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A night at the Wellfleet drive-in, still a Cape Cod staple

The evening opened with Jurassic Park at the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre. The drive-in originally opened in July of 1957.
The evening opened with Jurassic Park at the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre. The drive-in originally opened in July of 1957.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

WELLFLEET — Danger danced on salty summertime air, but it had nothing to do with those flickering projected lights that flashed images of prehistoric dinosaurs and, later, of a mechanical great white shark off Cape Cod that threatened to eat Richard Dreyfuss for lunch.

No, this is a modern-day tale. It’s a horror story. And there’s nothing fictional about it.

It’s about a deadly disease that has changed the way we live and certainly has changed the way we see, or — more to the point — don’t see movies these days.

Early to arrive, Amy Lemerande, right, danced with her daughter Bridget, 7, while waiting for the sun to go down at the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre.
Early to arrive, Amy Lemerande, right, danced with her daughter Bridget, 7, while waiting for the sun to go down at the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

And that means — cue the soaring music and the aerial photography — that the drive-in is back in vogue.

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That Technicolor relic of the black-and-white Eisenhower administration, which found steady footing during the go-go ’60s, has become a welcome modern-day refuge from daily epidemiological bulletins that have done for summer fun what “Psycho” did for cheap motel rooms.

“I would not want to go to a movie theater right now,‘' Jim Wallace, 66, told me outside his car the other evening in the gathering dusk as movie time approached at the Wellfleet Drive-In. “But going to the drive-in? It’s really nice with the social distance here. There’s a cone on every other parking spot.‘'

In other words, drive down, pay at the ticket booth, open the hatch-back and for a few hours — the length of two feature-length films — let Steven Spielberg carry you to a land far, far away from the pandemic and its frightening body counts.

“Dinosaurs and sharks! Can’t go wrong with that,‘' said Kenny Voshell, a 30-year-old Dorchester newlywed, repeating the chin-up, can-do attitude expressed by his 31-year-old wife, Emily. “It’ll be a great double feature.‘'

Katrina Boucher handed tickets to customer Tom Colpitts at the ticket booth at the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre.
Katrina Boucher handed tickets to customer Tom Colpitts at the ticket booth at the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Yes, it will. On the marquee: “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park.‘‘ It’s an all-star double-feature showcasing Hollywood’s magic.

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It’s what John Vincent has been serving up since he began selling tickets here in the summer of 1987.

The oldest child and only son born to a Connecticut lumber salesman, Vincent now owns 28 percent of the place, making him the largest stakeholder in an empire of 707 outdoor speakers, an old Dyn Arc carbon projector now in mothballs, and a seven-year-old whiz-bang digital projector that cost $75,000.

Its 7,000-watt bulb lasts for 300 hours. And he’ll go through two of them this summer — a season that Vincent, the president of the national United Drive-In Theater Owners Association, could never have scripted in his wildest imagination.

John Vincent, left, watched as  Dave Nichols opened a port in the projection booth. Vincent is standing between a 1957 film projector and a 2013 digital projector.
John Vincent, left, watched as Dave Nichols opened a port in the projection booth. Vincent is standing between a 1957 film projector and a 2013 digital projector. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“We’re happy to be open,‘' the 51-year-old Vincent told me as we sat on stools outside the snack bar as a late-afternoon sun began to sink in the western sky. “We know a lot of businesses are suffering. And I’m no exception. My indoor theater is closed. I’m going to lose half my revenue this year. Gone.‘'

But the show must go on. And Vincent knows that puts him in a better place than many restaurants and nightclubs whose income has shriveled up and blown away like sand on a wind-blown beach.

Vincent’s story is not for the weak of heart. As a US Marine, he served in Saudi Arabia and then in Bahrain during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

Joy Kissa, 10, watched Jurassic Park with her family from the back of their car.
Joy Kissa, 10, watched Jurassic Park with her family from the back of their car.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

He had known the drive-in here since his days as manager of the adjacent movie cinemas. When the chance came in 1993 to work at the drive-in full time, he took it.

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Since then, he’s seen blockbusters and fabulous flops come and go. He watched America’s movie-going appetites wax and wane.

He’s been around long enough to see what’s old become new again. Like right now.

“ ‘Jurassic Park,' ironically, marked the true start of the resurgence for the drive-in,‘’ he told me. “I would say from that moment on, it seemed like it was really strong again. Ironically, we were number one with ‘Jurassic Park’ last weekend.‘’

Once upon a time, the United States had 4,000 drive-ins. Today? Just over 300 remain. Why? The economics are unforgiving.

There are floor drains to unclog. There are car ramps to maintain. There are staffing challenges. And, of course, the weather, especially here in New England, can be fickle.

Before the pandemic struck, the drive-in was considered sold out when the 650th car rolled in here. Now, that number is 275. A ticket costs $13 for an adult, $9 for children, making the price of an average carload about $30.

The twinkling stars and the crescent moon overhead are free. So is that salty air, and the ability to snuggle under a blanket with someone special.

 Grace Gobeil and Alex Lane relaxed in the truck bed while waiting for the movie to begin.
Grace Gobeil and Alex Lane relaxed in the truck bed while waiting for the movie to begin.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“We can have somewhat of a normal night out with the kids in the age of COVID,‘' said Steve Chizmadia, 55, who was settling in for the show with his wife, Halle, their 6-year-old twin boys — Andrew and Jake — and two friends. “We love the drive-in. As a couple, we came here a long time ago and we’ve always wanted to bring the kids.‘'

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“It’s a scary time,‘' said Halle. “We’re from New York, but right now it seems like Massachusetts and New York are the safest places to be. But I’ve been coming here every summer since I was a baby. This is very nostalgic for me.‘'

Nostalgia. It’s not on the marquee but the place is steeped in it.

A hot dog sells for $3.49. The projection booth’s red-and-black tile floor is straight out of the 1950s. There’s an old rewind bench that dates back to when that sort of chore was done by hand.

After leaving their face masks in the car, Kristen Sylvia and Adam Motyka, of Newton, improvised while visiting the snack bar.
After leaving their face masks in the car, Kristen Sylvia and Adam Motyka, of Newton, improvised while visiting the snack bar.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

And, speaking of “Psycho,‘' the drive-in displays a photo of Anthony Perkins who famously portrayed innkeeper Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s terrifying 1960 film that for years made movie-goers think twice before stepping into the shower.

The photo came courtesy of the actor’s wife after Perkins drove through the drive-in’s gates in a Volkswagen bug in 1987.

There are portals to the past everywhere you look.

A poster of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe hangs in the snack bar.
A poster of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe hangs in the snack bar.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

But a drive-in is a drive-in. And some things are as constant as the sunset. Or snuggling.

“The windows do get fogged up sometimes,‘' said Dave Nichols, 49, who tends bar during the daytime at the flea market here and is part of the drive-in’s field crew at night. “I always say, ‘Just watch where your foot goes because if you turn on your lights, I’m going to see what’s going on.

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“I had to stop one couple. ‘Hey! Your lights!’ They were in the midst of passion and the kid’s foot would be hitting the brake pedal or he would put on the lights with his foot. It has happened. This was known as the cheapest motel on Cape Cod in the summer. You’d get a motel room and a movie without having to shell out that motel fee.‘'

But these days, kids in their pajamas give the place a more family-friendly vibe. They’re cuddled up in the front seat with mom and dad. They sit in the beds of trucks watching the magic of the movies play out under celestial constellations.

All of it welcome tonic — equal doses of normalcy and escape — as a deadly and stubborn virus defies attempts to vanquish it. A virus enabled by those unable to adjust to social distancing.

Jared Goldman, left, and Zach Fisch, watched "Jurassic Park" from the back of their vehicle.
Jared Goldman, left, and Zach Fisch, watched "Jurassic Park" from the back of their vehicle.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

But social distancing is easy here in Wellfleet where the air is warm, the sun has set, and Steven Spielberg is once again directing the action.

“We ran the numbers and it looks like we’re going to be lucky to break even on the drive-in,‘' Vincent told me. “I don’t want to cry about it because I’m so happy to have at least part of my business up and running and to be able to provide consumers a much-needed outlet to get out of the house in a safe manner.‘'

Safe that is until that shark jumps out of the water and Roy Scheider, as Chief Brody, famously tells Quint, Robert Shaw’s crusty character: “You’re going to need a bigger boat.‘'


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.