Oct. 3: Leicester Triple Drive-In, Leicester MA

It’s Day 276 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. I took me two and a half hours to drive from Wellfleet MA on Cape Cod to the Leicester Triple Drive-In in Leicester MA of course.

Lebanese immigrant Hanna Joseph was in his mid-30s when he embarked on what would become a career in real estate by building the Robin Hood Drive-in, a car-hop restaurant just west of Leicester in the early 1960s. Soon Joseph expanded to a second project on adjoining land, the Leicester Drive-In Theater, which opened with a single screen in 1967.

The Leicester stayed in the family from that point on. According to HistoricAerials.com, it added its second screen in the southeast corner of the main viewing area around 1996. The third screen required clearing a chunk of forest to the south for an additional viewing area; that was ready to go around 2002.

When the Leicester converted to digital projection for the start of the 2015 season, it only converted Screen One. The other two continue to use 35mm film when available. Over the past couple of years, many weekends have only seen one or two screens in operation, but the final show of the 2017 season included Dunkirk, Wonder Woman, Transformers: The Last Knight, and Baywatch on the film-only screens. I didn’t think there were that many 2017 movies still on film.

Meanwhile, the Robin Hood restaurant, which had closed decades earlier and had lived many different lives over the years, was being restored as Joe’s Drive-In, after the owner’s nickname. Sadly, Hanna passed away just a few weeks before it reopened. Daughter Maria Joseph handles both drive-ins now, and she told the Worcester Telegram, “Next year I’ll see if I can get enough help to manage the restaurant year ’round.” It ended its opening engagement a week ago Sunday.

And that brings me to my visit, with the theater and the restaurant both closed for the season. Here’s hoping that the Leicester can keep going for another 50 years.

The video of the day, from the Leicester’s Facebook page, is barely 10 seconds long. But where else can you watch the breeze at a tree-lined drive-in?

Miles Today / Total: 141 / 32390 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 174

Nearby Restaurant: Since I couldn’t eat at Joe’s, I went over to Annie’s. Hot Dog Annie’s, that is. Hot Dog Annie’s has been around since 1949 serving up wieners with their special barbecue sauce. And the price is right!

Where I Virtually Stayed: The closest hotels to the drive-in are in Worcester. Since there’s a Hampton Inn there, I was definitely okay with that. There were fresh-baked cookies when I arrived, my room had all the modern amenities, and the breakfast was standard Hampton, and a very good standard that is.

Only in Leicester: Directly across Highway 9 from the drive-in is Milestone 56 of the Upper Post Road. It’s one of the milestones erected in 1767 by Paul Dudley marking what was originally called the Pequot Path and had been in use by Native Americans long before Europeans arrived. The colonists first used this trail to deliver the mail using post riders. The first ride to lay out the Upper Post Road started in 1673.

Next stop: Northfield Drive-In Theatre, Hinsdale NH.

Oct. 2: Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre, Wellfleet MA

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.

Sept. 30: Mendon Twin Drive-In, Mendon MA

It’s Day 273 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. Even though I crossed a state line, it took just a half hour to drive from Rhode Island’s only active drive-in, the Rustic Tri View Drive-In, to one of three left in Massachusetts, the Mendon Twin Drive-In in Mendon of course.

When and how did the Mendon first open? Every post I read says that it was as the Milford on June 14, 1954, and they’re probably right. But Mendon MA had a drive-in before that, and I ended up digging down a rabbit hole to find out more about it.

The 1948-49 Theatre Catalog ran one of the industry’s first drive-in lists, and one of its 761 theaters was “Drive-In” on Mendon-Millville Road, capacity 100 cars, owned by Fred Parker. Another publication, the Motion Picture Almanac, lists that same F. Parker as owning Mendon’s only drive-in, with the same capacity, from 1952 through at least 1957. But Mendon-Millville Road is on the southwest side of Mendon, and the old Milford was on the highway to Milford northeast of Mendon. I think the MPA failed to notice when the old drive-in closed and the Milford opened.

The Milford started with a capacity of 475 cars. According to a 2013 article in the Milford Daily News, Susan Swanson bought the drive-in in 1987, changed its name to the Mendon, and added a second screen in 1998, boosting the capacity to 800. “When I bought the theater, I turned it into a really family-oriented business,” she said. “In the ’80s, you’d see horror and biker movies at drive-ins… Now, we play every G, PG and PG-13 movie we can get.”

One year after that article, Swanson sold the Mendon Twin to the Andelman brothers, producers of regional favorite TV show Phantom Gourmet. “Our family made frequent trips to the Mendon Twin Drive-In when my brothers and I were growing up and it’s always been something that is very dear to us,” Mike Andelman wrote in a press release at the time. “With there being so few drive-ins left in our country, we thought it would be an incredible opportunity to continue and to grow this landmark destination that means so much to so many people.”

And they made good on that promise as shown in a YouTube promotional piece they made in 2014. Drive-in gourmet food such as fried dough and popcorn chicken was one part of the new Mendon Twin, and another was the beer garden. That was one great idea!

On this night, for the second time this week, I got to see a special concert movie. This one was Let’s Play Two, a rockumentary of Pearl Jam’s 2016 performance at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

The embedded YouTube video of the day is a nice overview (yes, it’s a pun) of the grounds of the Mendon Twin on a busy night. You can see both screens, the projection building, and that wonderful beer garden.

Miles Today / Total: 16 / 31788 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: Let’s Play Two / 173

Nearby Restaurant: The Muffin House Cafe in Mendon has two of my favorites in its name, and I’m not talking about a house. Freshly baked muffins (pina colada is my new favorite) and plenty of coffee made this a great place to stop for a second breakfast.

Where I Virtually Stayed: Over in Milford, there’s a Holiday Inn Express that had my name on it. There were cookies waiting at check-in. My room had the full set of modern amenities, including a Keurig coffee maker. Breakfast in the morning included bacon and biscuits, plus those terribly wonderful HIE cinnamon rolls. Just another great stay.

Only in Mendon: The ever-cheeky Roadside America noticed the Irish round tower in a cemetary in nearby Milford. “The only Irish Round Tower in North America. Tallest thing in a Catholic cemetery. Built in the mid-19th-century for some reason.” Ashley Roberson has a more thoughtful take. “Thousands of Irish immigrants are buried at Saint Mary’s Cemetery… A tower was built in honor of these immigrants in the late 19th century that replicated the many round towers found throughout Ireland. ” Better yet, Roberson has several tower photos.

Next stop: Overlook Drive-In Theatre, Poughkeepsie NY.