With only 20 drive-in theatres left in New England, Connecticut’s Southington Drive-In is turning nostalgic movie fun into a source of community enrichment.
When a traffic jam stretched for more than two miles in the quiet town of Southington, Connecticut, one summer Saturday in 2010, the source of the backup wasn’t a fender bender but a 35-year-old shark and a supersized movie screen. Nearing their destination, the cars were joined by a throng of walk-ins toting lawn chairs and bug spray, while a group of cheery neon-vested volunteers made change and corralled vehicles into neat rows in the gathering dusk. One of just three left in the state, the Southington Drive-In (“Tonight’s Feature: JAWS“) was back in business.
First opened in 1954, the drive-in was one of some 4,000 outdoor movie theatres in America during the 1950s and 1960s, offering entertainment by the carload to busy families and courting teens alike under a perfumed cloud of snack-bar grease. Back then, drive-ins accounted for a full quarter of the nation’s movie screens, but when high-tech multiplex theaters arrived a couple of decades later, the drive-in’s popularity began to dwindle. Bowing to financial pressures, Southington’s drive-in joined the shuttered ranks in 2002. The town bought the land with plans to use the space for outdoor recreational events, but in 2010 a small group of volunteers wondered whether there might be a way to bring the theatre back.
Forming the Southington Drive-In Committee, they joined forces with a handful of local civic organizations, including the Southington Land Conservation Trust and the local Rotary Club, to establish New England’s first nonprofit drive-in theatre. By taking turns hosting and staffing the movies throughout the season, the groups would share not only the workload but also the profits, which would be pooled throughout the season and then divided evenly. It’s a system that seems to be working. In its first four seasons, more than $50,000 has been raised for more than a dozen local nonprofit civic organizations.
When asked why the Southington Drive-In—which also boasts a spacious new covered pavilion and concessions from a local burger joint—is a success, committee member Ron Newman replies that “it’s an inexpensive and fun night out,” but notes that the benefits aren’t limited to fundraising. “We’re proud to give back to the community but also to give the kids today the experience of going to the drive-in,” he adds. “We see it all: couples, families with kids already in their pajamas because the parents know they’re going to fall asleep, you name it. They come early when the doors open at 6:00 just to chill out for a few hours before the movie starts. Everyone comes to have a great time, and we hope they do.”
Southington Drive-In. 935 Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike, Southington, CT. Open Saturdays June 7-Sept. 6, plus Friday, August 8, and Halloween Festival, Saturday, October 25. Details at: southingtondrive-in.org