While most entertainment venues remain closed during the pandemic, one blast from summers past is making a comeback: drive-in movies.
At least four regional pop-up venues are offering summer films under the stars in North Idaho, Spokane Valley, Cheney and north Spokane. Families can load up an entire household, and the car naturally serves as a socially distanced pod. Movie soundtracks are heard over vehicles’ FM radios.
Many indoor movie theaters have kept their doors closed as COVID-19 cases continue to spread. New film releases are on hold. These pop-up drive-ins fill the niches with classic family movies.
“We’ve had good attendance on weekends,” said Mike Lehosit, who owns Hayden Discount Cinema at 300 W. Centa Drive in Hayden. The theater has had a drive-in on an exterior wall since April, with outdoor shows expected to run four days a week through Labor Day.
An outdoor flick starting about 9 p.m. at Hayden costs $10 a vehicle Thursday through Sunday, with registration online at drivein.hdcmovies.com. Each drive-in show can hold about 45 vehicles with social distancing.
“We allow lawn chairs in front of cars as long as they’re within their space. We see a lot of families coming out on weekends, and we just had ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ which was a big hit. Families just want to get out and do things together, and right now, it’s tough.”
In some locations, Walmart has announced 160 pop-up drive-in sites nationwide in its parking lots for movies beginning in August, although details were pending if this region is included. Specific sites and movie schedules are expected to be released by the end of July at walmartdrive-in.com.
Smaller pop-up drive-ins in the Inland Northwest with shows scheduled now include Cheney Parks & Recreation’s free movies at dusk each Friday through Aug. 21. The Cheney Middle School’s parking lot can hold as many as 30 vehicles starting at dusk under a first-come, first-serve basis, for a movie on the department’s giant inflatable screen. On the schedule are “Mary Poppins Returns” on Friday, “Toy Story 4” on Aug. 7, “Peanut Butter Falcon” on Aug. 14 (rated PG-13) and “Robin Hood” on Aug. 21.
Families are encouraged to bring their own snacks and stay in vehicles.
“There are so many limited options for recreation, we thought this might be a good way to get the public out to do something that’s free and that anyone can attend,” said Kelly McGinley Ashe, Cheney’s recreation director.
Also next month, Spokane Valley Parks and Recreation Department plans two free drive-ins for “Abominable” on Aug. 7 and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” on Aug. 21, both at 8:30 p.m. Families must register online at spokanevalley.org/driveinmovies or by phone at (509) 720-5200 for a spot among about 100 vehicles per show. The site is across the street from Valley Mission Park, 11123 E. Mission Ave., in a parking lot south of the road.
Spokane Valley has contracted with FunFlicks Outdoor Movies, which offers the big screen.
“It’s such a unique experience for the whole family,” said Tina Gregerson, the city’s recreation coordinator. “With the two different types of movies, we’re hoping to capture all ages.”
“With the COVID restrictions, we are requiring that people stay in their vehicles during the duration of the movie, with the exception of using the restroom. We will have portable restrooms on site, and they have to wear a mask.
“Other than that, we hope people come and enjoy a free drive-in movie. Bring your own snacks, popcorn from your home, kids in pajamas.”
In north Spokane, “Flicks for Fido” are scheduled as fundraisers for the Spokane Humane Society. At 6607 N. Havana St., the facility plans to host “Secret Life of Pets” on Aug. 8 and “Secret Life of Pets 2” on Aug. 9, both at dusk. FunFlicks will set up a 40-foot screen. With limited vehicle spots, guests can reserve with a minimum $40 donation at spokanehumanesociety.org/flicks-for-fido.
Proceeds will help homeless pets rescued by the nonprofit. If you want to chance showing up, gates open at 7:30 p.m. for first-come, first-serve. For questions, call (509) 467-5235, ext. 212.
This summer’s outdoor screens aren’t only about movies, however, as some musicians are jumping into the venue. On June 27, Garth Brooks’ drive-in concert was a fan favorite nationwide and locally hit outdoor screens at the Hayden cinema, Auto-View Drive-in Theater in Colville and at the University of Idaho.
A Blake Shelton concert at Hayden sold out for one show this past Saturday, Lehosit said, so the theater added a second midnight showing.
“Garth’s concert was well done, and it was done specially for drive-in theaters,” Lehosit said. “They recorded it, and I’m pretty sure they’re doing the same thing with Blake Shelton.
“They’re planning some other events, too. I don’t know exactly which ones, but these are concerts that they’re doing at 300-plus drive-ins nationwide. I think when entertainers are not doing much of anything else, they’re looking for other avenues to be in touch with their fans.”
Lehosit said he adds extra outdoor speakers for the music events. Families can head indoors to buy concessions.
Depending on how long pandemic restrictions linger, Lehosit said he wouldn’t be surprised if drive-ins become places to show major sporting events or stage theater shows. Lehosit has helped other small, independent theaters set up for outdoor drive-ins similar to his plan.
“I’m just waiting for the next idea to come around,” Lehosit said. “Is someone going to be showing Major League Baseball teams on the screen or NBA games? I know we’re up for trying things.”
The Idaho theater recently opened indoor movies under limited capacity, but Lehosit plans to hold drive-in films as the weather holds. That’s partly why it was hard to keep drive-ins open all months in colder climates, Lehosit said, but he might consider that option.
“If someone has some land and is willing to part with it, I’d love to put up a year-round one, but it would have to be multiuse. Some people do flea markets, food courts maybe, even a kids sporting venue during daytime.”
The 1950s and 1960s were the heydays of drive-in theaters. In 1952, Spokane opened its fourth drive-in movie theater at the North Division Y, said “Spokane Historical,” a project by Eastern Washington University. It opened a few years after the first drive-in on East Sprague in 1949.
Nationwide, more than 5,000 drive-ins existed by 1960, but the numbers dwindled during the 1980s with home entertainment systems. Spokane’s last drive-in closed in 1994.
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