In Juneau and Anchorage, pop-up drive-in movies are offering the only show in town

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JUNEAU — Ruby and Imogen Ewing, wrapped in sleeping bags, were ready for their movie. But first, they had to wait for the sun to set behind the mountains of Douglas Island.

With movie theaters closed, parties postponed and events canceled by the coronavirus pandemic, Alaskans hungry for social interaction are turning to a handful of temporary drive-in theaters across the state. Built by volunteers and run for free (or by donation), they’re showing classic films on outdoor screens that compete with summer’s lengthening daylight.

In Alaska’s capital city, Collette Costa normally runs Gold Town Nickelodeon, the town’s art-house movie theater.

“I’ve been wanting to do some kind of drive-in situation for years,” she said. “Having the time to do that was never going to happen until hey, global pandemic.”

She borrowed a projector from the theater and built a screen using a tarp from Home Depot and some help from the local home-recycling shop. The City and Borough of Juneau provided a spot at the town yacht club, and volunteers guided cars into place. Sound came from a small FM radio transmitter to each vehicle. On Monday, May 4, the open-air theater had its first public performance: “Star Wars.”

“It’s not the best drive-in you’re ever going to go to, but it’s the best drive-in you’re going to go to in Southeast Alaska for a while,” she said.

Ruby and Imogen Ewing watch cartoons from the roof of their family’s pickup truck on Tuesday, May 5, 2020 at a pop-up drive-in movie theater in Juneau while Rachael Juzeler examines a list of attendees. (James Brooks / ADN)

On Tuesday night, the show was the 1985 movie “The Goonies,” and the Ewing family tailgated in the back row from the bed of their yellow pickup truck. After seeing it advertised on Facebook, Dan Ewing said, they couldn’t miss it.

Neither could many others: Costa’s shows have been sold out of their free tickets for the rest of the week.

In Alaska and across the country, drive-in entertainment is enjoying at least a temporary revival amid public health mandates that require people to stay apart and out of public.

“It’s been great to see people be able to get out of their homes while still being socially distanced and having a good time on a Saturday night,” said Charlie Sears, an Anchorage filmmaker who with a group of friends has been showing films on the white exterior wall of Changepoint Church. Their next event is 10:30 p.m. Saturday.

Organized drive-in movies have been rare in Alaska since 1979, when Anchorage’s Sundowner theater closed, according to Daily News archives. (Two others in Anchorage, the Biliken and Cinema 360, had already shut down by that time.) The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association lists 305 drive-ins nationwide today, but none in Alaska.

Costa and Sears said their shows will be ending within a week or two. Projectors can’t compete with the midnight sun, they said. In addition, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced Wednesday that regular theaters can begin operating at 25% capacity, reducing the need for alternatives.

At Anchorage Baptist Temple, the movies are shown on a large LCD screen. Scott Levesque, communications and creative director at the church, said that means they can keep going for a while longer and can offer daytime and afternoon movies. On Wednesday, the 2 p.m. film was “Little Rascals.”

He said the church sees the movies as in line with its mission of giving people hope.

“It’s amazing to see how people interact when they can visibly see each other, even if it’s through a car window,” he said.

“It’s cool to see just how effective it’s been in giving people a little bit of hope and knowing at the end of the day, it’s all going to be OK.”

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