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Drive-in theaters, such a part of past moviegoing, may have a special role in the pandemic present

The Mendon Twin Drive-In in 2015.
The Mendon Twin Drive-In in 2015.Harrison Hill for The Boston Globe/file

In the 1930s, the Whiz Auto Products Company of New Jersey had a sales manager named Richard Hollingshead. He had an idea to standardize a concept that others had tried, but only haphazardly: He set about making plans for the world’s first proper, open-air, drive-in movie theater.

While testing his idea in his own driveway, Hollingshead quickly realized that cars parked bumper to bumper would create obstructed views for the people in the back. After some experimentation, he hit upon the optimal distance between rows of cars.

Hollingshead, in other words, was a pioneer in physical distancing.

Today, as most Americans honor the rules of distancing to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, many of Hollingshead’s conceptual heirs — the country’s 300 or so drive-in theater owners — would like to fill the void. They’re here to claim that they could conduct business safely and provide families with some much-needed entertainment in a time of isolation.

And plenty of their customers agree, says John Vincent, Jr., owner of the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre.

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“Pretty much every drive-in has been hammered on their Facebook page to open,” says Vincent, who is also president of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. “The desire is out there.”

People in a Ford Galaxy watched "Apollo 13" at the Wellfleet Drive-In in 1995.
People in a Ford Galaxy watched "Apollo 13" at the Wellfleet Drive-In in 1995.Globe/file

As of this writing, though, drive-ins remain categorized as “non-essential” businesses in Massachusetts. At a press conference in mid-April, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he would consider the possibility of allowing drive-ins to open. Shortly thereafter, Dave Andelman, who bought the Mendon Twin Drive-In with his brothers Dan and Michael six years ago, published an open letter asking Governor Charlie Baker to permit them to open.

A spokesperson for Baker told the Globe that the administration’s new Reopening Advisory Board is currently reviewing written testimony from businesses eager to reopen.

In southern New Hampshire, the Milford Drive-In has been cleared to open for the season on May 15. The Rustic Tri View Drive-In, in North Smithfield, R.I., has also received the go-ahead to open by that state’s governor, Gina Raimondo.

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Some drive-in theaters in other parts of the country — especially in warmer climates, where many remain open year-round — have already been in operation, Vincent says. One weekend last month the Ocala Drive-in, in central Florida, was reportedly the lone movie theater of any kind in America screening a first-run film. (The thriller “Swallow” grossed a grand total of $1,710.)

“In some states it seems to be county by county,” says Vincent, who hopes to open in Wellfleet by Memorial Day weekend. Some owners plan to restrict their “field counts” — the number of cars they accommodate — to provide an added measure of distancing, he says.

From left: Dan, Dave, and Michael Andelman at the Mendon Twin Drive-In in 2014.
From left: Dan, Dave, and Michael Andelman at the Mendon Twin Drive-In in 2014.Debee Tlumacki for the Boston Globe/file

Maria Joseph, who owns the Leicester Triple Drive-In on Route 9, just west of Worcester, has been monitoring the situation and says she plans to proceed with an abundance of caution.

If and when she opens for the season, she envisions major changes to the way her employees run the concession stand, for instance. Visitors hungry for clam cakes, a hot dog, or a simple tub of popcorn might be required to order online and then grab and go.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” she says. “This is brand-new territory for everyone.”

Some businesses are thinking beyond the realm of existing traditional drive-in theaters. Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Enterprises just announced a planned partnership with IMAX to present a pop-up drive-in series around the country beginning in late June. And Nantucket’s nonprofit Dreamland Film & Cultural Center has been raising money to stage a drive-in theater with socially distanced lawn seating at Bartlett’s Farm.

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The movie industry is in turmoil due to the pandemic. With most cinemas shuttered, studios have been making new releases available for streaming immediately, as Universal did last month with “Trolls World Tour.” Pixar recently announced the postponement of its opening date for “Soul,” an animated feature starring Jamie Foxx, from June to November.

As a result, hopeful drive-in proprietors are comparing notes on family-friendly repertory films. The Andelman brothers (who took over the food show “Phantom Gourmet” in 2003) have been soliciting customer suggestions, which have ranged from “The Sandlot” (1993) and “Ghostbusters” (1984) to John Candy in “The Great Outdoors” (1988). One gentleman requested “a nice Fatty Arbuckle number.”

“Drive-ins have always performed quite well with repertory product,” says Vincent, citing a few of his own favorites: “Jaws” (1975), “Gremlins” (1984), and “The Goonies” (1985).

“That being said, there are only so many good performers you have in repertory.”

To augment their business, the Andelmans are proposing they be allowed to repurpose their space for some daytime gatherings that have been curtailed due to the virus, such as weddings and graduations. The Milford Drive-In has been soliciting photos for a video tribute to graduating students, which it plans to roll before the feature film on opening weekend.

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In Hinsdale, N.H., just over the state line from Northfield, the new owners of the long-running Northfield Drive-In say they hope to open on Memorial Day weekend or shortly thereafter. They’re planning graduation ceremonies for local high schools, and they’re preparing to have old-fashioned car hops deliver food from the snack bar to keep families in their cars as much as possible.

As for the restrooms, they say they’ll sanitize them after each visitor.

Joseph took over the day-to-day operations of the Leicester Drive-In three years ago, following the death of her father, Hanna, who opened it in 1967 with a screening of Elvis Presley in “Double Trouble.”

She says she has been approached about groups using her space for gatherings, including religious services. But she’s wary.

“I don’t want to do anything contrary to what we are all trying to accomplish,” she says. “I don’t want to spoil anything.”

People watched "Trolls World Tour" from their cars, separated from other cars by 10-foot orange fencing, at the Ocala Drive-In, in Ocala, Fla., last month.
People watched "Trolls World Tour" from their cars, separated from other cars by 10-foot orange fencing, at the Ocala Drive-In, in Ocala, Fla., last month.VIC MICOLUCCI/AFP via Getty Images/file

From an industry peak in the late 1950s, when there were more than 4,000 drive-in theaters from coast to coast, the industry fell into a precipitous decline. Though popularity has been on an upswing in recent years, according to Vincent, Massachusetts today has fewer drive-in theaters — three — than it did in 1939.

Vincent, who also owns an indoor cinema adjacent to the Wellfleet Drive-In, has been bothered by an assertion that drive-in owners are seeking to capitalize on the pandemic.

“I know two people who have died,” he says. “This is not fun.

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“We would like to provide some much-needed respite for families in these hard times,” he continues. “We need a strong, vibrant industry, and we wish the best to all our exhibitor friends. We need all of us to come out on top of this.”

Joseph agrees.

“It’s not like anybody in this business is trying to line their pockets unnecessarily or make a money grab,” she says. “It’s a labor of love. Nobody is getting rich off a drive-in.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.

Neponset Drive-In, in Dorchester, 1977.
Neponset Drive-In, in Dorchester, 1977.Boston Globe/file

For many years, Greater Boston had many drive-in theaters.

Blue Hills Drive-In, Canton, 1957-84

E.M. Loew’s Lynn Open Air Theatre, 1937-78

Meadow Glen Twin Drive-In, Medford, 1949-78

Medford Twin, 1956-83

Neponset Drive-In, Dorchester, 1950-85

Revere Drive-In, 1948-81

Saugus Drive-In, 1939-74

South Shore Plaza Twin Drive-In, 1960-87

Starlite Drive-In, North Reading, 1963-87

Suffolk Downs Drive-In, East Boston, 1957-73

VFW Parkway Drive-In, West Roxbury, 1954-mid-80s

MARK FEENEY