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Fans flock to Westerly drive-in, as COVID-19 rules limit other entertainment options

Westerly — As the sunny day turned to drowsy twilight Friday, folks sitting in the cars in the Wuskenau Town Beach parking lot were listening to oldies tunes, from “Night Fever” to “Moonlight Feels Right,” rocking from two speakers. Then, a movie screen at one end of the lot lit up with “I remember that!” TV commercials — including a young Dick Van Dyke in a Kodak promotion, and an ad with a very 1970s version of Burger King's “Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce” jingle.

After that, everyone settled in for the main attraction: the 1975 thriller “Jaws.” They took in the film’s iconic elements: The fin slicing through the water, as if the shark were on a mission. The music pulsing ominously. Roy Scheider delivering the famous line “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

The night felt comfortably retro with all the throwback sounds and sights, but other elements were distinctly 2020. People wore masks and kept at a social distance. The lot was at half-capacity to keep strangers from being too close together.

This is a drive-in movie during the days of COVID-19-mandated restrictions.

The Misquamicut Business Association has been holding these drive-in films for eight years, but this spring’s offerings have proven particularly popular, for obvious reasons. Indoor cinemas are closed for now, as are theaters and concert venues. Folks who have been quarantining for two months are eager to leave home for some entertainment.

Tickets to the first five screenings at the MBA’s Misquamicut Drive-In Theater — “Jaws” Friday, Saturday and May 24, and “Jaws 2” May 22 and 23 — all sold out quickly.

Lori Wycall lives in Westerly and had often talked with fellow mom Jennifer Parker about going to the drive-in with their kids (Wycall has Chase, 13, and Lila, 11; and Parker has Jayden, 13, and twins Jack and Jenna, 10). But, with so much going on each summer, they had never gotten around to it. On Friday, they finally did.

Echoing the sentiments of many moviegoers, they said the drive-in was a great chance to get out of the house and do something new. And even people who weren’t there recognize the appeal; when Parker told a friend about the drive-in, the enthused response was, “Drive-in? Where is there a drive-in?”

On Saturday, looking back on Friday’s screening, MBA Executive Director Caswell Cooke said it went “swimmingly.”

“Everybody was so nice. People were coming up and thanking us for being open,” he said. “We got some nice comments from people on social media, thanking us for being there."

Renewed popularity for drive-ins

The height of drive-ins’ popularity was in the late 1950s, when there were upward of 4,100 of those theaters in the U.S., according to driveinmovie.com. Now, there are about 330.

The Misquamicut Drive-In Theater is one of just two drive-ins in Rhode Island; the other is the Rustic in North Smithfield. The Mansfield Drive-In in Mansfield Center, Conn., is scheduled to open its gates on May 20.

As with every business in the age of the coronavirus, drive-ins have to follow certain restrictions. The Misquamicut Drive-In Theater takes its cue from guidelines set out by the Rhode Island governor’s office.

The parking lot can accommodate 100 cars for the movies, but the limit is now 50.

The governor’s guidelines also put a limit on the number of people who can use the restroom at the same time: no more than five. In Westerly, only one person or one family group was allowed in at a time, with employees keeping track; that never seemed to create much of a line, if any, on Friday.

The drive-in was to forgo the use of cash whenever possible, so the cost of $20 per car has to be paid online ahead of time; no one can drive up that night and pay cash at the gate, as had been allowed in previous years.

Also according to the governor’s guidelines, people are supposed to wear masks, which had a few patrons up in arms earlier in the week; some backed out of going to the drive-in (other people then snapped up those tickets).

“We’re really lucky that it’s, like, the only activity in the entire state of Rhode Island that’s being allowed where there’s a public gathering, is these drives-ins,” Cooke said in a Facebook video post Friday. “I think it’s going to be the thing to do this summer, and we’re really excited about it. But there’s going to be restrictions, and it’s not going to be as comfortable as most people want.”

But, he said, it will be fun.

The scene

On Friday, cars started pulling into the drive-in parking lot about 6:30 p.m., two-and-a-half hours before “Jaws” started. Some drivers parked facing toward the screen, while others backed in so they could open up the back door of their SUV or sit in the bed of their truck to watch the flick. Some folks pulled out beach chairs and placed them right next to their vehicles. They noshed on food they brought, as the concession stand is closed for the first two weeks, but organizers hope to open it afterward. Moviegoers chatted and laughed, and they wrapped themselves in warm blankets, protecting themselves from the cold wind that blew across Misquamicut.

Samantha Morin of Niantic and Jeff Lisle of Saybrook are both 25 and had never been to a drive-in before Friday. Morin saw a notice about the Misquamicut screening and recalled she thought, “'I’ve never done that, why not?' Bought a ticket, and I think it sold out in an hour. I’m like, 'All right, I made a good choice.'”

They both have nostalgia for “Jaws,” as well, having seen it all the time on TV when they were growing up.

Catie Perreault and husband Roger and daughter Raegan, 13, often visit Misquamicut beach from their Oxford home during the summer. “We’re ocean people,” she said.

With the drive-in, it’s a chance to get out of the house and, she noted, the organizers “made all these precautions — you know, you’re 6 feet apart, they’ve limited the amount of people who can come in here. So we figured we were pretty safe. And it’s ‘Jaws.’”

Raegan and her friend Sophia Falconer, 13, were happy to be somewhere other than home. Falconer said, “I hadn’t put on shoes for a long time, and it was kinda weird.”

What’s next

The Misquamicut Drive-In Theater usually offers one screening a week at this time of year and then shifts to three nights during the summer. With entertainment options so limited during the pandemic, organizers are opening the drive-in on more nights.

While a provisional schedule of upcoming films is posted at the drive-in — a “Harry Potter” film for the weekend after “Jaws 2” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” for the weekend after that — the MBA wanted to wait to see how the opening shows went before putting tickets on sale for movies beyond “Jaws” and “Jaws 2.”

On Saturday, with one screening already in the books, Cook said, “Barring any unforeseen problems, I think we’re going to go full-speed ahead, using the precautions we have, to be able to offer a variety of programming for the summer.”

That might go beyond the classic films they usually feature. Some people have asked about independent movies, and the venue might screen a musical event, like it did in 2014 when Jimmy Buffett livestreamed a concert to various drive-ins. Cooke said they are considering “anything we can do where people can watch in their cars and can do the safety stuff.”

In figuring out what else to offer, he said, “The thing we’re going to do is just try to be flexible and take it as it comes.”

k.dorsey@theday.com

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