by Meghan Wayland
BARTON — The creators of Moonrise Cinemas unfurled a 52-foot wide, two-story tall movie screen at the Orleans County Fairgrounds July 8 and watched as caravans of COVID-weary moviegoers came together under its soft glow.
Chris Rydjesky drove 90 miles with a group of friends from Lebanon, New Hampshire, for Saturday night’s double-feature: Jurassic Park and Galaxy Quest. The 30-something said he was mostly there for the experience — and because he loves Alan Rickman so much. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been to a drive-in, but said, “Classics like this? It’s worth being here for the nostalgia, a way to find the silver lining in a very uncertain time.”
Moonrise co-creator and Glover resident Saturn Roblee grew up going to a drive-in near her home in upstate New York. Starting one of her own, she said, “has always been a back-burner idea — a fantasy.” Still, she and her partner, West Glover native Cavan Meese, talked about it occasionally, never with much seriousness. But when the pandemic struck and the need for socially-distanced events aligned with the pair’s newfound joblessness, the couple jumped at the chance to try.
“I love drive-ins and the space they create for people,” Ms. Roblee said in a phone interview Thursday. “Having to socially distance but still very much needing to come together, it seemed like the perfect time to bring this to the community.”
“We really wanted space to exist as one community for a moment,” Mr. Meese said.
So just two weeks after having their first baby, Ms. Roblee and Mr. Meese called longtime friends Emily and Tito Ladd, with the perfect idea for losing even more sleep than raising a newborn: getting a drive-in movie theater off the ground during a pandemic.
Emily Ladd said her husband, Tito, often comes to her with new business ideas.
“When he approached me with the drive-in, I was like, we have to start now.” Within two hours, the couple got back to Ms. Roblee and Mr. Meese and said they were in — they were going to move to Vermont with their three-year-old son, Lincoln for the foreseeable future and work like mad to get the drive-in up and running.
The group began working long hours to prepare to have their opening night in just under five weeks. They secured the local fairgrounds, sought sponsors, built a website, purchased films, created a concessions menu, and on Wednesday, July 8, Moonrise Cinemas debuted.
“We’ve been so happy with the turnout and support since the beginning,” Mr. Meese said Thursday. “People want to be connected to each other right now.”
Saturday night vehicles filed into the fairgrounds piled high with bean bag chairs and plastic Adirondacks, cornhole games and hammocks, pillows, quilts, and sleeping bags smelling like mothballs. There were takeout pizzas, Tupperware containers of carrot sticks, and face-sized Mountain Dews. Boxes of candy and popcorn were delivered car side from the concession stand via golf cart. Food orders took place over a smart phone.
Jayvin Colby, 9, and Seaver Therrien, 10, were among the crowd Saturday night. They waited in a nest of tie-dye blankets in back of a hatchback for Jurassic Park to start. They had already seen it — the old one — but they didn’t seem to mind. Saturday was their first-ever drive-in.
“I’ve had to explain to them what a drive-in was,” said Jayvin’s mother, Shannon Thornton. The boys wondered aloud how they’d hear the sound from the movie without giant speakers next to the screen. “It comes in over the radio,” Ms. Thorton said. The boys blinked. “I think they’re still confused,” she said.
Moonrise Cinemas runs Wednesday though Sundays. Gates open at 7 p.m. and there are double features on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Sundays are a single showing, and this Sunday’s feature will be Howard Frank Mosher’s Where the Rivers Flow North, — a film set and shot in the Northeast Kingdom.
The parking grid is carefully designated to maximize the social distance between vehicles. Vehicles park in 200-square foot spaces where people can sit in, on, or around their vehicle.
Signs along the route into the park instruct drivers to tune into 91.1 FM in order to hear the movie and Mr. Meese’s countdowns leading up to the feature.
General admission tickets are $25 per vehicle for up to five people and an additional $10 for each passenger beyond five. Seniors age 60 and above are $15. On Wednesdays only so, too, are vehicles purchased at St. J Automotive Group, a major sponsor of the drive-in. Cars with the St. J dealership sticker or paperwork proving a dealership purchase are also $15 per vehicle Wednesdays.
Tickets can be purchased online at moonrisecinemas.com or in person the night of the movie — although advance purchases are preferred.
Proceeds from ticket sales go toward paying to screen the blockbuster movies listed on the virtual marquee, an expense of thousands of dollars a week, and to Roaring Brook Park to help the fair association maintain their buildings and cover operational costs after having lost revenue due to the cancellation of the Barton fair.
“The fairgrounds are so awesome,” Mr. Meese said. “When the idea came to the table — here’s something we can do safely that’s going to benefit the community and take advantage of this great space — they said yes.”
The concession stand has movie theater staples covered: popcorn, nachos, hot dogs, ice cream sandwiches and candy, and is looking to continue to expand its menu, as well as its drink list, in coming weeks. Beer, wine, and mixed drinks became available July 15 thanks, in part, to a sponsorship from Barr Hill Gin.
Sponsors were easy to come by, Mr. Meese said. “As soon as we told businesses we were bringing the drive-in back, the first thing anyone said was, that’s a great idea, what can we do?”
He said it’s been his experience that local businesses overwhelmingly want community events to be happening locally to ensure their town are thriving places to be.
Moonrise Cinemas will operate in Barton until August 2 before moving to the Caledonia County Fairgrounds August 5 through 30 and then on to central Vermont in September. The newfangled, old-fashioned drive-in can fit entirely into a shipping container, making it easy to pack up and take on the road. The container also serves as a concession stand, sound booth, and nursery for baby Kai — among other things.
Ms. Ladd said the outpouring of support on social media has helped focus the deeper significance of running a drive-in at this time. Again and again, moviegoers thanked the group for bringing the theater to town.
“They always tell us what a great time they’ve had,” she said. “We’re humbled. This is exactly what we wanted to do for the community.”
“We want to keep adapting this thing to the times,” Mr. Meese said, hoping the success of Moonrise Cinemas outlasts the pandemic that helped bring it to life. “We want to keep making this big, outdoor movie experience — keep bringing people together.”