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Drive-Ins Find New Life During The Pandemic

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A new drive-in movie theater in Pittsburgh's Strip District, hosted by Row House Cinema.

On a chilly October evening, Vicki Potter stands in a gravel parking lot in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. The scent of popcorn mixes with the gasoline from nearby idling cars. Patrons are masked and sitting in the beds of trucks and trunks of minivans as an old-timey concession stand advertisement blares over the loudspeakers.

Potter is one of many who took in a movie at the new drive-in organized by Row House Cinema. The showing tonight is the 1987 cult classic The Princess Bride, and the viewing is sold out.

“We love it. We love that movie,” Potter said. “So we thought: ‘Why not come out?’ It’s a beautiful night, let’s enjoy a movie.”

The comedy adventure tale with sword fights, monsters and true love is one of several films Row House has shown at this location. Drive-in theaters have found new life as the pandemic keeps people away from traditional movie theaters.Kelsey Zehmisch with the Lawrenceville-based single-screen movie house said the outdoor films are an attempt to stay connected with audiences.

“I think there’s a huge desire that Pittsburgh has had for events like this,” Zehmisch said. “There’s just not that much to do right now in environments that you can feel safe.”

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
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When Pennsylvania’s coronavirus shutdown began in March, Zehmisch said staffers at Row House started talking about how to stay relevant.

“We put together a virtual cinema platform and not long after, came up with our Cat Film Fest,” Zehmisch said. “So we’ve been staying busy, despite it all.”

After a few months, they partnered with the developers who own the Strip District lot at the intersection of Smallman and 21st streets, bought the screening equipment and began selling tickets. All of the weekend showings have sold out. 

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
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Workers at a concession stand at a Row House Cinema drive-in theater.

“The calls just kept coming in”

While the Row House drive-in space is new, existing drive-in movie theaters throughout the Pittsburgh region are using their land in new ways. Beth Manson, co-owner of Starlight Drive-In in Butler County said at the end of March they began to field a number of unusual requests.

“People started reaching out and saying, ‘Would you be interested in graduation? Would you be interested in running a dance recital? Could we maybe use the premises as church?”

After some confusion about state-mandated restrictions on businesses, Starlight owners determined they could safely hold a number of outdoor events.

“The calls just kept coming in.”

The business was contacted by comedians, musicians and dancers, all looking for a venue to showcase their talents and make up some money they’ve lost during the shutdown. Starlight eventually partnered with Drusky Entertainment, Pittsburgh-based concert promoters who have relocated many of their performances to Starlight.

“Merging and coming together with Drusky Entertainment has brought us to where our drive-in is going to make it through the year,” Manson said. 

That’s important for drive-ins’ survival right now. Jeff Galak, associate marketing professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said the businesses have been in steady decline for decades. 

“If you look back at around the 1950s, at the peak of driving culture, there were about 4,000 [drive-ins] in the United States,” Galak said. “We’re down to somewhere around 300 right now.”

The drive-ins that remain open weren’t exactly raking it in before the pandemic. Conventional movie theaters closer to home are preferred and the rise of streaming services kept would-be movie goers at home. But now that everyone’s forced to be inside, Galak says it’s easy to see why people are taking advantage of the opportunity for entertainment. 

“I think it's a wonderful Band-Aid to put on the situation of people being stuck at home,” Galak said. “I think anything that people can do where they can safely go out and socialize and just feel some sort of common sense of community is a wonderful thing to have right now.”

Still, Galak said long-term, he doesn’t anticipate the pandemic-related showings to sustain the drive-in industry. The distance and nighttime showings can be deterrents for patrons.

“Today, in pandemic times, people will do that,” Galak said. “But they're not going every Friday night.”

Credit Jenna Ross/Starlight Drive-In / Facebook Screenshot
Facebook Screenshot
A poem by Jenna Rossi posted on Facebook about the Starlight Drive-In.

  In Moon Township, 70-year-old Dependable Drive-In has also seen a rise in customers. General Manager Jay Glaus said there was some initial panic about the March shutdown, right when the business was “just about to get ready to ramp up for the season.” Dependable Drive-In relies on this seasonal income to offset their operating expenses. Without it, Glaus said, they’d be in a precarious financial position.

“The bills were coming in like normal,” he said. “But we didn’t have any income because we couldn’t be open.”

When Gov. Tom Wolf lifted some restrictions on outdoor entertainment, Dependable Drive-In also adjusted how it used its space. 

“We helped out some of the local school districts and did some graduations for them,” Glaus said. “We felt really bad that they couldn't have a normal graduation.”

Dependable and Starlight both installed signage, restricted how many people could use the bathrooms at once, and required patrons to be masked when walking outside of their vehicle area.

Starlight’s Beth Manson said she’s glad the drive-in gives people an outlet. 

“Families have been pushed together whether they want to be or not,” Manson said. “We are the one avenue, the one venue, where people are able to drive in, stay in their area and drive back out. It’s fantastic.”

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community. kblackley@wesa.fm
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