With movie theaters still closed, New York’s drive-ins fill the entertainment gap


If you want to go see a movie this summer, it’s probably going to have to be outside. For now, drive-in theaters across New York are the only game in town until movie theaters are allowed to reopen in a few more weeks. Fortunately for the North Country, there are several drive-ins to choose from. NCPR visited one near Watertown to see how it’s adapting to the new coronavirus reality.

Loren Knapp runs the Black River Drive-in near Watertown. He's had to make several costly upgrades to get the theater ready to open this season. Source: Julia Ritchey, NCPR

Loren Knapp runs the Black River Drive-in near Watertown. He’s had to make several costly upgrades to get the theater ready to open this season. Source: Julia Ritchey, NCPR

It’s a few nights before Loren Knapp is getting ready to kick-off his summer season at the Black River Drive-in just outside Watertown.

Knapp is in his 60s, semi-retired and wearing jeans and a maroon shirt. It’s a muggy day and he wants to show off the concession area because of all the changes he’s made.

Knapp inside his projector booth. Source: Julia Ritchey, NCPR

Knapp inside his projector booth. Source: Julia Ritchey, NCPR

“When the people come in, they’ll come in this door,” he says pointing to the glass door. “They’ll come in one at a time and I got distance markers along the edge. Normally, they went over there and they picked up their popcorn and stuff. I’ve got to steer him away from that.”

In a few hours his employees are coming by to go over all the new procedures to comply with public health guidelines.

“I’m out about six weeks of the summer now. I generally would have opened about mid-April. But they shut everything down near the beginning of April, if I remember right,” he said. 

Knapp also shows me the bathrooms, with new automatic sinks and hand-free paper towel dispensers. He’s upgraded his point-of-service system to do online ticketing for the very first time.
All of these changes have come at a cost.

“I had a dip in my personal savings to keep the place going to get us open. So it’s tough. And if we can make enough this year to break even or get out of the hole and be ready to go again next year, that’ll be great,” said Knapp.

The Black River drive-in was built in 1950 and stayed open until the mid-80s when declining attendance forced many drive-ins to close. The theater fell into disrepair until 2006 when Knapp and a friend resurrected it.

Knapp has been fielding calls from people interested in opening their own drive-ins, lured by the thought of a coronavirus-proof business built for an age of social distancing. He tells them it’s not as easy as it looks.

“It’s a kind of a tough business because here a couple years ago, we had a lot of rain. We had crummy movies all summer. By time we get through the season. We didn’t make we hardly made a cent,” said Knapp. 

Distance markers on the floor of the concession area. Source: Julia Ritchey, NCPR

Distance markers on the floor of the concession area. Source: Julia Ritchey, NCPR

Knapp dipped into his savings to purchase automatic sinks and a hands-free paper towel dispenser. Source: Julia Ritchey, NCPR

Knapp dipped into his savings to purchase automatic sinks and a hands-free paper towel dispenser. Source: Julia Ritchey, NCPR

 

Jamie Toddhunter pulls up in a blue car a little early for their employee training. She’s getting ready to start her second summer at Black River.

“I am excited to get back to work, actually. Like a lot of people, it’s been kind of stir crazy at home, so I’m looking forward to a chance to get out. This is good for my mental health to be around people besides my children,” she said, laughing. 

Toddhunter moved to the area because her husband is in the army. Fort Drum is a big draw here. She runs the popcorn station and is a little sad that she probably won’t get to interact as much with customers now.

“You’d have a line and then you’d get this little kid that’s maybe three or four. And I would take the scoop and I’d throw the popcorn in the air, in the machine, and just their eyes would bulge and put it on a little show for them. And just making that day a little bit more special for somebody who… it’s an outing for them. It’s entertainment,” she said.

All the changes aside, this is a huge opportunity for Knapp and other drive-ins across the country.

“Talking with the rest of the drive-in theaters around, I think it’ll give the driving industry a big boost,” said Knapp. “The drive-ins at one time kind of had a reputation of being kind of a Class B place to go. And we haven’t now.”

 

I’m pulling up to watch a double feature on Thursday night at the 56 Auto Drive-In in Massena, closer to where I live. I hand the attendant my cash and roll up to a post.

Hollywood isn’t releasing much in the way of new movies, another big hurdle for the drive-ins, so they’re running slightly older pictures like Pixar’s Onward and Call of the Wild with Harrison Ford.

“Last call for refreshments!” the screen blares with retro advertisements recycled from the heyday of drive-ins. 

I tune my radio to the right frequency to hear the movie, run over to get some popcorn and prop my feet up on the dash of the passenger side.

Onward is about two elf brothers on a quest to bring back their dead father. The movie strikes a deeply personal chord. My own dad passed away a few years ago, and I remember spending summer nights at the movies with him.

Entertainment in the age of coronavirus may be a little different now, but the power of cinema to connect us to feelings of joy, sadness, grief, it’s all still there. On a big screen. Under the stars.



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