A Pennsylvania electric cooperative has helped one of its communities build a drive-in movie theater in an effort to salvage a summer tourism season that’s been disrupted by COVID-19.
The new attraction opened for the Independence Day weekend after just six weeks of intense planning and construction.
“We expect it to become a regular attraction that will attract both visitors and a lot of local families, including our members,” said Gary Diehl, member services manager of Bedford Rural Electric Cooperative. “We’ve donated about $25,000 in labor and materials to help get this project off the ground.”
The drive-in theater, constructed in a field that serves as overflow parking for the Bedford County Fairgrounds, began as an idea to help bring nighttime entertainment to the area. With a 2,800-square-foot screen, local officials expect it to become a long-term draw.
By late April, ongoing pandemic concerns made it clear that the school groups, busloads of senior citizens and weekend antique collectors who normally flock to the Allegheny woodlands each spring were not coming.
“With no group gatherings of more than 25 people allowed, we were looking at the things that we could do safely,” said Kellie Goodman-Shaffer, CEO of the Bedford County Chamber of Commerce. “At the Bedford County Fairgrounds, there’s a big open space that’s only used for one week a year, and for a few other special events, so we thought it would make a great location for showing movies.”
Initially, local business leaders considered creating a temporary theater for just this summer season. But that would have been a costly project for such a short payoff.
“It just made more sense to build a permanent facility,” said Goodman-Shaffer. “Bedford REC made a huge donation of 16 poles, and their crews set the uprights for us.”
Eight 63-foot poles provide the base for the movie screen. The other poles were secured as a framework built to withstand howling mountain winds of up to 120 mph.
“We were going to use plywood and vinyl sheeting for the screen, but a local fiberglass fabricator donated 92 8-by-4-foot fiberglass panels, so we’ve got a screen that will last a very long time,” said Goodman-Shaffer. “This project showcases the talent and capabilities of our local businesses, which is kind of special too.”
Construction began in mid-May, with a goal of opening over the long Independence Day weekend. Projection equipment and a low-powered FM audio transmitter have been installed, and a grid layout allows up to 150 cars to park within 300 feet of the screen, abiding by social distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“As restrictions are eased once COVID-19 pandemic concerns subside, we’ll be able to easily accommodate all of the 300 vehicles,” Diehl said. Food truck vendors have been recruited to sell refreshments from under the screen, and a permanent concession stand could be added as early as next year.
Movies and More
Twin projectors beam digital images onto the IMAX-sized screen, which rises more than 40 feet from its 15-foot elevated base. A slate of classic family films, opening with Disney’s National Treasure, will be featured on weekends through early September.
Other tentatively scheduled films include: The Wizard of Oz; Goonies; The Lion King; Field of Dreams; Grease; Shrek; Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; and Footloose.
“We’ve also got “Music and Movie” nights planned,” said Diehl, adding that a portable stage can be pulled into position in front of the screen for live performances. “We see opportunities to extend programming at the site well into the fall.”
Chamber officials are also working with the fair association to incorporate the new drive-in theater into other scheduled events, including the holiday lighting festival held at the fairgrounds in December.
“Our lineworkers had never done this kind of work before, but they got right to the tasks quickly. The care they put into helping to get this built was impressive,” said Brooks R. Shoemaker, general manager of Bedford REC. Shoemaker added that the co-op was happy to join other area employers to boost overall community morale during the pandemic.
“With all of the local sports seasons and the Bedford County Fair canceled, this is an opportunity to help a lot of people in our service territory,” he said. “It’s also a chance to reinforce the stock we put in the seventh cooperative principle of ‘Commitment to Community.’ Supporting this project just made sense.”
Derrill Holly is a staff writer at NRECA.