Outdoor cinemas are more relevant than ever this year.
The 1939 Saco Drive-In debuted its digital projector in 2014.
By Will Grunewald Photographed by Irvin Serrano
Seventy years ago this summer, when the Bangor Drive-In opened on the outskirts of town, Queen City moviegoers rolled up en masse in wood-paneled station wagons and chrome-trimmed convertibles, maybe to take in that year’s raucous musical adaptation of Annie Get Your Gun or the taut, critically acclaimed noir Sunset Boulevard. Over time, though, drive-ins wound up like most movies, forgotten. In 1985, a multiplex opened at the Bangor Mall, and the drive-in closed that same year. What happened in Bangor happened across America.
Jump ahead a few decades, and drive-ins were enjoying a minor resurgence in Maine. In 2015, a new ownership group rebooted the Bangor Drive-in. In 2017, Farmington’s Narrow Gauge Cinemas opened a new drive-in in an empty lot behind its indoor theaters. A year after that, Westbrook’s Prides Corner Drive-In started showing movies again after a few dormant summers. Today, the state has seven drive-ins scattered throughout, of about 320 in the country. That means two percent of U.S. drive-ins are in Maine, which has only four-tenths of a percent of the country’s population — Mainers disproportionately dig drive-ins.
And now, on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, those drive-ins are more integral to their communities than even during their midcentury heyday. Part of that owes to the simple fact that a car parked in the outdoors is a less risky epidemiological proposition than a seat in an indoor theater. Plus, drive-ins have variously adapted measures to further suppress risk: online ticketing, extra space between parking spaces, modified food service. The Maine International Film Festival, typically held at Waterville’s art-house Railroad Square Cinema, moved 25 minutes up the road to the Skowhegan Drive-In this year. The Saco Drive-In, the second-oldest drive-in theater in the country, has hosted free nights for health-care workers, sponsored by the local Chevy dealership. And as always, drive-in screenings lean heavily nostalgic — Jaws, Ghostbusters, The Goonies — which is its own kind of salve in distressing times.
Beyond showing movies, Maine drive-ins have lately been filling roles they never had before. With auditoriums and stadiums ruled out as venues, the Bridgton Twin Drive-In and Madawaska’s Skylite Drive-In provided alternate venues for several high-school graduation ceremonies. And with most music venues closed, Narrow Gauge built a stage in front of the big screen, hosting live performances by Maine-based bands including Rustic Overtones, the Mallett Brothers, and the Ghost of Paul Revere, the latter of which sold out a four-night run of drive-in concerts. Disco revivalists Motor Booty Affair played the Bangor Drive-In, as did hard-touring Maine comedian Bob Marley, who also put on a gig at the Bridgton Twin.
Earlier this year, Bridgton’s roadside marquee read, “Be smart. Be sensible. Let’s flatten the curve.” Maybe blowing off steam with a viewing of Animal House or The Big Lebowski or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — all recent Bridgton flicks — helps people recharge enough to stay smart and sensible amid the anxieties of a pandemic.
As Gene Wilder’s Wonka says, “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.”
Where to park and watch, from north to south.
Skylite Drive-In, est. 1973 304 11th Ave., Madawaska 207-728-6014