James and Michelle Plummer stand tall in the bed of their Ford F-250, silhouetted in a lovers' embrace against a giant movie screen. That timeless Friday-night feeling of anticipation seems to drift on the breeze at Fort Union Drive-In outside Las Vegas, New Mexico. A field of parked cars sits waiting for darkness, and with it, the first picture show of the summer. Finally.
With indoor movie theaters still shuttered by COVID-19, people around the state have been looking forward to the annual seasonal opening of what was, until very recently, the last remaining drive-in theater in New Mexico. When Fort Union Drive-In's owner-operator Jake Cordova received a last-minute phone call from the state that delayed the theater's planned May 15 opening, the drive-in's Facebook page logged more than 450 responses that ranged from disappointment to outrage.
Some pointed out the concept of a drive-in movie theater is practically the definition of social distancing. But the 2020 season at Fort Union Drive-In, which originally opened in 1951, comes with new rules. Each car (no more than five people) pays $20 for a double feature and stakes out a parking space a mandated car's-length apart. Masks must be worn away from the vehicle, and only one person is allowed in the restroom at a time. The snack bar, well-known for pizza, now takes advance orders by phone, with one person per car designated to stand in a socially distanced line to pick it up.
On Friday night, a majority of the audience stayed inside their vehicles, tuning into the audio for Trolls: World Tour and Doolittle on the designated FM radio station. Some sat outside in lawn chairs, sprawled on blankets or nestled into truck beds. None seemed to mind the scattered raindrops that fell from the big meadow country sky.
It was the Plummer family's first visit, though they fondly remember weekend sojourns to the Yucca Drive-In in their hometown of Santa Fe.
"When they tore down Yucca, it broke our hearts," James Plummer says. "My son is 12 years old, and he asked me what a drive-in movie theater was. So we made the trip up here to watch this, historically, for him."
For a truckload of four Robertson High School seniors, opening night feels like a return to pre-pandemic summer evenings. "It's tradition," Kyle Conway, Sydney Weathers, Erica Apodaca and John Burch agree, nearly in unison.
"We come about every other weekend during the summer," Weathers explains.
"It gives us some normalcy because we're going through so much," Conway says.
"Other than people wearing masks," Apodaca adds, "we can actually be, like, teenagers again here. We don't have to stay inside all the time."
Michelle Martinez, a Las Vegas resident who sits in a Nissan Titan holding her 3-year-old daughter Ayla, recalls her own teenage years at the drive-in.
"A bunch of people would hang out in the front and car-hop," she remembers. "It's always been packed."
Though that type of socializing is not allowed this year, she says she's just happy the drive-in is open again.
"We needed something to do," she says.
Before coronavirus swept through the US, the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association had reported only 305 drive-in movie theaters remained across the country. Santa Fe was once home to two: the Yucca and the Pueblo. Now, these relics of Americana are seeing a renaissance, with some business experts speculating they are the only outlets to possibly bolster the suffering movie industry.
Chain Allen Theatres is opening drive-ins in Las Cruces and Farmington. The town of Edgewood, in collaboration with the Greater Edgewood Chamber of Commerce, launches a new drive-in at the Church Street Market this weekend, complete with two screens and carhops serving food from local restaurants in the East Mountains.
At least one Santa Fe entrepreneur is trying to bring a drive-in movie theater back to the city, but it's a thorny endeavor. Last month, Santa Fe Jeep Tours owner Andrew Eagan thought he had lined up the perfect partners to help launch a new drive-in, including people who had opened an outdoor theater in Michigan some years back. He also had plans in place for the proper audiovisual and security setups.
However, he says, "We got the middle finger from the governor and the city when we had the ability to do it. When they finally pulled the trigger, saying, 'yeah, OK, we're gonna allow them to have drive-ins open now,' then we had already lost the opportunity. It's just bad timing."
Eagan says he was also trying to get the town of Cerrillos involved, along with a private landowner there, "but the land we were looking at has a lot of lead poisoning. The health department was like, 'no, you can't do that anyway,' because we were on lockdown."
The biggest challenge, Eagan says, is in finding a generous landowner who doesn't mind a hundred or more cars parked on their lot.
"Landowners in Santa Fe are very skittish," he adds. "We went to a number of property owners and it was like, 'we don't want the public rolling into this property.'"
Eagan remains hopeful that Santa Fe will see a return of movies playing under the stars and the Sangres.
"We're going to try again," he vows. "It's completely possible."