At the drive-in: thrills, chills, popcorn and hand sanitiser

  • >> Julia Jacobs, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-05-17 16:49:27 BdST

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Family and friends of Ivonisa Tesoriero gathered at the Warwick Drive-In Theater to celebrate her birthday in Warwick, NY, May 16, 2020. The New York Times

In the end, it was the rain, not the virus, that drove some moviegoers to leave the drive-in theatre here Friday as a storm interrupted the season’s first shows.

Hours before, SUVs, sedans and pickup trucks had crunched along the gravel road leading to the Warwick Drive-In’s three screens, and then were directed to a grassy mound where they parked for the evening to watch the double features.

“It was this or tennis,” said Ivonisa Tesoriero, who works in human resources at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx and was celebrating her 39th birthday. A pile of empty pizza boxes sat on the ground as she chatted with family and friends.

As the sun set, masked ticket holders lined up at the snack bar to order candy and buttered popcorn, dutifully planting themselves six feet behind the person in front of them. Children horsed around. Adults sipped beverages. An older couple ate ice cream on lawn chairs as smoke from a nearby grill wafted toward them.

It felt like that first, euphoric summer night of the year. Except a note of caution hung in the air.

After two months of pandemic lockdown in New York, when the only movies to see were controlled by your remote, state officials had lifted the bans on some activities and on this night — the first night drive-ins around the state could open — locals and curious out-of-towners flocked to Warwick’s outdoor theater. At one point, staff members had to start turning people away.

At a time when Americans are wary of rubbing elbows with strangers, the drive-in theatre, a low-tech vestige of another era, has emerged across the country as a popular escape hatch. Church services and concerts have been held drive-in style, and school administrators have considered the setup for high school graduations.

In Warwick, after employees had herded roughly 300 cars into a socially distanced formation and families began celebrating just being outside their own homes, lightning flashed to the north of the big white screens.

A bad omen that was followed by a torrent of rain about 45 minutes into the first set of movies. All three screens — showing “Trolls World Tour,” “Bad Boys for Life” and “Jumanji: The Next Level” — cut to black. In the minutes it took for the pictures to reappear, some cars had begun to crunch back down the gravel road, headed for home.

“There were some power glitches, but it was a very good night,” said Beth Wilson, who owns and manages the drive-in with her husband. “We sold out. People were just so happy to be outside.”

Wilson had received just four day’s notice that she would be allowed to open on May 15. On Monday, Gov. Andrew M Cuomo authorised the opening of drive-ins and also cleared the way for other “low-risk” activities like landscaping, gardening and, as Tesoriero noted, tennis.

“Talk about going back to the future,” Cuomo said with a smile, “back to drive-in movie theaters.”

Listening at home to the governor’s news conference, Wilson started screaming.

“My kids were like, ‘What the heck is going on, mom?’” she said.

The featured films would have to be slightly stale releases, like “The Invisible Man” and “Sonic the Hedgehog,” which had debuted before the pandemic shut down movie theaters and delayed premieres. But that did little to deter an audience.

The drive-in has been a staple in Warwick, a town of about 32,000 near the New Jersey border, since the 1950s, serving as both a family-friendly attraction and a popular date-night spot.

Michael Sweeton, 63, the town supervisor, remembers going to the theater when he was a child, seeing movies like the original “Star Wars” with the sound blaring out of speakers on poles. (Nowadays, moviegoers tune their radios to a station that plays the movie’s audio.) Children like Sweeton would try to sneak into the drive-in through an adjacent cornfield, hoping to get inside undetected and see a movie for free.

“It’s a shot in the arm to get us past the sad, dark period of the past two months,” Sweeton said of Friday’s opening.

Wilson’s father had started working in the drive-in theater business as a windshield cleaner when he was 13. He bought the Warwick Drive-In from its original owners in 1977. Eighteen years later, when he retired, Wilson and her husband took over the theatre.

On a normal Friday night in May, when there is no pandemic, the drive-in’s three screens would typically draw in about 530 cars, Wilson said. Because of the coronavirus, the theater was only filled to about half capacity, giving each car an 18-foot-long space between two white poles.

Visitors were required to wear masks when outside their vehicles (a few cheated). At the snack bar, customers had to stay at least six feet apart, which took some stern enforcement from the staff. And the condiments only came in individual packets to limit any possible exchange of germs between snacking moviegoers.

Garrett and Laura Gioe had arrived with their four children more than two hours before showtime to ensure they would have a spot.

To them, a drive-in double feature was an opportunity to get their family of six (with one more coming soon) out of the house. Gioe had been looking for an announcement like this for weeks, thinking that drive-ins had to be allowed to operate long before a typical movie theatre.

For Gioe, going to the drive-in gave a semblance of normalcy to life that she hadn’t felt in a long time.

“Seeing people, the interaction,” she said, “it’s what humans are made for.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company