Touchless sinks, concession-stand apps, and other pandemic prep prepare drive-in theaters for reopening | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Touchless sinks, concession-stand apps, and other pandemic prep prepare drive-in theaters for reopening

click to enlarge Dependable Drive In Theater is shown on Sat., May 9, 2020 in Moon, Pa. - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Dependable Drive In Theater is shown on Sat., May 9, 2020 in Moon, Pa.
For years, the remaining drive-in theaters still operating were seen as a fun relic. Their lack of modernity was part of the charm. But now, the concept of moviegoers watching from their individual cars is suddenly modern again.

There is still no clear answer as to when traditional, indoor movie theaters can open or when movie studios will begin releasing new movies. But drive-in theaters in the area will open on May 15, when counties in Southwest Pennsylvania move into the "yellow" phase and begin partially reopening. At least initially, crowds at drive-ins could surge, as people are desperate to do anything that involves not being at home.
click to enlarge Dependable Drive In Theater is shown on Sat., May 9, 2020 in Moon, Pa. - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Dependable Drive In Theater is shown on Sat., May 9, 2020 in Moon, Pa.
Rick Glaus has been the owner of Dependable Drive-In since 1968 (it opened in 1950), but he says the whole situation is uncharted territory, from planning programming without new releases, to updating the bathrooms with touchless faucets.

"I've never had to do this before in my life and I've been doing this my whole life," says Glaus.


At the beginning of May, Dependable was told it could soon open, along with other Pennsylvania drive-ins. The theater made the announcement on Facebook, but hours later had to retract as they were told by Gov. Tom Wolf's office that the statement about drive-ins being able to open was made in error. Dependable expressed disappointment at having sunk money into updating the theater for protections against the virus, only to have to wait longer to make the money back.

"[I]t is very hard to foot a large bill like that when there is no money coming in. Sadly, if this continues for much longer, especially with our newly added expenses, the drive-in may not survive much longer," said the Dependable Facebook post. After the Facebook post, a customer started a GoFundMe for Dependable, which has raised around $9,000.
click to enlarge Dependable Drive In Theater is shown on Sat., May 9, 2020 in Moon, Pa. - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Dependable Drive In Theater is shown on Sat., May 9, 2020 in Moon, Pa.
The outdoor theater will be able to open with a limited capacity on Fri., May 15 with screenings of Trolls World Tour. In addition to touchless bathrooms, Dependable updated its concession stand to be operated exclusively through an app so customers don't wait in line. The drive-in will be at 40% capacity and cars will be spaced 10-12 feet apart.

Glaus thinks Dependable will be busy immediately upon reopening, but doesn't know what will happen in the long-run, especially because in difficult economic times, spending money on entertainment isn't a priority.

"I'm sure it's the same as any business, the movie business has its ups and downs. Three years ago, we had the worst year we could've had. The movies didn't work, the weather was bad," says Glaus. "[Last year], it was busy every night. It was probably one of the best. So you go from probably one of the best years you've ever had to absolutely the worst year you will have ever had."
click to enlarge Riverside Drive In co-owner Emma Ross puts together to-go orders at the theater's concession stand on Sat., May 9, 2020 in Vandergrift, Pa. - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Riverside Drive In co-owner Emma Ross puts together to-go orders at the theater's concession stand on Sat., May 9, 2020 in Vandergrift, Pa.
Todd Ament, co-owner of the Riverside Drive-In in Vandergrift, Pa., thinks that drive-in theaters will be popular because even if indoor theaters are allowed to reopen, they likely won't have any new releases to show. The first major studio releases for the summer aren't scheduled until mid-July, and even those could get pushed back.


To prepare for reopening, Riverside began doing takeout orders from the concession stand so they could test the online ordering system that will now be in place. He says the takeout service won't continue after they reopen, but it was a good way for loyal customers to support them.
click to enlarge Karen Karmazin puts together a to-go order at the Riverside Drive In Theatre on Sat., May 9, 2020 in Vandergrift, Pa. - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Karen Karmazin puts together a to-go order at the Riverside Drive In Theatre on Sat., May 9, 2020 in Vandergrift, Pa.
In addition to planning screenings of older films, like a double header of Wizard of Oz and Twister, Riverside will host graduation ceremonies for some area high schools, a trend that has been cropping up with organizations around the country. Over Easter weekend, Harvest Baptist Church of Natrona Heights used Riverside for six services. Ament says he's even seen a video of a drive-in wedding ceremony.

It's not easy to keep a drive-in theater going in the best of times. But now, when everything is upside down, drive-ins have become the only way to watch movies outside of our homes. Glaus says Dependable has stuck around for so long not because it's financially rewarding, but because he's stuck with it through booming nights with beautiful weather and rainstorms with unpopular movies.

"I guess you could say I love it," says Glaus. "Or I don't have enough common sense to get out."

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