By Craig S. Semon
Telegram & Gazette Staff
Posted June 17, 2020 at 5:49 PM
Updated June 18, 2020 at 8:23 AM
LEICESTER – What a crazy time 2020 has been for humanity but what an interesting time it has been for drive-ins.
“It’s funny,” said Maria H. Joseph, who runs the 53-year-old Leicester Drive-In with her mother, Marilyn M. Joseph. “It’s a little, tagalong business that’s now the place to be.”
After a lot of serious soul-searching and plenty of uncertainty, Joseph is going to open the drive-in this Friday and Saturday for the first time this season.
And while they are not showing spectaculars filmed in CinemaScope, Sensurround or Technicolor but instead showing the family-friendly and criticproof “Trolls World Tour” and “Jumanji: The Next Level,” Joseph expects the weekend is going to be epic.
“Drive-ins always bounce back. I don’t know why but they never lose their appeal,” Joseph said. “They might fall out of popularity a little bit but they always come back and they maintain a following. There’s a wholesomeness about it. There’s a simplicity. There’s a retro feeling that never goes out of style.”
Joseph’s father, Korean War U.S. Army veteran Hanna J. Joseph, opened the drive-in in 1967. He died in May 22, 2017, at 89 but his daughter has carried on the tradition ever since.
“My dad was a happy, happy guy who ran a happy, happy business. If he was here today, he would just be laughing and saying, ‘Imagine that,’ ” Joseph said. “The little idea he had years and years ago – who would have ever thought that nearly 60 years later it would not only be still running and doing as well as it is, but being open for people in a time they really need it.”
If it wasn’t for the coronavirus pandemic, Joseph said the Leicester Drive-In would have been open by early May due to the very mild winter and there being very little mud.
But at the same time, Joseph acknowledges that the pandemic that introduced social distancing and shut down the multiplex moviegoing experience (at least for now) is the reason why drive-ins are more popular than ever.
In fact, Joseph said the last season of consistently sold-out weekends that she recalls was the summer of “Jurassic Park” and that is more than 25 years ago. If the weather holds out, she expects this year to rival the year “when dinosaurs ruled the Earth.”
“It’s an interesting reason why drive-ins are popular now,” she said. “And I hope it helps people recover with something that is a really nice way to be outdoors and entertained in the evening, safely, with your family or with your friends.”
As a member of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, Joseph was able to learn the safety protocol and procedures (and pick up a few pointers) being used by drive-ins across the country
Thanks to the gigantic, gas-guzzling American automobiles of the past, the Leicester Drive-In was already equipped for social distancing as far as parked cars go, Joseph said.
“The place was built back in the ’60s when cars were much larger and the poles (that used to have speakers attached to cords) were distant to accommodate these much larger cars,” Joseph said. “Fortunately, in our case, they (the poles) were never moved. So the spaces are far enough apart to maintain 6 feet between cars.”
Per Gov. Charlie Baker’s ordinance, patrons are supposed to stay in their vehicles. That means no lawn chairs in front of the cars or sitting outside the car, Joseph said.
“Unless you’re going to the bathroom or the concession stand, you can’t walk around the grounds. You have to stay in your vehicle for now,” she said. “I imagine that will be loosen up a bit when it gets going but, for now, that’s the protocol.”
Also, drive-in patrons have to wear a face mask.
“You have to have a mask on at all points of transaction, even if you’re in your car,” she said. “Masks have to be worn every time you’re not in your vehicle, unless you’re a child 2 years old or younger.”
As for the concession stands, Joseph said they are keeping it as much as the same as possible just to make it manageable.
“We’re not high-tech. So, at this point, we don’t have online ordering,” Joseph said. “What we’re going to do is people come to our window, order from the menu and we’ll put the order together for them. We will meet them at another door and their food will be available for them there, maintaining social distancing.”
Joseph said the bathrooms will be just like the concession stand, as far as maintaining social distancing.
“There’s a limit of how many people can be in the bathroom at once. There will be 6 feet distancing between individuals waiting to come in. And it’s going to be one-way traffic,” Joseph said. “We have doors on both sides. The men and women will enter from opposite sides, so they won’t be standing in the line next to each other. And they will be cleaned intermittently, in between usage. ”
Since the pandemic, Joseph has been weighting the pros and cons and going back and forth on whether it was financially feasible to open the drive-in this year.
She said the “tipping point” that convinced her that, yeah, we can do this, we’re going to try to do this was her 21-year-old nephew Nicholas Barris.
“I had help from my family that I wasn’t expecting,” Joseph said. “Ironically, thanks to the COVID, my nephew’s summer employment – or should I say his employment, because he just graduated from college and was about to start his first job but they weren’t able to be open. So he became available to help because he didn’t have that work. So COVID giveth and COVID taketh away.”
If it weren’t for her nephew, Joseph said she would be doing all the work by herself, pretty much.
“My mother does help, for sure. But she’s advanced in age,” Joseph said. “So she certainly can’t do any of the physicality of it. It’s a physical job and physical work. Getting a drive-in open is very, very physical.”
For the opening weekend, the Leicester Drive-In is scheduled to be open Friday and Saturday only. Joseph said she expects Sunday will be added eventually down the road.
Next week, the Leicester Drive-In will be showing “Wonder Woman” (2017) and “Birds of Prey” on Friday, and it might have a special concert feature starring a country-western superstar on Saturday. Stay tuned.
Carloads are $30. The Leicester Drive-In is asking for exact cash (if possible) at the box office or a prepaid ticket that can be purchased online at leicesterdrivein.simpletix.com.