A guide to New England’s nostalgic drive-ins
These days many of us are wishing for the activities and traditions of an easier time. This summer, embrace nostalgia and perhaps create a new tradition by taking in one of New England’s drive-in movie theaters.
Despite changes in configurations at drive-ins due to COVID-19 restrictions, including ensuring social distancing is permitted at refreshments booths, proprietors of the mid-century slice of Americana say families can still be at ease, be together, and be entertained.
“It’s the same wholesome experience,” said Leicester Drive-In owner Maria Joseph, a legacy owner of the 1967-born theater that was founded by her father, Hanna Joseph, and opened to a sold-out crowd.
Joseph will be opening the Leicester drive-in with an expanded staff to ensure COVID compliance is maintained, anchored by Joseph, her mother, her nephew, and a projectionist “who has been working with us for at least 30 years.”
If you and your family are ready to rock around the clock, observe a few tips to ensure that no one gets all shook up.
Advanced planning is essential, particularly with increased interest this summer season coupled with reduced spacing due to COVID-19 regulations.
Movie schedules are released typically the Monday or Tuesday the week prior to their showings, and theaters are posting sold-out notices days in advance of screenings. Gauge your interest level in the movies as they appear on theaters’ websites and purchase tickets at least four days out from the screening you wish to see. If you fear rain, double check any cancellation policies, but also remember, rain showers are not prohibitive of a drive-in screening.
Drive-in theaters have advanced their technology to favor digital projections and FM audio streaming. However, with cars becoming smarter by the year, keeping one’s engine off and the radio on for an extended period can often require a last-minute consultation of your owner’s manual. To negate the need to scramble through your glove box and alleviate any worry regarding your car battery, bring a portable radio tucked into your trunk and tune it to the prescribed channel.
The drive-in theater experience inverts the traditional driving experience. Before venturing out for the night, experiment briefly with seating scenarios. Find the positions where your children can relax and view the screen through the front windshield with ease. Empowering your kids to find their own seat will eliminate any last-minute scrambling on-site and give them ownership of their decisions.
Much like the process of purchasing tickets, advanced arrival is essential for finding an optimal spot for your family. Though films begin at dusk, theaters can open an hour-and-a-half to two hours before showtime. Getting in early will leave you time to take advantage of the concessions dished out at theaters, from hot dogs and hamburgers to ice cream and, of course, freshly made popcorn.
Yet, an hour of downtime can be a recipe for boredom and angst by youngsters. And COVID-19 restrictions leave venturing outside of the car in flux for some establishments, so take the purely 1950s drive-in experience to break out some classic card or board games.
When night does fall and films begin rolling on screen, drive-in movies start just as New England scorches fade to cool winds, so be sure to pack a handful of sweatshirts, blankets, and pillows. This is doubly important as the drive-in is one of the few remaining venues where a double feature is expected. By the time the credits roll on the second film and headlights brighten, children in the back may already be asleep.
To find the location of your next family tradition, check out these local drive-in options for you.
Rustic Tri View Drive-In
With its blue and yellow marquee, the Rustic Tri View Drive-In has become a symbol for many Bay Staters traveling along 146 South that they have entered Rhode Island since its opening in 1951.
After 70 years of operation, patrons should expect a throwback experience. When arriving, attendants will guide you to a parking spot, organized to ensure that smaller cars line the front row with successively taller vehicles in the back.
As its name would imply, the Tri View operates three screens, each showing back-to-back features. With recent nights showing back-to-back Harry Potter films, and a Sonic the Hedgehog-Doolittle double feature, you can often expect two family-friendly choices to choose from.
On Thursdays, gates open at 7 p.m., while Friday through Sunday showings allow cars to enter by 6 p.m. This leaves plenty of time for trips to the snack bar before the movie begins at dusk. Our tip: make sure your first trip includes an order of the Rustic’s clam cakes.
And if social distancing is a concern, the Tri-View has a call ahead order option after you park.
1195 Eddie Dowling Highway, Route 146 S, North Smithfield, RI
$27 per vehicle
Mendon Twin Drive-In
The Mendon Twin has been delighting visitors since it opened in the summer of 1954. During most of its life, the Mendon Twin was an only child, adding its second screen in 1998.
Though his cowl and mask are unlikely to appear drifting across the Screen, the fingers of the Phantom Gourmet can be found at the Mendon Twin Drive-In, after the Andelman Brothers purchased the drive-in in 2014. Along with staples such freshly popped popcorn, candy, and soda, patrons can find mac n’ cheese bites, nachos, fried dough, and Bay State-based Table Talk Pies. If you’re hungry after your main meal, treat yourself to ice cream cones, cups, sundaes, and floats at Ernie’s Ice Cream stand.
Purchase tickets ahead of time and arrive at least 60 minutes before showtime.
35 Milford St., Mendon, Massachusetts
$30 per vehicle. $6 per passenger over 6.
Wellfleet Cinema Drive-In
Situated just off the Cape Cod National Seashore on Route 6, the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre is situated on a parcel of land well-known to sun drenched travelers looking for a break from the beach either through a movie, a round of mini golf, a lick of an ice cream cone, or a rummage through its weekend flea market.
The Wellfleet Drive-In opened in 1957. By 1961, the Drive-In added its adjacent mini golf course for those waiting for the to begin; a pre-movie tradition that will be available for families this season as well.
For the adventurous, nostalgic, or adventurously nostalgic, Wellfleet provides the opportunity for patrons to use original 1957 speaker boxes to complete their viewing experience. Find a spot in Rows 2-15 and try out the volume knob where hopefully you will hear pre-show music. If so, sit back and relax. If you would prefer the guaranteed method, or would rather have your windows closed, Wellfleet also broadcasts audio over an FM station.
51 State Highway, Route 6, Wellfleet, MA
General Admission $13, Children 4-11 $9, ages under 3 Free. Mini Golf: $5 Adults, $3.50 Kids
Aside from screen upgrades, few things have changed at the Leicester Drive-In since it opened to a sold-out crowd of revelers waiting to watch Elvis Presley in “Double Trouble.” Its squat, red, toll-style box office has transported generations of Central Massachusetts families back in time.
With ample room surrounded by the woods, the Leicester Drive-In is one of the few drive-in locations that instantly brings patrons away from the bustle of daily life.
“We are far enough away from route 9 so it really does feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, in a good way,” said the owner.
Feel free to roll down your windows, throw on the radio, and sit back and enjoy an oldies playlist streamed over the theatre’s Drive-in Radio station.
The box office opens at 7 p.m., with movies beginning shortly after dusk. Arriving early ensures a good seat before the digital Main Screen, which, per tradition, shows double features.
1675 Main St., Leicester, MA
$30 per carload
The Northfield Drive-In has greeted families straddling the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border for over seven decades, survived gale force winds that toppled its screen in 1951, and been cemented in Hollywood history as the background for The Cider House Rules in 1998.
After 52 years being run by the Shakour Family, the 2020 season is the first for new owners Julia and Steve Wiggin, and with them renovations to the snack bar, ticketing system, and WiFi capabilities on the grounds. Opening the theatre despite complications presented by COVID-19 is a throwback to the Northfield Drive-In’s original opening in 1948 when contractor issues pushed its opening date from late spring to the sweltering month of August.
Having begun business in the traditionally swampiest month of the year, it is no wonder that the Northfield Drive-In stocks insect repellents and coils alongside other more flavorful treats, burgers, and popcorn at its concession stand. Gates and the Snack Bar open at 6:30 p.m.
981 Northfield Road, Hinsdale, NH
Adults $12, children $7 | Triple Feature Adults $13, children $8.