America’s love affair with drive-in theaters started in New Jersey nearly 90 years ago, so it’s only fitting the drive-in has come roaring back to life in the Garden State as people search for a safe diversion amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Local governments, organizations and venues across the state have turned to the drive-in movie as the go-to form of mass entertainment, while those searching for truly live entertainment have embraced the drive-in model, too, with drastic times leading to innovations like drive-in concerts and comedy shows.
Two venues in Lambertville have provided regular drive-in film screenings as a way to make up for a lack of indoor events.
Acme Screening Room had been doing virtual screenings since March, when the theater closed. As the summer approached, staff recalled that patrons in previous years asked the venue to show some films outdoors. When someone offered to lend Acme Screening Room the needed equipment, everything lined up in order for them to give it a go this year.
Since June, Acme Screening Room has shown films in a parking lot on North Union Street every Saturday, calling the series “Carpool Cinema.” Acme limits capacity to 35 cars, with tickets $40 per car.
At the June 20 show, musicians performed live before the film, and Thai Tida—which is adjacent to the North Union Street parking lot—provided Thai street food for purchase. Acme had its usual selection of popcorn and candy. The venue hopes to carry a similar atmosphere through the summer.
Films are typically announced a week ahead of showing, but Acme Screening Room already has secured “Bohemian Rhapsody” for Saturday, Aug. 1. Tickets go on sale Saturday, July 25.
There will be no show July Fourth weekend. For the latest information on show dates and times, go online to acmescreeningroom.org.
Music Mountain Theatre on Route 179 in Lambertville has assembled an 8-week summer movie series, with films shown in the theater’s parking lot every Friday and Saturday night. Tickets are $25 per car, limited to 24 cars. In July, the features are “Avengers: Endgame” July 3, “Toy Story 4” July 10-11, “Frozen 2” July 17-18, “Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark” July 24-25, and “Sonic the Hedgehog” July 31-Aug. 1.
Music Mountain Theatre actually had some experience in outdoor cinema, running a series of movies several years ago at Washington Crossing’s Open Air Theatre.
Its staff realized in March, when it closed, that their theater most likely would be shuttered for a long period of time. Like Acme Screening Room, Music Mountain Theatre did some virtual entertainment, but wanted something different. After getting the appropriate approvals and working out the kinks with a staff-only dry run, Music Mountain Theatre had its first public showing June 19 with the film “Harriet.” It sold out.
Some adaptation has been required. The staff has taken on new roles, with the artistic directors Jordan Brennan and Louis Palena now working as parking attendants. Producing director and board chair Ginny Brennan sells concessions. Social distancing guidelines are being used to park cars, as well as for concessions and restrooms. For the latest information, go online to musicmountaintheatre.org.
Meanwhile, Long Beach Island’s annual Lighthouse Film Festival adapted the format it has used for the last 12 years, and offered two new ways to enjoy its films: virtually or June 16–20 at three drive-in locations along the island. The films showed to parking lots full of cinema fans, who used their car radios or mobile phones to tune in to the movie’s audio.
Live entertainment has come around to the drive-in, as well. Europe has a few such performances under its belt already in places like Scotland and Slovakia, but only recently has the United States started to get in on the action.
Country star Garth Brooks performed a concert June 27 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas that was broadcast simultaneously to hundreds of drive-in theaters throughout North America, including New Jersey’s last remnant from the mid-20th century drive-in era: Delsea Drive-In Theatre in Vineland. The show sold-out nearly everywhere.
Concert promoter Live Nation will host live drive-in concerts July 10-12 in St. Louis, Indianapolis and Nashville, with acts like Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker and Nelly appearing in-person.
While the size of those shows will be limited to hundreds of cars, that same weekend New Jersey will be host to what’s being billed as the largest live concert of its kind anywhere.
Organized by Red Bank’s Count Basie Center for the Arts and using Monmouth Park racetrack in Oceanport as the venue, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes will perform Saturday, July 11 for 1,000 cars full of fans. Comedian Jim Gaffigan will headline the same space Sunday, July 12. The Basie has called the series “Drive-In Live.”
Tickets for the Southside Johnny show sold out in hours. Gaffigan’s show sold out, too, about a month before his appearance.
“The Asbury Jukes and I are so excited that we can play this first of its kind live concert and help get New Jersey started on a quick and healthy return to normal,” “Southside” Johnny Lyon said in a statement. “Why sit at home when ‘We’re Havin’ A Party,’ drive-in style? We’ll safely see everyone July 11th.”
Based on the popularity, the Basie announced a second round of Drive-In Live shows July 29-30. Tribute band Almost Queen will play Saturday, July 29. Comedian Iliza Shlesinger will perform Sunday, July 30. Tickets for both shows go on sale Thursday, July 2.
At all Drive-In Live shows, four people will be allowed per car, with nine feet of distance between cars. Cars will be parked in a staggered fashion to allow for the most spacing and visibility. Concertgoers must remain inside their vehicles, wear a mask, and may only step out to use restrooms. Monmouth Park plans to use portable, single-stall restrooms, which will be cleaned between patrons.