Drive-ins Growing in Interest, but Facing Pandemic Issues of Their Own
Jun 29, 2020 11:46AM
By Vanessa Orr
As a teenager growing up in the North Hills, I was lucky enough that there were two drive-in theaters close to home—the Wexford Starlight on Rt. 19, and the Camp Horne Drive-in on Camp Horne Road. Many a night was spent under the stars watching the latest films, hanging out with friends and making memories that have lasted a lifetime.
Unfortunately, many of today’s kids haven’t had the same experience, having grown up watching videos at home or going to indoor movie theaters to see the latest releases. Yet with the COVID-19 crisis, the lure of sitting outside to watch movies is suddenly more enticing.
“People have spent the last eight or nine weeks at home, and now they want to get out,” explained Rick Glaus, owner of the Dependable Drive-in located in Moon Township. “Right now, they don’t have the option to go to an indoor theater, and even though they can watch movies at home, it’s just like cooking—they could make a meal at home, but they’d rather go out to eat.”
The Dependable, which opened in 1950, has suddenly found itself attracting even more customers, which has led to problems of its own. Just like other businesses now able to reopen, drive-ins have to follow social distancing rules, which means that even though a lot more people want to come in, only so many are allowed.
“We’re working at half capacity; we used to be able to fit 400 cars by our main screen and now we can only have 150,” said Glaus, who has begun posting on Facebook to let prospective audience members know when they are getting close to capacity. “While there were times we used to sell out, it took a long time to sell out a screen; now on a Saturday night, we’re having to turn people away.”
The drive-in has also had to reconfigure its concession area, which used to offer items cafeteria-style.
“Now we have a walk-up window where people order, get their food, and go on their way,” Glaus said. “People are lining up six feet apart all night long.”
Another difficulty during the pandemic is that new films aren’t being made—and scheduling older films isn’t as easy as it used to be.
“What we’re showing can change at any time,” said Glaus. “For example, we were supposed to be showing The King of Staten Island this week, but Universal pulled it on Wednesday. With indoor theaters not open, studios don’t want to release a movie for just 300 drive-in theaters because even though we’re busy, it wouldn’t be enough exposure.
“If indoor theaters open in July, there will be more movies available,” he added, though there is no set time for those types of theaters to reopen in Pennsylvania at the time of this article.
The Dependable attracts a diverse clientele, depending on what they put on their four screens.
“We get a ton of families when we show animated films, and a lot of 18-to-25-year-olds when we play R-rated films like The Hangover,” said Glaus. “But I was shocked when we played Toy Story 4 last year; we had a lot of older people sitting four in a car to watch the movie. Maybe they were revisiting their youth; they took their kids to see the first Toy Story, now they’re back to see the fourth.”
While upcoming films tentatively scheduled include Tenet, Mulan, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, Wonder Woman 1984 and A Quiet Place II, Glaus advises people to visit the website to verify what is playing before they leave the house, and to plan to arrive early to secure a spot.
“While drive-in movies are an old concept, I’m surprised by how many people haven’t been to one before,” he says of those who are just discovering the wonders of the big, big screen. “We’re also seeing a return of people who haven’t been to a drive-in in 50 years and are wondering how it now works.
“I grew up in the business, so this was always the theater,” he added. “And while a lot of other drive-ins have closed over the past 70 years, people just kept coming to ours. So we’re still here.”
As long the pandemic continues, it looks like this might be the case for a very long time.