Drive-in summer

Kevin J. Elliott
The Hi-Road Drive-In in Kenton

On June 20, the first day of summer, I traveled north to Kenton, Ohio, to have the ultimate summer experience. At the Hi-Road Drive-In, in a crowded macadam lot, with thunderstorms swirling far in the distant plains, my partner and I watched "Jaws" in shock and awe. It was a revelation.

Though I’d been a drive-in enthusiast for years, this was the first time I’d sat and watched a classic on the distant screen. After all, "Jaws," released in 1975, was the origin of the summer blockbuster. And in the hermetically sealed, air-conditioned confines of our Volkswagen Golf, we sat with a bucket of popcorn and contributed to what would end up being the No. 2 film at the box office that weekend.

By the time the double feature continued, which was "Jurassic Park" (the No. 1 film that weekend) — complete with vintage concession-stand animations in between, we were virtually alone in that lot. There’s nothing scarier than an empty drive-in, in pure dark, in the absolute middle of nowhere. It brought me back to seeing "E.T." under the stars in my pajamas in 1982 at the Troy-Dixie (now long gone), or perhaps making out during something mediocre and completely irrelevant, like "Major League II" in 1989 at the Melody 49 (still standing, and a place you could escape with a late curfew and a driver’s license). It was kind of electric.

But given that we are in an unprecedented summer where many pools are closed, sports are lumbering as they attempt to begin or restart, movie theaters seem risky and restaurants struggle to know what is safe, the drive-in has returned in a big way as one of the only forms of entertainment that is at once socially distanced and at the same time communal. 

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At one point, particularly in the late '60s, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins operating across the country. The reasons that number has declined over the years are obvious — multiple oil crises, land development, the advent of the VCR, malls, and cable TV — but it doesn’t exactly foment a death. There are at least 300 drive-ins still in existence. And actually, in Ohio (as well as neighboring Pennsylvania), there has been a bit of a revival.

We're fortunate in Central Ohio, as there are a number of continuously operating drive-ins within a short drive. Besides the Hi-Road, which still boasts its original neon and modest concession stand, we also have the South Drive-In in Columbus, and the Skyview Drive-In of Lancaster, which has been showing movies since it opened in 1948.

You’d think the COVID summer would be a boon for drive-ins, since the practice of going to see a drive-in movie can be as isolated as one could wish. Plus, drive-ins now have the luxury of online ticketing and the ability to issue food permits for folks bringing in whole pizzas and six-packs. But that doesn’t exactly mean box office dollars are being diverted in their direction. Though these days some drive-ins sell out in advance, they are struggling to survive just like they always have.

“We’ve been steady, but we are kind of where we’ve been every other summer,” said Walt Essinger, who, along with wife Cathie, have owned Skyview since 1996. “I can only open up to 50 percent capacity, so even if we sell out online, that’s not what we would get on a summer weekend before this.”

Hollywood also hasn’t made it easy. Most of the summer blockbusters that were supposed to dominate screens have been pushed back indefinitely, some even to 2021. So scrambling to find programming has been both a blessing and a curse. Some might be dismayed that they’ll need to wait a few more weeks to see regular drive-in fare such as Disney’s "Mulan," but in the same respect, you can now experience "Willy Wonka" or "The Goonies" with your kids for the first time on a huge screen, or just in the encompassing atmosphere a vast drive-in provides. I really wished, in retrospect, that I would have experienced the excellent "The Vast of Night," an early placement in late-night, outdoor pictures this season, on the spectacle of a drive-in screen.

“Right now we are about the only place that families can escape from their house,” Essinger said. “It’s somewhere they can have a safe, enjoyable evening, and catch up on movies they might have missed. The older movies have done relatively good, considering we don’t have first-run movies right now.”

And though Essinger admits that Skyview is only in the market to show films for families, some drive-in theaters have tried to think outside the lot. Travel to the historic Mahoning Drive-In, near Leighton, Pennsylvania, for incredible, all-weekend extravaganzas of horror and B-movie mania. Or there was the recent Garth Brooks concert, in which the singer broadcast to drive-ins across the country for $100 a carload. Come to think of it, the spatial equity of a drive-in converts easily to things like live concerts, graduation ceremonies and mega-church/pagan services. We may all be living in a Stephen King novel regardless — and Blake Shelton is coming to take your dollars at drive-ins next weekend.

If you’re looking to get out, you’ll likely end up at a drive-in this summer. It could be for the kids' third viewing of "Trolls: World Tour," or an experiential viewing of Christoper Nolan’s highly anticipated summer blockbuster, Tenet.

Essinger also did not rule out closing down later than normal this season. Given the current climate of entertainment options, the uncertainty of in-person schools this fall and the weather (an ever-present factor for drive-ins), the Skyview could be open long past the end of September. I, for one, would be game for a "Friday the 13th" marathon in September. Just saying.

My best suggestion is to like, follow and frequent as many of these institutions as you can for the remainder of the summer and beyond. I’m a sucker for the experience, and you probably will be, too.

Nearby drive-ins

Here’s a list of all the Ohio drive-ins within a 90-minute drive. Keep in mind, drive-in theaters still exist with proto-websites and variable schedules, so call and/or buy tickets first before driving out of your way:

South Drive-In — 3050 S. High St., Columbus

Skyview Drive-In — 2420 E. Main St., Lancaster

Hi-Road Drive-In — 8059 U.S. 68, Kenton

Dixie-Twin — 6201 N. Dixie Dr., Dayton

Melody 49 — 7606 Pleasant Plain Rd., Brookville

Auto-Vue Drive-In — 1409 4th Ave., Sidney

Holiday Auto-Theater — 1816 Old Oxford Rd., Hamilton

The Dixie-Twin in Dayton