new restrictions and a lack of new movies will have.
At the Bangor Drive-In, general manager Scott Warren says he’ll have his staff monitoring parking, concessions, restrooms and other areas to make sure customers are following the guidelines. He wants to make sure that people don’t feel like everything is back to normal, just because they’re out at a drive-in again.
“I think there’s a perception that we’re a safe zone because we’re outside, so we have to be careful that people are listening to us and following all the directions,” said Warren.
But moviegoers say they can live with restrictions, in exchange for a fun night out. Jen Labbe of Buxton says she and her family, including her husband and two young sons, hope to go to the Saco Drive-In on its opening night. She says she supports any safety restrictions the drive-in imposes. And since there are practically no family-friendly entertainment options outside the home right now, she hopes to make the drive-in a part of her regular routine.
“Usually we go two or three times per season. This year, I see us going at least once a week,” Labbe said.
— to www.sunjournal.com