Drive-in movies make a lot of sense, because they tap into some deep human emotions.
The need to be free, to be independent, is a big reason why people love cars. Go where you want, when you want. And then there’s the desire to free one’s mind, to escape from daily realities, and that’s where movies come in.
So combining the independence of one’s car with the escape of a big screen movie is sort of genius. But not everyone appreciates genius, and in America over the past 70 or 80 years the number of drive-ins has dwindled from several thousand to about 350.
But Mainers seem to grasp the beauty of drive-ins. Southern Maine still has three drive-ins, and two of them are now open for the season: Bridgton Twin Drive-In and Saco Drive-In.
The third, Prides Corner Drive-In in Westbrook, has been owned by the same family since 1953 and is grappling right now with whether to open this season. One of the owners and founders, John Tevanian, is battling illness. And unlike Bridgton and Saco, Prides Corner has not yet updated to digital projection equipment, which can cost $70,000 to $100,000. Using older projection equipment limits the number of movies they can show, since some new movies are only distributed in the digital format.
But the two southern Maine drive-ins that are open offer opportunities for a unique movie experience. They can provide a fun family night out, as well as a trip back to a time when drive-ins were as important to most towns as the public library and the downtown soda fountain.
So here, then, is a little bit about each, if you’re thinking about checking out a drive-in. Remember, a drive-in movie can’t start until it’s dark out. So check with the drive-ins, or your local weatherman, to figure when movies will be starting at various times of the year.
The first drive-in theater in America opened in 1933 in Camden, New Jersey. The Saco Drive-In opened in 1939, so it was certainly part of the first wave of drive-ins. Today it’s one of the oldest surviving drive-ins in the country.
The theater has been owned since the 1980s by one family, said Matt Roberge, a family member who helps run the operation. The theater upgraded to digital projection a couple years ago, meaning it can show the newest, biggest movies. In early May, for instance, the theater opened its season with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and Disney’s new live-action “The Jungle Book.” The theater is also likely to get the action film “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” and the comedy “Keanu.” The latter’s plot involves friends who try to retrieve a stolen kitten by posing as drug dealers.
Roberge said that one of the new features at the drive-in this year is an antenna to boost the audio signal sent out to car radios. So the sound of the movies should be louder and clearer this year.
There’s also some new kitchen equipment in the concession building, and new concession pricing aimed at making concession lines move more quickly. Most item prices now end in increments of 25 cents, which will hopefully mean change is given out more easily, Roberge said.
You can plan out what you want to eat at Saco Drive-In by going to the theater’s Web site and seeing the menu, which includes hot dogs, hamburgers, nachos, chili, pizza, chicken nuggets, french fries, ice cream, chips and beverages.
This drive-in was opened in 1957, so it’s celebrating its 60th season this year. It was bought in the 1970s by the Tevanian family, who also built Prides Corner. Today it’s run by John Tevanian, son of the Prides Corner owners.
The second screen was added in 2000, Tevanian said. Bridgton Twin Drive-In benefits from its proximity to the state’s lakes and western mountains, where so many people come to spend their summers. And seeing a movie at the drive-in is a great part of a summer vacation.
The screens at Bridgton are gigantic, about 72 feet wide and 55 feet high. Like Saco, Bridgton converted to digital projection a couple years ago, so it too can show the newest films.
In early May the theater was showing the action blockbuster “Captain America: Civil War” along with “The Jungle Book.” The films were shown in one order on one screen, then flip-flopped on the other screen. So you could see “Jungle Book” first or “Captain America” first, depending on your preference.
The Bridgton drive-in also renovated concession areas and restrooms a few years ago, Tevanian said, to make lines at both areas move more quickly.
Though Bridgton uses radio waves to broadcast sound, they still have the old speaker poles in the ground, as guide for where to park.
And Tevanian doesn’t mind if people take out folding chairs and sit outside the car, as long as they sit in front of their own car and don’t block anyone else’s view.
“We’re lucky where we are, because we get a lot of people on vacation, a lot of families,” said Tevanian. “People remember going to the drive-in when they were young, and now they want to take their kids to a drive-in too.”
And in Maine, they still can.
TRY OUT A DRIVE-IN
969 Portland Road (Route 1), Saco, 286-3200. Thesacodrivein.com; Facebook.com/sacodrivein. $15 a car up to three people, $20 for four or more people. Open Fridays and Saturdays until the last week of June, then everyday through the summer.
383 Portland Road (Route 302), Bridgton, 647-8666. Bridgton Twin Drive-In Theatre. $7.50 per person 12 and up, $5 for ages 5-11, free for 4 and under. $15 minimum per car on Friday, Saturday and holiday Sundays. Admission good for only one screen. Open Friday through Sunday until Memorial Day weekend, then every day through Labor Day.
651 Bridgton Road (Route 302), Westbrook. 797-3154. Facebook.com/PridesCornerDriveIn; Pridescornerdrivein.com. Owners are in the process of deciding whether to open this season, and when the opening might be. Check the marquee and the Facebook page for updates.