BELLEVILLE — Drive-in movie theaters have become a nostalgic throwback.
But in the midst of this global pandemic, the built-in social distancing of watching a movie from your car is one of the few ways people can enjoy entertainment outside their homes.
Belleville’s Skyview Drive-In, the region’s only outdoor movie theater, reopened on May 8, and cars were lined up at the gate two hours before the box office even opened. Opening weekend featured fan favorites “The Goonies” and “Beetlejuice” on one screen and “Grease” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” over on the second.
Carmen Greiner came out to see “The Goonies” with her siblings. The Brentwood native said she grew up going to the drive-in, and when she heard Skyview was showing movies again, she decided it was the perfect opportunity to get out of the house.
“Traditional movie theaters, you are packed in like sardines and you're so close together, but this seems like a way that you know you can still have that experience, but it's a little bit safer,” Greiner said. “It's a lot safer, I think."
Mark Vandever, an O’Fallon, Illinois, resident, waited with his wife and kids to see “Grease” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Like many, they came to the drive-in on opening weekend because he said they wanted a taste of normalcy.
"We've been cooped up in this house for weeks and weeks,” Vandever said. “So it's something new and exciting that we can do."
Skyview Drive-In owner Steve Bloomer said the reopening was pushed back several times as Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker extended a stay-at-home order. While he said that was frustrating, he was “elated” to finally open.
“We're a different animal than we had been in the past,” Bloomer said, “but we were able to open and ... we're going to be sold out, I'm sure, almost every night for the foreseeable future."
While the movie-watching experience itself is largely unchanged, Skyview has put several safety measures in place. Employees now wear masks; regular bathrooms have been replaced by frequently cleaned porta-potties; the play area is off limits; and the capacity has been cut in half, increasing the distance between cars.
Moviegoers can no longer go inside the concession stand but are able to purchase locally made popcorn, hotdogs and hamburgers from the patio area. On a recent evening some customers wore masks, but even with the best of intentions, keeping the social distancing in place was difficult.
Owner Steve Bloomer admits with all the additional precautions, he is still happy to see the renewed interest in drive-ins.
“I can tell from some of the questions that I'm getting on our Facebook page and our emails that people who have never been here are looking at us as an option,” he said.
Still, this isn’t likely to lead to a huge resurgence in drive-ins, according to John Vincent, the president of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. In the 1950s, there were roughly 4,000 of the outdoor theaters in the nation. The association put the number at 305 last October.
“We always see two to three new drive-ins a year,” Vincent said. “And to do it properly, it's very costly. It's around a million dollars, and it's very land intensive, which had a hand in why there's so few compared to how many there was.”
Couple that with the fact that the entertainment industry is on lockdown, which means new movies are not being released. As a result, drive-ins are stuck showing mostly the classics.
“The drive-ins that are open or reopening are facing, in most cases, 50% capacity limits, increased costs to meet COVID requirements and many other concerns,” Vincent added.
The newest movie Skyview will be showing is “Trolls World Tour” from May 22-28. The rest will be old box-office hits like “Grease” and “The Goonies.”
But the long line of cars waiting to get in for those films seem a clear indication that no matter the movie, people are willing to pay to get out of the house.
If you go:
Upcoming features: The drive-in will show "Hairspray" and "Saturday Night Fever" on screen one, with "Trolls World Tour" and "Dolittle" on Screen 2.
Cost: The box office is cash only and opens at 6:30 p.m. Admission is $10 per person. Children under 12 get in free.
Times: Films start at 8:45 p.m., with a second showing at 10:25 p.m. or later.
Location: 5700 North Belt West, Belleville, Illinois, 62226