Drive-in movies were once an American institution, with 5,000 theaters standing proudly during the 1950s and 60s. Today, fewer than 500 remain, but residents and visitors of Misquamicut are in luck because we can claim one of those exclusive theaters as our own, thanks to the hard work and ingenuity of the Misquamicut Business Association, led by then Executive Director Caswell Cooke.
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Outdoor theaters and partial drive-in theaters existed as early as 1915, but the first full drive-in was patented by Richard Hollingshead in 1933, in New Jersey. Rhode Island was an early adopter of the fad, opening its first in 1937. Hollingshead was inspired to design and open his theater to give his mother a more comfortable viewing opportunity, and the family-friendly nature of drive-ins is often the root of their nostalgic feel. Of course, drive-ins also offered teenagers the perfect location for date nights, often screening low-budget B movies that you could afford to miss a scene or two of for the sake of a kiss.
By the late 1970s and 80s, however, drive-ins were facing a crisis, brought on by the energy crisis and real estate interest rate hikes, and sustained by the rise of home entertainment options such as color television, VCRs, and video rentals. By the late 80s, most had been closed down for good.
“When I was a kid, growing up in the 80s, my house was right behind the drive-in screen off Route 1,” Caswell explained. “The Westerly Drive-In closed in 1987, so I was too young to have seen it in its prime, but I had an affinity for that sign I used to stand next to as I waited for the bus all those years.”
Sometime in 2010, Caswell was with John “Gonzo” Gonzalez, who suggested the idea of film festival at the beach. After discussing the logistics of making that work, Caswell, fondly remembering the dilapidated screen that once stood by his backyard, suggested creating a drive-in theater. George Tattersall, the former president of the Business Association, suggested they stack some sea land cargo containers, weld them together, and put a screen up on them with a projector hooked up to a DVD player. “We started out kind of ghetto,” Caswell laughed.
What has evolved from humble beginnings in the pond side lot of Wuskenau Beach is now an exciting destination for tourists and residents alike, offering comfort (clean restrooms, and audio coming in straight through your car’s radio, thanks to a suggestion by Chris Dipaola from WBLQ) and treats (hotdogs, candy, popcorn).
“We’re really hitting our stride,” Caswell said, highlighting the introduction of theme nights, partnerships with other businesses or organizations, special guests, and fun additions to the evening such as a guy dressed up in a shark costume for screenings of Jaws or the possible appearance of a DeLorean for a screening of Back to the Future. “We try to make it really special.”
The goal of the Business Association is to offer something to do in town every night of the week, so in the early years, movies were screened only on Thursdays because it was a naturally slow night. As the drive in has grown in popularity, however, they’ve added Fridays to the roster and this summer they’ll be adding Saturday night showtimes as well.
Each year, the MBA compiles a list of about a hundred movies and conduct a poll based on that list to see which films residents and visitors most want to see. “It’s hard to show first-run movies, but we can show movies that are pretty close; ” Caswell explained. Overwhelmingly, however, movie-goers want to see the classic films from their youth – the Goonies, Back to the Future, and above all else Jaws. “We stick with the classics because they seem to work. If you’re coming to see Jaws, though, make sure you get there at least two hours early – it’s always packed that night,” he advised.
“The coolest part might be the previews, believe it or not,” Caswell explained. Chris Walsh used to DJ at the bars where the drive-in now stands, back when the Atlantis and the LA Beach Club were still the night time hot spots, and now he helps cut together previews and commercials to enhance the drive in experience. The movies are interspersed with messages from sponsors and actual commercials from the 50s, 60s, and 70s to help give the evening a really retro feel.
“The whole night is an experience, so don’t just come right at 9 and see the movie – you can come an hour or two before, have dinner at a local restaurant, really make a night of it,” Caswell said, adding that the price of admission is the same no matter how many people you bring – $15 per car, which barely more than the cost of one ticket at an indoor theater. “So bring a carload of people – you don’t even have to sneak anyone in your trunk!”
“There are all these memories from this area; people will reminisce and say ‘Oh, I remember this from the 60s,’ but then there was a long period of time after that when the bars got kind of seedy and the area was run down and nobody picked up the trash,” Caswell reflected. “And then we came along as the Business Association and we decided we wanted to create new memories. So now the kids growing up here are forming great memories of Misquamicut because they have things like Spring Fest and Fall Fest to go to, and there’s a whole new generation growing up knowing what drive-in movies are.”
The 2020 season kicks off on May 15! Don’t miss out!