NORTH SMITHFIELD – There was a time when the drive-in movie theater appeared ready to go the way of the carhop restaurant, the malt shop, and the roller rink – vestiges of classic Americana gone by the wayside in the era of new technology and social media.
In its heyday, the drive-in numbered 4,000 in the United States in the late-1950s, but as their popularity waned over the coming decades, only a fraction were left standing from coast-to-coast. In Rhode Island, two of the seasonal drive-ins remain: Rustic Tri View Drive-In in North Smithfield and the Misquamicut Drive-In in Westerly.
Built in 1951, the Rustic has changed hands several times over the years as it has grappled with the challenges of evolving consumer habits. It has endured through harsh summers and brutal winters, and even 13 different presidents, all the while providing entertainment to families from across Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
But something quite unexpected happened this year. Something the Rustic has never before faced and something that left some questioning whether it would survive: a global pandemic.
But not only has the drive-in thus far survived COVID-19, it has thrived in it, as have the few remaining drive-ins across the country. This underdog story is readily apparent on weekend evenings, starting roughly around 7, when cars, trucks, and minivans begin lining up outside of the Rustic on Route 146 South, all in anticipation of getting that perfect parking spot.
It doesn’t matter that the movies aren’t first-run – or in certain instances, even from this century. Just this past weekend, one of Rustic’s three screens harked back to the 1980s with a double-feature of “The Karate Kid” followed by “The Breakfast Club.” Yet crowds still turned out for a night under the stars and a classic bit of entertainment.
But just as cinephiles have pined for a destination to view their favorite films while movie theaters have been closed, so too have concertgoers, who’ve been lost in an era where stadiums, arenas, and concert halls have been unable to host performers.
Again, the Rustic has come through, as the drive-in has proven to be the perfect location for a socially-distanced concert, as fans can fill vehicles, park in designated spots, and sing to their hearts’ content without encroaching on another’s space.
In late June, Rustic screened a Garth Brooks concert to a sold-out crowd and, in an effort to replicate that success, the venue last Saturday night played host to an on-screen concert from country music entertainer Blake Shelton and pop star Gwen Stefani.
Lori Spooner of Scituate was parked in the front row of screen 1 at the three-screen drive-in, a full two hours before the start of the concert on Saturday evening. She described herself as somebody who loves to go to the cinema on particularly humid summer days but only finds herself at the drive-in maybe once or twice a summer.
But where she can be routinely be found in a more normal summer is at a concert. Unfortunately for her, and for music fans like her, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the postponement of three of her scheduled concerts this season.
“I love the music outside, I love going to see music outside, so as soon as I heard about this, I thought it’s a way to at least come listen to music,” she said about the drive-in concert. “It’s obviously not the same not being live, but it was still a way to combine the two things that I enjoy – music and being outside.”
“I will definitely come more now because I don’t imagine there’s going to be too many other choices for concerts for now,” Spooner said when asked if she’d be interested in future concerts at drive-ins. “If they opened up some of the venues, we’d be a little too close anyway, so I like this kind of thing.”
Chuck Gaboriau of Dartmouth, Mass. acknowledged it had been “many years” since he’d been at a drive-in, saying “all of them closed up back home,” victims to the fate that the Rustic has avoided for decades.
“Oh, back in the day there was one in Dartmouth, there was one in Somerset, there were two in Seekonk, there was one in Westport, they were relatively close, but that had to be in high school,” Gaboriau said, with his friends in attendance noting that those drive-ins were all shuttered sometime in the 1970s and 1980s.
With Saturday’s concert representing the first time he’d been back to a drive-in in several years, Gaboriau said a significant portion of the conversation between himself and his friends was about the nostalgia for the times they spent at their local drive-ins as youths. However, things were a little different this time around, as they were dining on Caserta Pizza rather than concession stand fare.
“It’s different, definitely different. We never sat in front of the car, brought pizza or any of that,” Gaboriau said with a laugh. “We basically went to the concessions and got our popcorn and our hot dogs and soda and all that back in the day. This is a little different. It’s a little new.”
As for the Rustic serving as a concert destination, Gaboriau said it was providing a feeling of normalcy, at least for a day.
“At least it’s an alternative,” he said. “You have to feel for the artists, that they really don’t have a place they can perform without the risks … This is probably one way where it can happen and hopefully this will end soon.”
Julie Diaz of Johnston, meanwhile, said she’s both a country music fan and a drive-in regular, as she often took the opportunity to watch a movie under the stars even before the pandemic.
“When this all happened, it was a chance to be able to be outside, to not have to worry about the pandemic and being around a bunch of people in close quarters…” she said. “There’s not much that you can do right now, you’re limited to what you can do and with all the precautions you have to take, this is something you can do, and it’s outside so you don’t have to worry as much.”
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette