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Coronavirus has made this relic of the past the hottest form of entertainment

NBC News logo NBC News 6/5/2020 Bryan Reesman
a car parked on a city street filled with lots of traffic: Virus City © Timothy Fadek Virus City

The coronavirus has been a pox upon nearly the entire entertainment industry. But there is one pocket of the business that is undergoing a revival, even a reincarnation: the drive-in. Fueled by the need to socially distance and the collective nostalgia for happier times, the comfort food of show business is providing a much-welcome way to consume live entertainment.

Indeed, these strange, socially isolated times have led us to look back to find a path forward. And while drive-in movies — and their new partner, concerts — seem like a clever but temporary solution to the dearth of live events at present, drive-in theaters should continue to be embraced in American life long after COVID-19 is behind us.

The drive-in began as a distinctly American venue exactly 87 years ago this Saturday in Camden, New Jersey, the brainchild of Richard Hollingshead, who at the time was a sales manager at his father's store, Whiz Auto Products. Once in-car audio speaker technology was developed in 1941, theaters sprouted up across the country. At their peak in 1958, there were 4,063 drive-ins in the United States, a number that has since unfortunately dropped by 90 percent.

They haven't been big moneymakers in recent years, yet they still have an audience, and at a time when few people can patronize traditional indoor theaters, they are serving a useful function by providing a communal experience that people crave right now. Accordingly, many indoor theaters are converting their parking lots to drive-ins.

But this shouldn't be just a move of desperation: The drive-in has many reasons to recommend itself, pandemic or not. People have space to spread out and aren't on top of one another, and thanks to FM and Bluetooth transmission, they could easily have stereo sound sent into their car speakers. It also really lends itself to dates (wink-wink), which was a big draw for young people back in the day. And many of the big screens tower over cineplexes with smaller, chopped-up spaces. High-quality HD movies will look fantastic projected on giant screens.

While drive-ins have become synonymous with movies, they don't need to stay that way. At the height of their popularity during the 1950s and the 1960s, drive-in theaters offered more than just films. There was often live entertainment before screenings or between them — the double-feature being a staple (and well worth revisiting). There were also concession stands, contests and fireworks.

Nearby stood family-friendly places such as playgrounds, petting zoos and, at one Tennessee location, laundry services. (OK, maybe that's too much.) There was even the occasional movie star appearance at Southern California locations. (Today, fans could become stars, like at baseball games, with a cameraman capturing preshow audience shots.) These could all be resurrected, and more.

Stephen Rebello, author of "Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!: Deep Inside Valley of the Dolls, the Most Beloved Bad Book and Movie of All Time," sees a nostalgic appeal to drive-ins for hipsters and retro fans that could expand on this sense of pageantry.

"Why wouldn't a smart drive-in owner book a triple-feature of, say, rock concert movies from back in the day and have a one-night-only intermission concert by great pop singers from the era who are still performing?" Rebello asks. "What about an old-time Goth night with all-night horror movies on the screen? A beach movies night with Tiki and surfer bands? All-night Elvis movies with Elvis impersonators? How about family nights with 'Frozen' movies and actors dressed as the characters? The possibilities are goofy and endless."

And let's be honest: You're not going to see an intimate art house movie or period piece at a drive-in; they're much better suited to family movies, action flicks, horror films and other genres that appeal to a collective throng where group reactions and participation generate energy and heighten the experience. Back in the day, exploitation flicks were a big part of drive-in fare. In fact, thanks to drive-in showings, the indie horror production "The Wretched" has been the highest-grossing movie in America for the last five weeks running, thanks to nearly $841,760 in box office receipts as of last week. It's only the fifth movie to do that since "Titanic," and it is currently playing on 75 screens.

And the venue hardly need be limited to displays on the big screen. Another twist are the drive-in concerts being tested in different parts of the country. Singer-songwriter Kasim Sulton, a founding member of the 1980s Todd Rundgren band Utopia, played shows at noon and 3 p.m. at the Tupelo Music Hall in Derry, New Hampshire, on May 23. He said the first performance had a decent draw, but the second was sold out at 75 cars, each of which paid the $75-per-vehicle fee.

As Sulton described it, cars were spaced out in assigned slots to allow occupants to sit next to their rides but still practice social distancing. Food was ordered before the show and delivered by employees in golf carts and deposited 6 feet from cars. The singer acknowledged that the sense of intimacy wasn't the same as at a regular concert, but the concertgoers themselves were even more attentive.

"A lot of times at shows, there's a few dozen people that aren't looking at the stage. They're looking at their phones," Sulton noted. "I didn't see that once at the show, which was really, really heartening." He added: "They were really there because they just wanted to get out of the house. Get in the fresh air for a minute and see a show."

Keith Urban and the DJ D-Nice have also recently held drive-in concerts, and others are being planned throughout the country. Many will offer listeners the chance to tune in through their car sound systems for a ramped-up stereo experience.

Those technological improvements aren't a bad thing, particularly for people who want to see event movies on really big screens with an enhanced experience. Plus, sitting under the stars rather than inside is an attractive idea for many. The concept is growing in Europe, too, and a drive-in non-movie theater (as in the kind that puts on Shakespeare) has popped up in Prague.

Really, circumstances for many of us could be a lot worse. In post-apocalyptic or pandemic movies, people often revert to their animalistic nature and jump into survivalist mode. We are taking refuge now in a few more basic habits, but it's not like we're suiting up in our Mad Max gear and roving around in armored vehicles or loading ourselves onto spaceships to escape a dying planet and populate a new world.

Although those scenarios would look really cool on a giant drive-in screen.

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