LARKSPUR, Calif. - Drive-in movies are making a comeback thanks to the coronavirus, with Marin County the latest example.
Friday night, cars lined up at the Village at Corte Madera Mall to grab spots, ten feet apart, to watch the sock-hop classic Grease.
Tickets sold-out online in 15 minutes.
"We've played Raiders of the Lost Arc, Back to the Future, Flash Dance," said Ellie Mednick, Executive Director of the Lark Theater, sponsoring the drive-in.
From the opening credits on July 23, the idea has been a hit- turn an overflow parking lot into a Covid-safe entertainment venue.
An inflatable screen stands 40 feet high, and the sound pipes in on FM radio.
Monitors roam the lot, making sure people stay inside their cars, and wear masks to and from the restroom.
No lawn chairs are allowed, although people can throw open their hatchbacks and watch from the rear of their cars.
The audience expresses its applause at climactic moments by flashing headlights and honking horns.
"It's the old mystique of the drive-in but it feels brand new," said Mednick.
"Some people are curious what the drive-in experience was like, and we're re-living it, and people say they're so happy to be out, they thank us over and over again."
Like many theaters, shuttered in March by the pandemic, the Lark in Larkspur has been streaming movies to its members at home.
But it didn't seem enough.
"We said we've got to do something, we're a theater, we've got to go on," said Mednick.
The drive-in is not only more communal. but at $30 per car, and just over 100 cars, it's profitable.
The Lark's federal PPP grant is spent, and the drive-in keeps five employees working.
"We're making money and this will hopefully sustain us and our staff through the summer," said Mednick.
Per the public health order, no concessions are allowed, although food trucks are being considered.
Mall restaurants are getting a bit of a boost as movie-goers eat dinner beforehand or take it to go.
"The drive-in movie theater is kind of throw-back and we have been receiving a little bit more business on our patio," said J.P. Devere, General Manager of Boca Corte Madera. "Of course we're running pretty lean here with only outdoor seating, but it's really nice to see families come back to the patio, giving them something to do, so it's definitely a positive."
Friday night's feature fit the bill: musicals, adventure films, feel-good fare.
"This is what everybody seems to be in the mood for right now," said Mednick, "although people tell us they don't care what we're playing, they're so happy to be out, doing something safe and entertaining and being part of a community."
Most of the cars were full of families, with parents young enough they missed the drive-in heyday.
"It's our first time here, it's pretty cool," said one dad, "and we've got a nice little picnic here, we're ready to enjoy the night."
Added his wife, "this is great, we're close to home, it's a beautiful evening, and Grease is the word!"
Picture and sound quality have certainly improved from the old drive-in days, but what hasn't changed: the simple fun.
"I don't think this is going away anytime soon," said one mom, "because I wonder if movie theaters will think of this as a long term option rather than a dinosaur."
At their height in the late '50s there were more than 4,000 drive-in movies in the U.S.
There are now fewer than 300, as their numbers dwindle.
The Lark will screen movies every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night through October, if weather cooperates.