COVID-19 brings back vintage drive-in movie experience

Movie-goers across Iowa have turned to drive-in theaters this summer, after many indoor theaters closed their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cars+parked+on+the+lawn+for+the+Summer+of+Arts+free+movie+series%2C+adapted+as+a+drive-in+due+to+the+coronavirus+pandemic.

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Cars parked on the lawn for the Summer of Arts free movie series, adapted as a drive-in due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kathryn Raver, Arts Reporter


Since 2005, moviegoers have sprawled out across the Pentacrest lawn every summer to watch a film projected in front of MacBride Hall. This year, the Summer of the Arts — which hosts their Free Movie Series every summer at the Pentacrest — had to reinvent their tradition because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lisa Barnes, executive director of Summer of the Arts, said that the organization wanted to keep the movie series in person since most of their other concerts and events were forced to go virtual.

The alternative, they decided, was a drive-in movie projected onto a hangar at the Iowa City Municipal Airport.

“It is a nice way to be able to do something in public, bringing people together, but keeping them social distanced,” Barnes said.

Barnes said that despite limited capacity because of social distancing requirements, the space has filled with viewers since its first screening night on July 4. Cars are required to pre-register, and that registration has filled up for each night within a matter of hours, she said.

Summer of the Arts’ drive-in is only one of several opportunities in eastern Iowa where moviegoers can enjoy the drive-in experience. According to the ‘Historic Movie Theaters of Iowa’ document by the United States Department of the Interior, the first drive-in in Iowa opened in 1947 in Waterloo. Between the ‘50s and ‘60s, there were more than 60 drive-ins throughout the state. Now, in 2020, only four remain: The Valle (Newton)  61 Drive In (Maquoketa) Blue Grass Drive In (Blue Grass), and Superior 71 (Spirit Lake).

Randy Lorenz, owner of the Blue Grass Drive-In, said he’s seen an increase in attendance this summer. He estimates that attendance is 25 to 35 percent higher than last year. People from all around the state — from Iowa City to Cedar Rapids to Des Moines — have shown up, he said. Lorenz added that the drive-ins provide a social, family-oriented atmosphere that allows an escape from the confines created by the pandemic, to which he attributes the high turnout his drive-in has experienced.

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“It’s just a completely different experience than sitting in your house, which lord knows we’ve all done enough of that in the past six months,” he said.

The Coralville Public Library is also resurrecting the old Coralville Drive-In Theater, which sat where the library is now located. The theater plans to show films on the first three Fridays of August, according to a press release sent to The Daily Iowan.

Even so, drive-ins have still had to make adjustments to the way they operate. COVID-19 put the release of new films at a halt this summer, enabling theaters to find other ways to draw in an audience. Dennis Voy, the owner of 61 Drive-In in Maquoketa, said they’ve been featuring older films such as Jaws, Star Wars, and Jurassic Park, with just as much success as new releases from last year.

“To my amazement…people who needed to get out and do something and liked movies started coming to the drive-in to watch some of the classics. They have been very successful,” he said.

Voy said that while attendance has been about the same this summer as last summer, he anticipates that his theater, along with others, will start to become more popular in the coming years.

“All over the country, people are being introduced to the drive-ins for the first time,” he said. “I think drive-ins are going to get a big push by this and are going to continue to grow in the future.”

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