Drive-in theaters reached their peak popularity in the 1950s and are popping up more frequently throughout the country again to provide public entertainment to the public despite COVID-19 restrictions. (Camille Cohen/Golden Gate Xpress) (Camille Cohen)
Drive-in theaters reached their peak popularity in the 1950s and are popping up more frequently throughout the country again to provide public entertainment to the public despite COVID-19 restrictions. (Camille Cohen/Golden Gate Xpress)

Camille Cohen

Drive-in theaters provide nostalgia in COVID-19 era

August 25, 2020

There’s a pleasant anticipation that comes with summer plans, from morning hikes, long beach days, to warm nights out with friends. But as the current state of the world has dramatically shifted ordinary activities, many are seeking a sense of release and relief in our now restrained daily activities. People are flocking to drive-in movie theaters for a dose of socially-distanced fun.

The drive-ins, which reached their peak popularity in the 1950s and have since become a novelty, are popping up more frequently throughout the country since many movie theaters closed around mid-March amid COVID-19 restrictions. What once was a common way for people to watch movies from their cars turned novelty over time and is experiencing a resurgence, as many are now finding it to be an enjoyable way to watch films in a familiar and collective setting. 

“There are a lot of people who’ve never experienced a drive-in– especially the kids. They’ve seen it in movies. The other night, we showed Grease, and they actually show a drive-in in the movie. So they’ve seen it in movies, but they’ve never experienced it,”  Ellie Mednick, executive director of the Lark Theater for the last nine years, said. “The parents, and a lot of the people like myself, I lived through the drive-in era. We were alive and kicking in the ’50s and we went and it was just a totally popular, wonderful thing. Always includes great food and movies. It’s a reliving of an old experience, and it’s bringing back wonderful, nostalgic memories. People have thanked us over and over again. ‘Thank you for reminding me what that was like. Thank you for presenting it now,’ which is new; it feels new, but it’s still old.”

It’s a reliving of an old experience, and it’s bringing back wonderful, nostalgic memories.”

— Ellie Mednick, executive director of the Lark Theater


On July 23, the Lark Theater, a cultural nonprofit run by a board of directors located in the city of Larkspur, introduced its new installment: Lark Theater Drive-In Movies Under The Stars, located in The Village at Corte Madera.

Mednick discussed that there was mild success in the theater’s initial move of streaming films on the theater’s website. However, starting mid-March, after weeks of Zoom meetings she had with many other art theaters across the country, she grew increasingly intrigued with what others were doing to raise money for their theaters.

“The innovative thing of the moment seems to be the attempt to do drive-in theaters. And for many people who thought that was a great idea, very few actually thought to fruition,” Mednick said. “In conversation with my fellow theater senior managers across the country, many had great intentions of opening a drive-in but couldn’t make it happen. They just couldn’t find the property that was ideal.”

This ultimately prompted her to start planning in April, shortly after Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a lockdown of the state on March 20. Mednick proceeded to scout for property that allowed the theater to both host and not charge –– which Mednick said was a challenge –– along with investing in equipment such as a projector and a screen. 

Mednick described the months-long process with contacts: first with the city of Larkspur, where the original theater location was; then lots of letter writing and objections. In June, with the approval and support of both the mall leadership and the city, the theater landed the parking lot of the shopping mall and really got the ball rolling. 

According to Mednick, the city leaders loved the idea of helping to preserve the theater, which they said “is treasured in our neighborhood.” She said that cooperation was very inspiring and supportive. 

The demographic coming to the Corte Madera drive-in is primarily between the 30- to 50-year-old age, as well as teenagers. Mednick said films like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Purple Rain” and “Mamma Mia” are popular for family entertainment. Screening films “Raiders The Lost Ark,” “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park” on the first weekend sold out. Mednick said that because the theater typically shows art house cinema –– a genre films that stay nearly entirely true to filmmakers’ visions and typically follows a social realism-style narrative –– the public’s reception came as a shock.

“Being an arthouse cinema” as Mednick noted, this type of entertainment isn’t its usual business. Luckily, she added, with the help of its film programmer attaining the films, the drive-in has been selling out screenings for the past three weekends and counting. 

Mednick noted that all the components in place for the drive-in are safe for attendees, following the Marin County Health and Human Services rules of “vehicle-based gatherings.”

“We’re at a capacity of 111 cars, each car being packed with people, so the rules include if you’re out of the car, you need to wear a mask. We have sanitized bathrooms on property, which are monitored by volunteers to keep them clean, and no sitting outside of their cars,” Mednick said.

Cars line up to purchase tickets at the Van Buren Drive-in. Tickets cost $10/adult and $1/child at this location. (Camille Cohen/Golden Gate Xpress/Riverside, CA, July 16, 2020)

She said people do tend to want to sit beside their cars, but the theater works to keep everybody in their cars for now. Mednick discussed that there are many SUVs with an open hatchback and they’re tucked inside to bring in some open air but people are still within their car. 

Mednick said the theater toyed with the idea of taking concession orders when people order their tickets online to offer their “very famous popcorn and other things.” But in keeping with safety and the city’s COVID-19 regulations in mind, the theater is not selling its own snacks, but rather encouraging use of the mall’s dining spots before the showings. They’re hoping to invite food trucks to the lot in the future.

“We decided not to sell our concessions; how different that is from people going over to the mall and buying it and bringing it back, I have no idea. Rather, now we promote the restaurants of the mall and work to develop take-away packages by curbside pickup. Even dining outside at the restaurants before they come. Our gates open at 7:30 p.m., so there’s plenty of time to come, park your car and then walk across the street to the mall to take advantage of whatever they have. That’s our gift back to the mall for allowing us to be on their property at no cost,” Mednick said.

A brand new logo was created and the theater’s public relations firm was reinstated, which was laid off due to COVID-19, in efforts to promote the theater’s business. But according to Mednick, word of mouth is the biggest advertiser for the drive-in. She said while the plan is to maintain the drive-in until October, the mall has extended its welcome for the theater for as long as necessary. Mednick also hinted at the possibility of continuing the drive-in even after the actual theater can reopen.

Since opening, moviegoers have alternated from roaring applause to car honks and flashing car lights to express celebration. Whether it’s from a scene they like or to the rolling credits at the end, Mednick says it’s a fun and festive way for patrons to interact. 

“People are loving doing that, it gives a sense of community that we’re actually part of an audience. We’re not in just some parking lot by ourselves, and that’s what’s missing in our experience. These days, we’re not in a theater together. We’re not at the movies together, to enjoy together. We’re all in our isolated homes watching television. So it’s a very different experience and apparently very delightful. I’m having a good time right now,” Mednick said.

“It’s really working, it’s hitting home you can just tell you if you resonate with what’s happening in the community. It seems very clear that people are really hungry for entertainment, for feeling a sense of community,” she said.

“It’s really working, it’s hitting home you can just tell you if you resonate with what’s happening in the community. It seems very clear that people are really hungry for entertainment, for feeling a sense of community.” ”

— Ellie Mednick

Oscar Urrutia, founder of My Valley Pass, discussed how the San Fernando Valley-based tourism company’s installment of a pop-up drive-in within the area has brought notice and success since opening four years ago.

“We figured, ‘Well, what can we do that’s different and unique that people want back in The Valley?’” Urrutia said. “We always kept on hearing that people miss the drive-ins, and so we said ‘Well, why don’t we figure out how to bring that experience back to the area.’ Since we started this, it’s become a testament to the people missing this experience. It’s great because an older generation gets to relive it, and a younger generation gets to live it.” 

The pop-up hosts a summer series, which takes place during the month of August, as well as a Halloween series that’s doing four nights of double features. These include “Pet Sematary,” “Casper” and “Poltergeist,” to name a few.  

This year, the drive-in will be showing “The Sandlot,” “Grease,” “Jurassic Park” and “La Bamba;” all films, Urrutia said, are unique in that they all have a connection to The Valley. He added that all showtimes have been sold out.

“It’s very difficult to get newer films licensed; plus, people enjoy the fact that the older films do better than the newer films,” Urrutia said.  

The event normally takes place at the Lake Balboa complex but made a change in location to the Sherman Oaks Westfield Fashion Square mall from August 13 through 16.

Cars line up to purchase tickets at the Van Buren Drive-in while “Palm Springs” plays on one of the many projection screens. (Camille Cohen/Golden Gate Xpress)

In keeping with social distancing precautions, Urrutia said the company had to modify its ticketing system so customers have to buy tickets online instead of on-site. Restrooms are being more spread out and are expected to be cleaned after each use to ensure they’re safe for the next person. 

Urrutia described some of the biggest changes for the summer series as having to eliminate all additional activities that play a part in the series experience, including an arcade truck, slot car racings and food trucks. He noted an important community aspect of this year’s summer series, adding that My Valley Pass is helping to raise funds for Valley Relics Museum and the Neon Retro Arcade, fellow Valley businesses.

“Now that they have been closed for several months and are struggling, it’s our way of returning the favor of them being there for us in that we’re going to be there for them to help them raise some funds and make sure people remember that they’re still around. That’s what we’re going to be mostly pushing out this drive-in more than usual,” Urrutia said. 

“We want to make sure that the quality of our events is something that they’re going to take home with them. So that’s why we only do very few of them, because we want to make sure that everyone leaves satisfied as opposed to just doing them just to do,” he said.


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About the Contributors
Camille Cohen
Camille Cohen is a French-American photographer and journalist studying at San Francisco State University. Inspiration for stories and images are derived from her time living in California, France, and Thailand. She loves live music (of all kinds) and jewel-toned colors. Camille primarily reports on social justice topics, environmental issues, and international relations. Find more of her work at here.

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