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A Cape Cod Classic

The many lives of drive-in theaters may be adding another chapter to their histories, none more storied than the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre.

What do you think of when you hear “a Cape Cod summer night”? Do you picture cocktails on the beach, a magnificent sunset, or hours spent talking with friends on the porch? For many, the perfect Cape Cod summer day is concluded with a trip to the drive-in. Nothing says summer like filling your car with pillows and blankets, sitting under the breathtaking Cape stars, and taking in a blockbuster or two. Drive-ins merge the marvel of movies with the wonder and beauty of a night on the Cape. Steven Spielberg said, “Every time I go to a movie, it’s magic, no matter what the movie’s about.” That magic is increased tenfold when the movie, whatever movie it may be, is watched at a drive-in. Combining the delight of cinema with the nostalgia of a simpler time, drive-ins have mastered the enchanting art of the movie watching experience, none more so than the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre. But, it’s more than just nostalgia for a time that not many alive today have experienced. It is, as one of the owners of Wellfleet Theatres, John Vincent, believes, just a great thing to do. 

Since 1957, Wellfleet Theatres has been providing the Cape with quality entertainment, with what started as the expected mode of cinema delivery and has transformed into a unique experience for all ages. The Drive-In opened on July 3, 1957, with John Jentz and Charles Zender leading the way. That night, Katherine Hepburn christened the screen in “The Desk Set,” and they have been showing hit movies since, including favorites like “Jurassic Park,” “Jaws,” “Ben Hur” and “Star Wars.” But, drive-ins, especially Wellfleet, saw a decline in attendance in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Vincent, also the president of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, credits a couple reasons with the decline, the largest being the films that were made available for drive-ins. “We couldn’t get first run films back then. All we could get was ‘Superman 4,’” he laughs. “The newfound multiplex was taking all the film prints at the time. But it was ‘Jurassic Park’ that marked the mainstream resurgence of drive-ins, I would say. Many of my fellow operators would agree that it all really came back to life in the early 90s. We had some hits before that, like ‘Honey I Shrunk the Kids,’ which was the first time we had over 500 cars in many years. But, nonetheless, since ‘Jurassic Park’ in ‘93, it’s been pretty steady in the drive-in space.”

Wellfleet Theatres has taken steps to make sure that the Drive-In can run every summer, including adding a mini golf course in  1961, a flea market in 1974 and, finally, a year-round, indoor theater complex in 1986. The flea market holds the distinct title of “largest flea market” on Cape Cod, with up to 150 vendors every Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. The mini golf course provides pre-movie entertainment, or just everyday fun. And, the addition of the indoor cinema cemented Wellfleet Theatres as a truly year-round entertainment provider.

While the additions of other activities at Wellfleet Theatres helps during the off-season, the Drive-In is still the main draw. Thanks to some updated technology, such as making the move from field speakers to FM radio, the Drive-In has kept with the times while staying true to Zender and Jentz’s original vision. Vincent explains, “We still have the speakers and have invested in improving them and making them louder, because in some cars, it can be hard to keep it running with the radio on. We’ve found that speaker use is actually increasing. The second innovation was the conversion to digital cinema that happened in the 2013 to 2015 time frame. We did it in 2013, where we went from film reels used for 100 years to the digital format unique to the film industry called DCP. All theaters, indoor and out, that want to play first run Hollywood product have to have made that investment.” But, despite the beefed up tech and additions, the Drive-In still holds on to that classic charm. “I think Wellfleet is one of the few drive-ins that still looks largely like it did when it first opened,” says Vincent. “People always tell us, ‘You’re one of the few that look like you did in 1957.’” Just a glance at old photos of Wellfleet Theatres shows the miniscule changes made to the area.

“It’s really a terrific family thing to do. We know it’s a great concept that’s enjoyed by every generation. Gen Z and Millenials’ parents didn’t grow up in the heyday of drive-ins, so it’s not just about the nostalgia.”

Many people would believe that the driving force behind drive-in attendance is a sense of nostalgia. But, Vincent tends to disagree. “It’s really a terrific family thing to do. We know it’s a great concept that’s enjoyed by every generation. Gen Z and Millenials’ parents didn’t grow up in the heyday of drive-ins, so it’s not just about the nostalgia,” he explains. “People say to me ‘Oh, it’s all about the nostalgia,’ and I really think it’s not. The experience stands on its own, in its own right, as just a great thing to do. Part of the reason we’ve done so well is because of the families on vacation. Kids and adults alike love the experience. You can go to the beach during the day, but at night, family-wise, there isn’t as much to do, and this is a great thing for everyone.”

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Elizabeth Shaw is the assistant editor for Cape Cod Life  Publications.

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