Penn Cinema pop-up drive-in theater

Cars line up for a showing of "Jaws" at the new pop-up drive-in theater experience from Penn Cinema on Monday, June 8.

When COVID-19 first hit, businesses of all kinds went into survival mode.

The established way of doing things went out the window and suddenly, no idea was too outlandish.

Take Penn Cinema, for example. A business that relies almost entirely on getting people into comfortable, albeit condensed, seating for extended periods of time. In the first weeks of quarantine, Penn Cinema created a curbside takeout for candy and popcorn, an attempt to upgrade the at-home movie experience when no one could even enter the building.

All the while, the theater was contemplating an addition that would both turn back the clock and be a perfect fit for this exact moment in time - a pop-up drive-in theater.

When I spoke with Penn Cinema owner Penn Ketchum a month ago in advance of the drive-in debut, he told me that the theater's initial curbside offering inspired him to attempt to offer more.

"I had a bunch of people saying, 'I just wanted something to do, I put the kids in the car and drove out to pick up popcorn,'" said Ketchum at the time.

In the interim, Ketchum acquired an inflatable, commercial-grade structure with a 22 square foot screen and installed it on the stage left side of Penn Cinema. Ketchum seeks to screen a combination of agreeable classics such as "Grease" and "Back to the Future" with the most recent pre-COVID fare, like Pixar's "Onward" and "Jumanji: The Next Level."

On Monday, June 8, I ventured to Lititz to see how this drive-in experience compared to drive-ins of yore.

On this night, the theater was showing "Jaws," itself a classic of the drive-in. Tickets for each night's showing are $35 per car, which Ketchum said is meant to encourage bringing families. You first pull behind the building and check in with one of several chipper teenage employees. They check your name against a list, and then hand you a card that has info on how to order snacks and which radio station to turn your dial to for audio.

As is true whether there is a global pandemic or not, I was probably later to the movie than I should have been. Perhaps I've become too accustomed to the assigned seating of modern movie theaters, where you know where you'll be sitting hours in advance. Due to my slight tardiness, I accepted that my spot would probably not be ideal.

According to Ketchum, there is room for 100 cars in the drive-in space. What makes that somewhat tricky is the placement of several pre-existing trees that dot across where the lineup of cars have to park, making potentially perfect placement spots somewhat nullified by the foliage.

I eventually found a spot to the far left of the screen, and I mean the far left. To get a clear view of the screen, I shifted my seat all the way back to look out of my passenger side window.

Judging by the view on all sides, the official vehicle of the drive-in remains a sturdy pickup truck. Dozens of families were packed into their truck beds with blankets and pillows, presumably ready for if the nighttime air and gnashing of shark teeth might lull them to sleep.

It would be irresponsible to not briefly mention again that I was there to see "Jaws," a movie whose main plot involves a government official insisting on the greater public's safety in the face of an unseen, misunderstood force.

It was initially jarring to see moviegoers huddled in truck beds and talking closely with their mask-less parking lot neighbors, but it hit me early on in the movie - just like the tourists on Amity Island want their Fourth of July beach vacation, people attending the drive-in want something to look forward to.

That being said, I admit to turning down the radio and sticking my ear out the window to hear the echo of ironic laughter at quotes from Mayor Larry Vaughn, only to be met with silence.

"I'm pleased and happy to repeat the news that we have, in fact, caught and killed a large predator that supposedly injured some bathers. But, as you see, it's a beautiful day, the beaches are open and people are having a wonderful time!"

In part from the smell wafting through my open car windows and also due to a crippling lifetime addiction, I knew that, eventually, movie popcorn would be in my future. A concessions webpage is accessible on Penn Cinema's website from roughly a half hour prior to the film's start through about 45 minutes into the movie.

Only one popcorn size was available - a "bucket" for $8. Before I had time to sketch out the algebraic equation of how I would get a bucket's worth of popcorn into my body within the remaining 90 minutes of the film, another helpful employee was already knocking on my window, popcorn in gloved hands.

There was indeed a bucket, and the popcorn itself was wrapped in a separate bag for cleanliness. 

It's easy to romanticize the appeal of a drive-in theater - something about the way that each attendee's radio adds a little bit of sound, until it's almost a vibration that you can feel all around you on a hot summer's night. Ketchum told me at one point that, since the theater now owns all of the equipment, drive-in nights could potentially exist long after social distancing and any phase colors.

I hope it does. Bringing a community together, even for a silly movie starring a mechanical shark, is a worthwhile goal, assuming each person's safety needs are respected and met.

As for what to do with other socially-distant entertainment options as COVID-19 continues to lurk in the shallow waters of life?

Well... we're gonna need a bigger boat.

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