Drive-in movie theaters have been an entertaining diversion throughout the decades. But a global pandemic is challenging time-tested aspects of all societal segments, including a popular area drive-in.
“In times like the Great Depression, the theater industry stayed constant,” said John Harrington, manager of the Calvert Drive-In. “People wanted entertainment. An escape.”
Since 1953, the Calvert Drive-In has offered that escape, although recent COVID-19 distancing guidelines and closures have sparked an anxiety to which even sources of nostalgia aren’t immune.
The drive-in closed, like almost all businesses, because of the pandemic. A re-opening was tentatively targeted for April 10, but now those plans are uncertain.
“A lot’s changed. Film’s gone, everything is digital. Even the plumbing has changed. Everything’s changed except the sky,” Harrington said. “But this is new territory.”
Maybe the closest situation, he commented, was the Spanish Flu in the late 1910s. His grandmother Edelyn Harrington may still remember those times — she’ll be 109 in May, and she assumed ownership of the theater after her husband, Paul, passed away.
When the Calvert site opened there were some 4,000 drive-in theaters nationwide, though that number has dwindled down to 400 — including seven in Kentucky.
By now, four generations — including Harrington’s nieces and nephews — have worked in some form in the family business.
Initially they tried to find creative uses for the theater.
For two weeks, Pathway Baptist Church in Calvert City hosted services there. Senior Pastor Mike Donald described the services as “very effective,” citing the involvement of more than 300 people the first week. News of the unorthodox service reached newspapers in Australia and the United Kingdom.
“It worked well … but we don’t want to be a temptation in this time, like the parks,” Harrington said. “Everything went great with the worship service, everybody stayed in their cars and used sanitizer. … It worked, but there was a lot of anxiety.”
And that anxiety persists, potentially for weeks or even months to come, without cinema as a distraction.
“At the end of the day families are looking for the memory of cinema that maybe isn’t on a couch in their living room,” Harrington said. “It’s more of a family thing, an idea that started and evolved.”
“Hopefully more of us can read more books and not have to rely on Hollywood for our escape.”