Last week, as the film industry faced a grim new reality of shuttered theaters and a shift to online streaming, some small solace arrived in the form of a New York Times article. Drive-in theaters, the headline read, were experiencing an “unexpected revival” amid the coronavirus epidemic.
Even if New York-area drive-ins remained closed (though one of them is trying to change that; more on that later), it was somehow comforting to know that one could still park a car and catch a flick at the Sauerbeck in Kentucky, the West Wind in Arizona, the Starlight in Georgia, and the Blue Starlite and Showboat in Texas. In the days since the Times article and a similar AP item were published on March 24 and 20, respectively, things have changed. Nearly all of the theaters mentioned in the articles have closed.
On March 20, the day it was mentioned in the AP article, the Paramount Theatre, outside of Los Angeles— which had billed itself as an “escape from the chaos” of the coronavirus scare— announced that it would cease operations while it sought an exception to Los Angeles County’s closure of non-essential businesses. More recently, the Blue Moon Drive-In in Guin, Alabama, announced that its Monday screening was canceled and operations would be suspended until further notice due to “broadening Essential Businesses Only and Shelter in Place orders making it nearly impossible for supplies and to operate.”
The Starlight, a seven-day-a-week, year-round drive-in in Atlanta, had been showing films like The Hunt until it announced Saturday that DeKalb County had ordered it to cease operations. Facebook commenters responded with complaints like “I just went last night. No one even came into contact with each other!”
On March 18, the Sauerbeck Family Drive-in, in La Grange, Kentucky, announced that after discussions with the local health department that day, it had decided to shutter. It is now serving drive-thru popcorn on a “pay if you can” basis.
The Showboat Drive-In, outside of Houston, Texas, announced that it would close after Harris County issued a stay-at-home order that, effective March 25, shuttered non-essential businesses such as movie theaters. “Please wash your hands, drink lots of water, and take your Vitamin C,” the theater wrote on its homepage.
On March 25, another Texas drive-in, the Galaxy, in Ennis, wrote that it too was being forced to close. “Even though we made every effort to practice safe social distancing and had 100% compliance, and GREATLY APPRECIATE it, certain ones who have never been here and have no clue how the drive-in works made the decision,” it wrote on Facebook.
Elsewhere in Texas, one of the state’s stranger relics, the Apache Drive-In in Tyler, ceased screening XXX films for drive-in customers. A phone message cited a stay-at-home order from Smith County authorities.
Not all screens have gone dark. In Palm Springs, Florida, the Lake Worth Drive-In remains open and is screening Shaun of the Dead tonight, according to a phone message. (A message at its sister location in Ft. Lauderdale indicates it has closed “due to the coronavirus.”) The Glendale, Arizona and Sacramento, California locations of the West Wind drive-in chain remain open, while its locations in Las Vegas and San Jose have powered down. A phone recording at the Sacramento theater outlines “strict” operating rules: only one person in the restroom at a time, no sitting outside of a vehicle unless in the flatbed of a truck, and empty parking spots between each vehicle.
There’s also a glimmer of hope for New York cinephiles. The Warwick Drive-In, a little over an hour’s drive upstate from Manhattan, has applied for a waiver that would allow it to open as soon as next month. In a Facebook message to customers, the theater says it would allow food ordering through an app, operate at half-capacity, and place cones in the bathroom and at the concession stand to enforce social distancing. “If we can all just step back and have a little fun, we can get through this,” the theater’s co-owner told the Times Herald-Record.