SCREEN TIME, ALFRESCO: Some 300 drive-in movie theaters still operate around the U.S. and now they’re inspiring copycats: Scores of restaurant parking lots, outdoor concert venues and wineries are suddenly morphing into drive-ins.

Illustration: Guy Shield

THE DRIVE-IN is dead.

Long live the drive-in. Among the more surprising consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic: renewed affection for parking lots with movie screens.

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Some 300 drive-ins currently operate across the U.S., according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. This past spring, just as entertainment venues around the country were closed in coronavirus lockdowns, the association lobbied to keep their outdoor theaters open, citing how easily their venues allowed for social-distancing. In mid May, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced at a press briefing that the state’s drive-ins could rev up again (other states did the same), he deemed watching a movie from your car “a low-risk recreational activity,” along with gardening and tennis. “Talk about going back to the future,” said Mr. Cuomo. “Back to drive-in movie theaters—I’m OK with that, by the way.”

PARK AND RECREATION Fairlee Motel and Drive-In Theater, on the border of Vermont and New Hampshire.

Photo: Monica Donovan for The Wall Street Journal

I am too. When I was a kid in 1950s St. Louis, going to the drive-in was a family ritual. For me, the real treat was falling asleep in the rear-window cubbyhole of our Studebaker Starlight Coupe—an only-child’s dream of movies and popcorn with a wraparound glass cradle. I faintly remember watching “Houseboat,” with Cary Grant and Sophia Loren. And trembling when the words “Close Sesame and never open again” were spoken outside the cave in the indelibly cheesy “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” I panicked at the idea of the Big Rock trapping people inside. That image would haunt me a decade later, when my teenage pals and I were at another drive-in theater, a bunch of us stuffed in a car’s trunk as we drove past the ticket booth in attempt to amortize the cost of admission.

I vividly remember one movie I saw as an early teen while vacationing with my parents at the Lake of the Ozarks: “Pillow Talk.” I was mortified because it was all about You Know What—how shocking to see sex pop up suddenly at a drive-in like a “curves ahead” sign.

In the early 1960s, drive-ins became an obsession though I don’t recall a single movie.

By the time I turned 16, in the early 1960s, drive-ins became an obsession, though I don’t recall a single movie. The films—mostly Westerns—were merely a backdrop for hanging out, making out and checking out who else was making out, to be discussed later at the refreshment stand. At intermission, a little on-screen jingle with dancing cartoon characters jauntily reminded you to “eat and spend money.”

This quintessentially American invention—a hybrid of Hollywood, Detroit and Nathan’s Famous —was largely paved over in the 1970s to make room for a suburban landscape of shopping malls and later, multiplexes.

Now, drive-ins are back to reclaim their glory, if not their maximum capacity. Many implemented new rules for dealing with Covid-19, including reducing capacity and requiring moviegoers to wear masks outside of their cars. And while some theaters are drawing record attendance, not everyone is piling into the car just yet. Peter Trapp, owner of the Fairlee Motel and Drive-In Theater in Fairlee, Vt., which re-opened on Memorial Day weekend, says business is fairly slow. “There has been no rush back to the drive-in because there have been no tourists rushing back to the state,” said Mr. Trapp. “And everybody else is hunkered at home watching Netflix.”

In more densely populated areas, drive-in copycats are springing up—possibly a sign of how starved many people are for social social-distancing. Scores of restaurant parking lots, outdoor concert venues and wineries are suddenly morphing into drive-ins.

The Blue Starlite theater in Austin, opened in 2010. This summer, it’s divided into five quirky venues, including the main screen, limited to just 22 cars, and a forest ‘walk-in’ theater.

Photo: Krystofer Henry for The Wall Street Journal

Long Island’s Adventureland amusement park kicked off its Drive-In Concert Series last weekend with a band playing disco hits from ’70s movies. (It will also be one of 300 North American outdoor venues to simulcast a Garth Brooks concert next weekend.) Closer to where I live, on the island’s North Fork, Community Action Southold Town (CAST) is hosting Drive-In Thursdays at public park and later, at a shuttered winery to support its food bank operations. In Astoria, Queens, the 24-hour Bel-Aire Diner reconfigured its 45 parking spots to host outdoor films (for $32 a car). Meanwhile, I just read an article in the local paper outlining how to create your own backyard theater, complete with instructions on using a sheet as a screen.

I wonder: Is the whole thing just a fleeting trend, the heartfelt cry of a nation that wants to get the hell out of the house? Maybe so, but I hope the trend sticks around for years to come. At least until we no longer have to wear masks outside of the car. How do you make-out in those things anyhow?

WINDOW SHOPPING

From vintage drive-ins to summer pop-ups, 10 venues to catch a show, good grub and the night air. Martha Cheng reports

Blue Starlite Drive-In Movie Theater in Austin Texas

Photo: Krystofer Henry for The Wall Street Journal

COLORADO

Best Western Movie Manor

If you’re going old-school, throw in a classic road trip and check in at the Best Western Movie Manor in Monte Vista, Colo. It’s attached to a drive-in movie theater dating back to 1955 in Monte Vista, Colo., between the Rio Grande National Forest and Great Sand Dunes National Park. The original rooms are angled toward the screen, so you can watch the movies from bed, thanks to piped in sound and picture windows. But, of course, if you’ve spent enough time indoors the last few months, pull up a chair outside your motel door, or watch from your car.bestwestern.com

Blue Starlite, High Rockies

It might be hard to focus on “The Princess Bride” or “Spaceballs” when you’re at 8,000 feet surrounded by the Rocky Mountains at the Blue Starlite in Minturn, Colo., an old railroad town about five minutes from Vail. This small seasonal drive-in, which allows only 35 cars a night, sets up its inflatable screen in a lot bounded by an old cemetery on a hill and an abandoned railroad track—reserve a spot on the tracks for extra space to spread out from your car. bluestarlitedrivein.com

TEXAS

Blue Starlite, Austin

The first of the three Blue Starlite drive-ins began in Austin in 2010 as a mini pop-up. It’s still pretty mini, and this summer, it’s divided into five quirky venues, including the main screen, limited to 22 cars, which will be playing “Goonies” for its 35th anniversary, and the “haunted” forest walk-in theater where you can lay out on blankets and chairs amongst the trees with 13 other socially distant strangers and scare yourself silly with “Cabin in the Woods” and the “Blair Witch Project.”bluestarlitedrivein.com/home-austin

Coyote Drive-In, Fort Worth

Four screens at the Coyote Drive-In play blockbusters from “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” to the new horror film “The Wretched.” Find corn dogs and Frito pie at the concessions stand, along with more than two dozen beer choices. coyotedrive-in.com

GEORGIA

The Plaza Theatre

Atlanta’s oldest and only independent cinema has pivoted to offer drive-in movies in its parking lot. Recent screenings included “Purple Rain” and a sold-out viewing of the 1968 classic “Destroy All Monsters.” By partnering with nearby restaurants, the Plaza upgrades in-car dining—past options included Southern Belle’s Cali-burger and fried chicken with a ramp-and-cheddar biscuit. plazaatlanta.com

Photo: Krystofer Henry for The Wall Street Journal

MISSOURI

Drive-In St. Louis

This new drive-in experience pairs live music with its movie showings, such as recent performances by local cover band Trixie Delight followed by “Dirty Dancing” and rock tribute band Dazed N Confused, followed by—what else—the movie “Dazed and Confused.”driveinstl.com

MARYLAND

Bengies Drive-In

The ‘50s-era Bengies preserves the nostalgia with its red-and-blue marquee (which still says “All American Drive-In”) and vintage intermission trailers that encourage a stop at the concession stand, which sells jalapeño cream-cheese poppers, pickles on a stick, snow cones and warm chocolate chip cookies. Oh, and bug spray. Though it’s just outside of Baltimore, it’s still the great outdoors…with an extra-large screen and digital projection. bengies.com

NEW YORK

Uptown Drive-In

Take me out to the…drive-in? The parking lot outside Yankee Stadium will convert to the Uptown Drive-In during weekends in July. The organizers of the Bronx Night Market are creating a festival experience for the summer—in addition to movies, tickets will also include live performances, drinks and carside dinner service from street vendors. https://mailchi.mp/020fe780da53/uptowndrivein

Bel Aire Diner

New York City’s retro Bel Aire Diner upped its retro cred when it parked drive-in movies next to its Astoria restaurant. It was the first in New York to do so, and tickets to the show sell out within minutes. If you’re lucky enough to snag a parking stall, order a “Scarface” Cuban, “The Breakfast Club” and “Pulp Fiction” sliders to go with your movie.belairediner.nyc

VERMONT

Fairlee Drive-in

Another motel/drive-in, this one opened in the tiny lakeside town of Fairlee on the border of Vermont and New Hampshire in 1950. It specializes in family fare. This weekend, for instance, it is screening “Sonic the Hedgehog” and ”Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” fairleedrivein.com

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