Classic car shows, corporate meetings, live concerts, weddings — these are not events you would normally expect to see at a drive-in theater.
Then again, nothing is normal in 2020.
Jay Mowery, owner of Cumberland Drive-In Theatre in Cumberland County, has been forced to find inventive ways to generate revenue, especially after Hollywood limited releases to second-run titles this summer due to the coronavirus pandemic.
That decision led to a 50 to 60 percent drop in box office revenue. That steep decline came just one year after the second-generation theater, which has been open since July of 1952, experienced a blockbuster season.
“We were coming off our best year ever last year,” says Mowery. “Avengers: Endgame came out, all those Disney remakes that they were doing like Aladdin — it was just a great season, and more consistent. We live and die by how good a movie is, or how popular it is, but last year just seemed to be so steady throughout the entire season.”
Although he’s shown fan favorites such as Ghostbusters, Talladega Nights and Jaws to a whole new generation of movie-goers this summer, the take from older films typically falls short of what new flicks earn. (Jaws, ironically, was THE hit movie of summer 1975 — drive-in theaters were filled to capacity, night after night, during its run.)
People can socially distance out there, they can feel comfortable, and the fact that we’re not as crowded gives everyone a better sense of the space around them.Jay Mowery, Cumberland Drive-In Theatre
With both box-office and snack bar revenues down, Mowery decided to open his theater to new business ventures, including a classic car show and an investment firm’s annual meeting, both planned for October, and another first: a couple’s wedding in mid-September.
Baltimore residents Harman Kaur and Matt Zemhelt may not have had the wedding they originally planned, but their nuptials in front of 150 guests two hours from their hometown will certainly be a topic of conversation for many years to come.
“It’s definitely a story we’ll have to share for a long time,” says Kaur, who was interviewed before the big day. “[It’s] one that we’ll be telling to our children and grandchildren.”
After hearing the suggestion from her future father-in-law, Kaur did due diligence to see if it would work. She Googled drive-in weddings and found a couple that tied the knot at one in Austin. After seeing those wedding photos on Instagram, the couple knew it could be a special experience.
“Matt and I thought it was pretty cool and got excited that we could have a similar experience on our wedding day,” says Kaur. “At the end of the day, it was really important for us to do everything safely, especially since we have family members who work in healthcare. We could have our wedding at the original venue, but that just didn’t seem to be the safest option.”
Their non-traditional, outdoor wedding had a certain flair — they even incorporated the giant white screen into their special day. Trivia, a slideshow, their engagement video, the couple’s first dance and cake-cutting ceremony were projected onto the big screen behind them.
“The most difficult part is planning a wedding at a non-wedding venue,” she adds. “We had no precedent to follow but it’s been a fun ride. We have a quirky venue, and we will have quirky food, since we’re bringing in food trucks to be safe. But we’re making it personal, so that’s pretty cool.”
It’s definitely a story we’ll have to share for a long time — one that we’ll be telling to our children and grandchildren.Harman Kaur
Her wedding isn’t the only interesting event set to take place at the drive-in this fall.
A local philanthropic organization, which awards college scholarships to young women, will air A League of their Own as part of this year’s fundraising festivities.
WITF, the regional PBS station, will hand out goodie bags to area children via a drive-by event as part of its annual Back to School Night celebration.
And a horror film club will show four Halloween-themed movies to costumed guests over two nights on the weekend of October 16 and 17.
“Any outdoor setting is better than any indoor setting right now,” says Mowery. “People can socially distance out there, they can feel comfortable, and the fact that we’re not as crowded gives everyone a better sense of the space around them. All of these events, except for the investment firm meeting and the wedding, are open to the public.”
The zenith of drive-in theaters occurred during the 1950s and 1960s when nearly 8,000 venues opened across America, most of them in rural areas. According to driveinmovie.com, Pennsylvania “is home to America’s second drive-in, Shankweiler’s Drive-in (opened in April of 1934), which is still open today and now gives Pennsylvania the added distinction of being home to the oldest operating drive-in in the United States.” By the 1950s, there were 180 drive-ins in the Commonwealth. Twenty-seven remain, making PA second in the country when it comes to these open-air theaters.
Having never been to a drive-in prior to planning her wedding, Kaur says she now understands why Pennsylvanians love this tradition.
“Matt and I have had several date nights at the theater,” she says. “They’ve been showing a bunch of movies we love, so we’ve been here a bunch of times to plan our wedding and then stayed to see the movies showing that night.”
It is a sentiment that people have shared with Mowery over the years and one that he’s felt for most of his life, especially having grown up at the drive-in and working there since he was a teen in the 1970s.
“These events are fine, but showing movies is in my blood, it’s what I like to do,” he says. “[Showing first-run movies] is a formula that has worked for 68 years, so I can’t wait until we can get back to showing movies on the big screen.”
All wedding images courtesy of Whitney Misch, oncelikeaspark.com