DADE CITY — As the fight over face masks and freedom rages, some pillars of Americana light up when the sun goes down. They never knew we needed to touch so much. They were always fine with distance.
Consider Florida’s drive-in movie theaters. There are seven left, relics lost to changing tastes and technology. Much has been made of the nation’s drive-ins enjoying a coronavirus boom, but that’s a movie loosely based on real events.
Chip Sawyer started working at the drive-in at 15. Now at 27, he’s president of his family’s Sun South Theatres, which includes Dade City’s Joy-Lan Drive-In and Lakeland’s Silver Moon Drive-In. He loves to talk about drive-ins. His locations host flea markets and have experimented with food trucks.
But drive-ins are not exactly a growth industry. More movie studios are bypassing theaters entirely. The virus shut down Florida drive-ins along with everything else. Now that they’re back, Sawyer says, fewer people are hitting the snack bar for popcorn and cotton candy.
The business is not as simple as projecting a movie on a wall. The theater pays studios up to 60 percent of box-office sales. When Disney puts a four-week minimum on the new Star Wars and there’s only a screen or two, it cuts into repeat visitors.
And yet, the regulars come. New guests are coming, too, looking for a reasonable reason to leave the domestic cocoon.
You don’t feel safe yet, but every day, there’s pressure. Socialize. Patronize. Mundane things feel like a protest you didn’t sign up for. Everything is political. Everything is fraught.
But the drive-in. Well, that sounds lovely. You head to the Joy-Lan, down twisting Pasco County roads bound for Footloose, a flick from 1984 readily available...everywhere. That’s not the point.
You pay at a booth through the car window. It’s $6 for adults, $2 for kids, and you can stay for two shows. A night at the movies normally takes a second mortgage. You squirt the hand sanitizer, tune your car radio to 93.1 and choose a solid patch of dirt.
The first time out is clumsy. You are no longer in an ’82 Celebrity make-out mobile. The daytime running lights don’t turn off. You read the manual. You Google “will my battery die at the drive-in?” You sit in camp chairs and swat mosquitoes before remembering that drive-in movies are best observed inside a car.
The lot is pleasantly full, not bursting. There’s a train horn in the distance. Footloose is worse than you remember. But in that dusty field, the troubles of the world feel far away. You can’t stay to watch Grease, because the kid in the backseat is falling asleep on her stuffed cat. You finish the popcorn and go.
You post about it and make a plan to go back. You wonder if this moment will indeed inject new life into old ideas, or if the memories are in metamorphosis. If we’re all changing, all the time.
For now, there’s just the drive home at the end of one good night.
Tampa Bay drive-in movie theaters
Joy-Lan Drive-In: 16414 US 301, Dade City
Silver Moon Drive-In: 4100 New Tampa Highway, Lakeland
Ruskin Family Drive-In Theatre: 5011 US 41 N, Ruskin
Funlan Swap Shop and Drive-In: 2302 E Hillsborough Ave., Tampa
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