Drive-In Theaters Come Back to Life in the North Bay

It’s been three months since movie theaters have been allowed to let patrons see a movie on the big screen. In the North Bay, cinemas have stayed closed since mid-March as the Covid-19 pandemic has the region under social distancing orders.

Even now, as restaurants, shops and other businesses start reopening to the public, public venues like movie theaters face a challenge in housing people in tight quarters and keeping their spaces sanitized and socially distant enough to meet the state and county orders that are in place to stop the spread of Covid-19.

One way that theaters and event organizers have solved the problem of seeing movies while social distancing is the return of the classic drive-in movies. From Larkspur to St. Helena, makeshift drive-in theaters are becoming all the rage, showing classic blockbusters in spacious outdoor settings.

Drive-in theaters are as old as the automobile, with some form of outdoor car-centric film screenings dating back to the 1910s, though the drive-in had its hey day some sixty years ago when Baby Boomer families flocked to drive-ins in mostly suburban and rural areas.

There were drive-ins in the North Bay back in the day, most notably the Sonomarin (Midway) Drive-In Theatre that opened south of Petaluma in 1968 and ran until 1989. That drive-in famously showed mostly X-rated films after 1983 and was finally demolished in 1991.

Families in 2020 have no fear of coming across such scandalous movies in the new crop of drive-in theaters. Instead, this new wave of distance-conscious screenings is keeping the films family friendly and fun. Find the drive-in theater in your neighborhood with this guide.

In Marin County, the historic Lark Theater and the popular Bon Air Center invite film lovers to Drive-In to the Movies this summer.

The series is free for all, though advance registration is required. The drive-in series next screens the summer movie classic Dirty Dancing on Thursday, July 16, at 8:30pm. Later this summer, the series offers a screening of another ‘80s musical hit, Flashdance, on Thursday, August 20.

After making reservations to the screening, moviegoers can also swing by the Lark Theater near the Bon Air Center before the movie and buy a tub of the theater’s fresh-popped organic popcorn to complete the experience.

In Napa County, the independent Cameo Cinema often presents first-run features and indie-film darlings on its one screen in St. Helena. In addition to offering on-demand at-home film streaming since the Covid-19 pandemic, Cameo Cinema is branching into the drive-in craze with the help of Gott’s Roadside in St. Helena and owner Joel Gott, who agreed to host the Cameo Drive-in Movie Theater in Gott’s back parking lot for a few weeks.

The Cameo Drive-In Theater is also made possible with a grant from the City of St. Helena and the support of the Chamber of Commerce and the Cameo Cinema Foundation.

The drive-in will feature a state-of-the-art, thirty-foot outdoor screen with 4K digital projection, and the family-friendly series opens this weekend and features two alternating films each weekend, Thursdays through Sundays.

For instance, this opening weekend features Jurassic Park screening Thursday and Saturday, June 25 and 27, with the recent Sonic the Hedgehog screening Friday and Sunday, June 26 and 28.

The classic and contemporary movie pairing continues next week, as Cameo Drive-In Theater features Wonder Woman and Jaws. Future weeks will see classics like E.T. and new films such as the Hulu original film Palm Springs playing as well.

Gott’s parking lot opens for the drive-ins at 8pm each night, and the Roadside will be available to serve pre-ordered food. Tickets to the Cameo Drive-In Theater is limited to 45 cars per screening. Tickets are $30 per car and must be purchased in advance.

In Sonoma County, Santa Rosa Cinemas–which operates theaters like the Roxy Stadium 14 and Airport Stadium 12–are collaborating with the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in a new series entitled Carpool Cinema.

The screenings take place at the LBC’s south parking lot, beginning at sunset. For the drive-in experience, the movie’s sound is pumped into the car through a FM signal on the radio. Like other drive-in screenings in the North Bay, the Carpool Cinema series is adhering to the strict social distance guidelines.

This week, Carpool Cinemas presents the classic ‘80s teen comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on Saturday, June 27. Next week, Carpool Cinemas plans to screen the Mel Brooks’ parody Spaceballs on Wednesday, July 1. Gates open at 7:45pm. General admission tickets are $30 per car, with a limit of two cars per household. Visit LBC’s website for more information and to purchase your spot in the carpool.

In North Sonoma County, the Alexander Valley Film Society is revisiting the drive-in days with its own outdoor screening series at the Citrus Fairgrounds in Cloverdale.

The society has already hosted throwback drive-in events in previous summers, and they continue the tradition in 2020 with an outdoor screening of Wonder Woman on Friday, July 24 and a presentation of Furious 7 on Saturday, Sep 12. Gates open at 8pm for each screening. Tickets are $30 per car and must be purchased in advance.

Charlie Swanson
Charlie Swanson is a North Bay native and an arts and music writer and editor who has covered the local scene since 2014.
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