Only after 9pm does sunset finally turn the sky behind the Skyline Drive-In screen a palette of orange and purple. Latecomers roll in from nearby Shelton, parking their cars and queuing at the snack bar for curly fries and $5 cheeseburgers. Frisbee players stop tossing their discs in the faded grass in front of the screen to return to densely parked cars. It’s showtime at the drive-in.
Or at least that’s the way it was before the coronavirus outbreak. As Western Washington’s remaining drive-in movie theaters reopened after the state’s quarantine, new rules restricted the classic experience in the name of social distancing: no frolicking outside waiting for sunset, no lines at the snack bar. Still, with multiplexes shuttered, the outdoor auditoriums were among the first entertainment options to return. Sellouts ensued; the pandemic turned a retro novelty into the only lifeboat for leisure. “We’re enjoying a moment in the sun that is very, very comfortable,” says Skyline owner Dorothea Mayes.
Drive-in theaters conjure midcentury nostalgia—you picture Grease, right?—that fuels fervent loyalty. Mayes bought the Skyline, the region’s newest at a mere 56 years old, because “I became emotionally attached to the drive-in”—even though she never went as a child. The theaters dotted Washington back then, one in Auburn growing to a six-screen behemoth.
Today, four outposts endure in the region, all west of Puget Sound. Most charge less than indoor movie houses, sometimes solely by the car instead of per viewer, but the historical sites can only operate about half the year in Washington’s prickly climate.
That made the governor’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy mandate in March a near-death blow. “Never would’ve thought we would shut down to begin with,” says Darrell Bratt, owner of the Blue Fox in Oak Harbor. His Change.org petition aimed at Governor Inslee garnered more than 80,000 signatures and support from local competitors, including Bremerton’s Rodeo and Wheel-In of Port Townsend. It may have helped; in June, drive-ins were allowed to open ahead of indoor theaters, albeit with distancing stipulations.
Reduced capacities have meant advance sellouts for some of the auto cinemas, even without new movies to screen—Hollywood didn’t release any big-budget films theatrically for months. So drive-ins, most of which lean toward family fare anyway, dug into their digital vaults for cinematic comfort food: Spielberg romps, broad comedies. Post-Covid, Bratt’s first double feature doubled down on the old-fashioned idea. “Flintstones and Jurassic Park,” he says. “The drive-ins have always been known as the dinosaurs. Why not play some Stone Age movies?”