It’s Day 275 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. I had postponed my visit to the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre in Wellfleet MA by a day to catch a drive-in that was still showing movies on a Sunday night. Now I paid the price for that change, driving four and a half hours from Poughkeepsie NY to the only drive-in on Cape Cod.
According to his obituary, John Macdonald “Don” Jentz received a business degree at Harvard University in 1952, and a master’s degree in building engineering and construction at MIT in 1956. Put those two together and you’ve got all the ingredients necessary to start a drive-in. He formed Spring Brook Center Inc. with Charles Zehnder to build the Wellfleet, and it opened on July 3, 1957. From almost all accounts, the corporation has owned and operated the drive-in ever since.
In a 2008 Cape Cod Times article, captured on a South Wellfleet blog, Ben Zehnder, Charlie’s son, remembered his dad’s story about opening night. “The asphalt wasn’t quite dry, so the cars all sank in with their tires,” he said. Jentz had designed the pavement to rise in such a way that every car had a good view, but in the final weeks of preparation didn’t get the drying time right.
Eleanor Hazen managed the Wellfleet for quite a while, and was during her tenure that a mini-golf course was added and so was a four-screen indoor theater, built because film distribution companies began withholding first-run movies from drive-ins. Hazen may have also been the person who added the popular daytime flea market there, credited with helping to keep the place going during the tough times of the late 1980s.
In 1997 John Vincent bought in to the Wellfleet, the subject of a Cape Cod Times article marking the 2001 season opener. “The drive-in started to make a comeback around 1993, and business has continued to get better,” Vincent told the Times. The drive-in added FM sound in 1994 but kept some of the in-car speakers. They also still had the original carbon arc projectors, of which projectionist Dave Mead said, ““I’d say about 90 percent of it is still original parts.”
The Vimeo video of the day, shot in 2005 but released in 2014, also features Mead. It makes a nice time capsule for those battleship-looking projectors.
In 2006, Vincent had some prescient remarks to the Cape Cod Times. ″The entire industry will be converting (to digital projection) over the next 10 years,″ he said. At the time, he said the Wellfleet was three to seven years away from converting. Right again; the drive-in actually made the switch in 2012.
In a friendly profile in Film Journal last year, Vincent said that cell phones were a new reason for drive-ins’ success. “People can sit in their cars and text, talk and share while not interfering with other patrons. Studies also show that Millennials like watching movies in groups sitting on a blanket and spreading out, which gives the drive-in another distinct advantage over indoor cinemas.”
When I was mapping out this part of my odyssey, I saw that the Wellfleet was still showing movies on Sunday nights. Then a few days ago, I saw on its Facebook page that the last Sunday in September was its final night of the season. At least I got a chance to experience Cape Cod on a fairly warm afternoon.
Miles Today / Total: 282 / 32249 (rounded to the nearest mile)
Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 174
Nearby Restaurant: Here in the heart of seafood country, I thought it was ironic to search out the best fried chicken in Massachusetts, according to one of the awards given to the Marconi Beach Restaurant. The half-chicken dinner came with barbecue beans (this is also a BBQ place), a cornbread muffin, a baked potato, and a salad that I requested as a substitute for cole slaw, which is sometimes tolerable but never my first choice. With Cape Cod beer on the side, I was all set for a fine dining experience.
Where I Virtually Stayed: I was forced to break away from the chain hotels, since there aren’t any in Wellfleet. Fortunately, there are some great independent motels, especially the Southfleet Motor Inn. The fire pit was welcome on this cool evening. My room had a large fridge, a coffee maker, and free wifi. A bit of fruit made the continental breakfast even healthier in the morning. What a nice place!
Only in Wellfleet: Over at the Cape Cod National Seashore is the Marconi Wireless Station Site, where the first US to Europe radio message was sent on January 18, 1903. Guglielmo Marconi erected a large antenna array on four 210-foot wooden towers, and established a transmitting station powered by kerosene engines that produced the 25,000 volts of electricity needed to send signals to a similar station in Cornwall in the UK. Almost nothing is left of the original site, but National Park Service information placards describe what it was like.
Next stop: Leicester Triple Drive-In, Leicester MA.