While the behemoths of the movie industry grapple with pandemic strategies to restart the moviegoing habit, the town of Hammonton, N.J., has moved ahead with its own plan.
The instant that Gov. Phil Murphy permitted outdoor movie theaters to reopen last week with executive order 142, the quick-thinking, fast-acting Hammonton folks were ready with their plan for a pop-up drive-in theater — Karpool Cinema — in the parking lot of the Kathedral Event Center on Egg Harbor Road.
Last weekend Karpool Cinema showed Toy Story 4 in a parking lot big enough to accommodate 75 cars. For Memorial Day weekend, they’ve got Sonic The Hedgehog in rotation with Disney’s Onward on alternating nights, Thursday through Sunday. Tickets, sold online only, are $25 per car.
The main ingredients for the instant pop-up were ready and waiting: an inflatable screen (being upgraded this week), a digital projector synced to an FM transmitter so the sound could be piped into car radios, prearranged rights to the Hollywood product, and ticketing through the event center — with additional expertise provided by the staff at Hammonton’s Eagle Theatre (a performance space, not a movie theater).
That’s an impressive turnaround, but not surprising when you consider it’s essentially the same Hammonton crew that set up the town’s Blueberry Drop to ring in the new year.
They get stuff done.
Safely, though. The initiative was set in motion by Hammonton Mayor Steve DiDonato, cochair of the community’s coronavirus task force, so safety is the first consideration, said Jim Donio, board member of the Eagle Theatre and one of the driving forces behind the drive-in.
The Karpool committee looped in local police and started planning social distancing measures well in advance — cars 10 feet apart, for instance — so that when the governor’s executive order was issued to permit certain outdoor activities, Hammonton could initiate a safe, family-oriented outdoor community event, in this case “quickly turning around the drive-in theater experience.”
The first weekend was a success, and the town is upgrading facilities for week two — going from the temporary inflatable screen (a problem in the wind) to a larger, fixed, 40-foot wide outdoor screen.
Donio praised local production company Spellcaster Productions (affiliated with the Kathedral Event Center), which rigged the screen (“that’s the tough part.”) The production company was instrumental in engineering the safe Blueberry Drop, and also had the foresight to secure the FM transmitter, now nearly impossible to find, Donio said, as other communities jump on the drive-in bandwagon.
He noted that it’s a community-wide effort. The setup needed a sponsorship before ticket revenue could support the enterprise, and the Kiwanis Club of Hammonton stepped up.
Not all details have been fully worked out. Restrooms, for example. You should think of that before you leave home. Donio said if you really have to go, you can leave and return with your vehicle, no extra charge.
Concessions may be added at some point, but right now families are having fun bringing their own snacks and beverages.
Donio notes that Hammonton’s weekend drive-in is an homage to the state’s history — New Jersey had the nation’s first drive-in movie theater. Today, there is only one left, the Delsea Drive-In in Vineland, which as it happens is also opening this weekend.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf gave the go-ahead to drive-in theaters this week. That has led to the opening of Shankweiler’s Drive-in Theater in Orefield, Becky’s Drive-In in Walnutport, the Garden Drive In in Hunlock Creek, the Cumberland Drive-in Theatre in Newville, and the Pike Drive-In Theatre in Montgomery. For a list of Pennsylvania drive-ins, visit driveinmovie.com.
The Mahoning Drive in Theater in Lehighton, which shows classic 35 mm film, will open June 5 with its traditional Wizard of Oz /Willie Wonka weekend.