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The rebirth of the drive-in

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Katei Cranford at Monstercade's Third-base Drive-in 

In the words of drive-in movie host Joe Bob Briggs, “the drive-in will never die,”—but it’s come mighty close. While North Carolina has maintained a handful of hold-outs, few could imagine the almost immediate rebirth of the cinematic institution. 

Before COVID-19, there hadn’t been a proper Triad drive-in in nearly 20 years—but the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything. Suddenly, Winston-Salem is emerging as the Triad capital of drive-in nouveau, with Marketplace Cinemas and the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds reinventing themselves into outdoor theater spaces; and the “Third-base Drive-in” at Monstercade continues rolling into the summer. 

“It’s weird to think that drive-ins are coming back out of necessity, rather than some kitsch revival,” said Monstercade’s Carlos Bocanegra, who turns the weirdo-bar parking lot into a drive-in supporting the underground, screening cult flicks accompanied by an interactive chatroom.

Schedules get posted on the fly. Each session has been a sellout. Bocanegra suggests following Monstercade’s social media for announcements. “We’re all about ‘movie masochism’ here,” said Bocanegra of the film selection. “We’re not going to be showing Grease or The Sound of Music,” he added. “That’s a whole other level of cinematic torture...”

However, Grease is the word at the other Winston spots—appearing on the roster for July 14 at The Drive at the Winston-Fairgrounds, which opens July 7. Running movies Tuesday through Saturday, The Drive offers the most traditional theater setup: newer movies will play on double-screens the whole week. Special events and midnight flicks are planned to add some kick, along with concessions, including adult beverages. 

Down on Peters Creek Parkway, Marketplace Cinemas has re-emerged as a drive-in, with a robust nightly schedule starting in July (running weekends through June).  Their sold-out opening weekend kicked-off with Smokey and the Bandit on Friday night, and the Muppet Movie on Saturday. 

Operator, Daniel Kleeberg’s optimism shines through movie quotes—Marketplace’s inaugural screening was preceded by words from Kermit the Frog: “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending.”

Thanking the audience for their support, and crediting the “extreme generosity” of the Marketplace Mall landlord, Kleeberg turned a parking lot into a drive-in over the weeks between Gov. Cooper’s shutdown and the initial reopening phases. 

“What is old is new again. What was cool, becomes uncool, and cool again. As the Lion King said, ‘it’s the circle of life,’“ he explained of the drive-in’s sudden popularity.

Marketplace would kick-off daily specialty screenings on July 1 with the original Ghostbusters that includes a 9-minute pre-show package. For July 4 weekend, Kleeberg said Marketplace would run a double-feature, a practice he expects more of once new movie releases start rolling again. 

In the meantime, classics are classics for a reason, and having several area drive-ins means fans can catch them on a cycle—with cinemas around the state staggering schedules from the small pool of film distributors throughout the summer. 

So while Jurassic Park and Jaws are coming-up at Marketplace, they played as a double-feature over Father’s Day weekend at the Eden Drive-in (and it’s sister cinema: Badin Road Drive-in in Albemarle). Offering the most classic drive-in experience, Eden and Badin Road have been running seasonally on the weekends for decades. It’s a cash-only affair, harkening days of simple pleasures, with Eden boasting a picturesque pine forest backdrop. Operator Tim Robertson has long provided the good, clean fun he thinks folks are looking for, especially these days—with a major focus on keeping things clean. 

“People are ready to get out and do something, but they still wanna be safe,” he explained. The Eden Drive-in has also added special cleaning staff and revamped the concession building to limit contact. “It’s all about making a place where folks can come out and have a good time without worrying,” Robertson added. “The response has been amazing.” 

Social distancing measures have cut their capacity, but crowds remain strong, particularly as the drive-ins take on new roles as event venues. 

In Eden, Frank Mickens will host a “Freedom Tailgate” on July 2, and the Christian rock group Casting Crowns are scheduled to perform on July 27 (and on July 28 at Badin Road).

To keep up, Robertson urged folks to check Facebook for information as they rework websites (Eden and Badin have temporary WordPress pages for those not on the social network). Movie selections for the upcoming weekend are usually posted on Tuesdays. 

The selections will double for Eden come July once their new second-screen makes its debut with the Garth Brooks “drive-in tour” concert on June 27. 

Presented by Encore Live, a group developed to host major concerts in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brooks’s 300-theater specialty tour is selling out spaces at $100 a carload, with screenings at Eden, Badin Road, and Marketplace Cinemas. Both Kleeberg and Robertson expect to see drive-ins shift into an all-around special events realm. 

Special events, classic movies, and summer nights, it’s time for drive-in movie magic in the Triad.

Wanna go?

Check out screenings, price and more information at the websites: 

Eden Drive-in, Badin Road Drive-in,  Marketplace Cinemas, The Drive, Third-base Drive-in.

Katei Cranford is a Triad music nerd and avowed drive-in mutant. 

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