Movies take a front seat in the pandemic 

Back to the dri­ve-in: Philly joins the COVID-safe movie renaissance

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4 minute read
The movie starts when the sun goes down: the Drive-In at the Navy Yard. (Photo courtesy of PFS.)
The movie starts when the sun goes down: the Drive-In at the Navy Yard. (Photo courtesy of PFS.)

The pandemic has changed nearly every aspect of our lives, including how we consume and enjoy art. Performance venues, museums, and movie theaters shuttered in March. Now some are reopening with limited capacity, though the risks of attending are still too high for many. Among all these closures and changes, the drive-in movie theater is making a comeback in Philly and beyond.

A once-booming industry in the 1950s and ’60s, with more than 4,000 locations across the country, drive-in theaters have dwindled to about 330 venues nationwide, according to the New York Film Academy. Many are now seeing a resurgence as a COVID-safe activity; and cities including Philly are turning abandoned venues and empty spaces into temporary drive-in theaters. As a cinephile, and misser of movie theaters, I had to experience one of the original drive-ins for myself, so my partner and I made the trip to The Mahoning Drive-In Theater (about 90 minutes northwest of Philly). I left feeling transported, invigorated, and refreshingly insignificant.

A cinematic niche

The Mahoning Drive-In is seemingly unchanged since it was established in 1949 (there’s even a documentary featuring its stalwart staff). The retro red-and-blue marquee, campground (for those who want to make their experience an all-nighter), and movie-themed marathons and events all cater to the unwavering film nerd. Mahoning distinguishes itself from most drive-ins by specializing in screening movies on 35mm film. They partner with local organizations such as Exhumed Films, organizers of horror and cult events such as 24-hour horror marathons, to carefully curate cinematic events. Exhumed also includes old-school intermissions, commercials, and trailers, elevating a standard movie marathon to something akin to an art exhibition or a portal to the past. The partnership has helped to establish a niche cinematic culture.

Mahoning Drive-In is an ideal backdrop for classic, cult, and horror films, including the “Schlock-O-Rama” marathon that we attended. There is a palpable nostalgia in the air as people from across the country gather in an area that has not changed in more than 70 years. Older movies (by that I mean anything released before 1985) used to lull me into a deep slumber, but with help from my equally cinephilic partner, I have become enamored with a level of craft in filmmaking that for many reasons does not exist today.

Film nerds outside

The atmosphere at Mahoning creates an experience that elevates each film: the endless sky above you, morphing clouds, and the early morning mist that mingles with the glow of the projection light all put the filmgoing experience on another plane. I was whisked away to the 1960s listening to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” on the local radio station, and hearing the ASMR effect of the clicking and shuffling of film reels.

Movie-theater misser Kelly Conrad (left) tried out the view at the Mahoning Drive-In. (Photo courtesy of the author.)
Movie-theater misser Kelly Conrad (left) tried out the view at the Mahoning Drive-In. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

Though despite the magical atmosphere, the threat of COVID did not escape me. Regardless of the mask-wearing, distanced crowd, my waves of anxiety ebbed and flowed. When I felt overwhelmed, I would lean back and stare at the star-speckled sky, as shooting stars (yes, multiple) streaked to somewhere unknown. In those moments, when I took a break from my thoughts and worry, I no longer felt like I was in a pandemic-stricken 2020. As I learned to let go and bask in the shimmer of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, I felt an enormous sense of relief.

Philly drive-ins

Mahoning offers a one-of-a kind drive-in experience, but you do not have to drive to the Poconos to visit one. Philly transformed a few unused spaces into temporary drive-in theaters over the summer, and two are still going strong. The Mann Center, a concert venue in West Fairmount Park, has a roster of free family-friendly movie nights through September 25, including The Lion King (2019 versoin) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Philadelphia Film Society (PFS), owner of the Roxy and the Philadelphia Film Center and organizers of the Philadelphia Film Festival, has partnered with The Navy Yard to screen movies through October (catch Bill & Ted Face the Music through September 3). Since protocol, safety guidelines, and accessibility vary for each venue, planning ahead will ensure that you have the most safe and comfortable experience.

Thanks to those committed to reviving and maintaining a classic American outing, we’re finding an unexpected comfort in a stressful present, experiencing the solace of nostalgia, the escapism of movies, and the grounding of nature all at once. Whether you are an avid drive-in movie theater fan, or looking for a new outdoor activity, drive-ins offer a unique experience for any movie lover. Philly’s COVID-era drive-ins will help scratch your movie-theater itch, but venues like Mahoning (open for the season through the end of October) will transport you to a different time, which we could all use right now.

What, When, Where

Find the Philadelphia Film Society's Drive-In at the Navy Yard event calendar on their website. The Philly Drive-In at the Mann Center event calendar and tickets are available through Eventbrite. The Mahoning Drive-In (635 Seneca Road, Lehighton, PA) is open through October. Cars are necessary for all venues.

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