Little Joys of Summer

Throwback Drive-In Theaters Are Suddenly Perfect for 2020

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, drive-ins have elbowed their way back into the spotlight. Here's why.

By Conner Reed August 1, 2020 Published in the August 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

Drive-ins—“the original social distancing,” according to Brian Francis, owner-operator of Newberg’s 99W Drive-In (pictured)—have elbowed their way back into the spotlight.

An excerpt from the Sunday Oregonian, July 16, 1933: “DRIVE-IN THEATER OPENS. Motorists see film without leaving cars.”  

The dispatch, flecked with wonder and H. G. Wells futurism, didn’t come from the Northwest. It came from Camden, New Jersey, where the world’s first drive-in had just shown its inaugural matinee. Thirteen years would pass before the words “drive-in theater” appeared in the O’s column inches again, when a short-lived drive-in north of Columbia Boulevard became Oregon’s very first.

More recently, drive-ins—“the original social distancing,” according to Brian Francis, owner-operator of Newberg’s 99W Drive-In (pictured)—have elbowed their way back into the spotlight.

Mike Spiess’s family has operated the Milton-Freewater Drive-In, just south of the Washington border near Walla Walla, since 1961. It’s one of only three fully functioning drive-ins left statewide, along with operations in La Grande and in Newberg.

In the wake of the executive order that closed movie theaters around the state, Spiess and his wife, Lois, noticed a flood of questions on their theater’s Facebook page: When was the drive-in going to open? When could people leave their house for a movie again?

Those questions led Spiess to long talks with the Oregon Health Authority and the Umatilla County Health Department, both of which eventually gave him the all-clear to open up shop—with caveats.

Cars have to keep a distance of eight feet from one another, and the snack bar has pivoted to a takeout model, with patrons appropriately spaced for ordering and gloved runners delivering food to individual cars. Most stringent are the bathroom rules: Spiess must have an attendant on-site ensuring no more than three people use the facilities at a time, and the room must be completely sanitized every 20 minutes. To minimize trips, he’s shifted from double features to single screenings.

Closer to home, the restaurant Gado Gado has whipped up a sometimes-drive-in of their own, just around the corner from the temporarily shuttered Hollywood Theatre, with dinner and candy service included. Newberg’s 99W Drive-In, the closest drive-in to Portland, has been showing crowd-pleasers like Jaws and The Goonies since it reopened back in May.

“We’re living a unique situation,” Spiess says, “and drive-in theaters are unique businesses. So maybe we can do some things here. We’re trying to balance, no. 1, health and safety. But we also want to be of service to our community.”

Listen to Portland Monthly arts editor Conner Reed talks about how drive-in theaters have reemerged in the age of coronavirus in this episode of Footnotes. 

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