• Wed. Oct 28th, 2020

How this Pennsylvania Drive-in ‘Found Its Niche’ in the Pandemic

In the coronavirus pandemic, it became 15 acres of safety, 15 acres where people could lose themselves in a crowd but remain alone as they watched a movie. Or graduated from high school. Or played bingo. Or watched fireworks. Or hummed along at a concert.

The Circle Drive-in in Dickson City, Pa., a tidy borough in northeastern Pennsylvania, adapted to the new rules of the pandemic, widening the spacing for cars and admitting only half as many as in the past. It stationed the popcorn-popping crew in the concession stand behind new plastic shields and assigned employees to clean the restrooms every few minutes.

And the Circle put more than movies on its screens. It livestreamed events like a Garth Brooks concert (shown at 300 drive-ins around the country). It also reopened its Sunday flea market, begun years ago to generate revenue when it could not screen first-run movies — a drive-in has to wait for darkness; the projectionist cannot dim the lights.

By August, it had featured a live concert with the singer Aaron Lewis (at $199 a car). The concerts and other events were a necessity. “If we had just depended on movies,” recalled Dr. Joseph J. Calabro, the 64-year-old physician who oversees the Circle, “we’d be potentially out of business, because there were no new movies coming out” when the pandemic began.


In May, when the Circle opened for the summer, Dr. Calabro said, people appeared apprehensive, arriving with face masks on and car windows up. They looked frightened, going out to have fun but wondering how dangerous it was. Wondering how risky it was to unpack the cooler, unfurl the blankets and stretch out in the back of pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles.

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Updated 2020-09-05T12:05:40.998Z

After a couple of weekends, the expressions on the faces behind the masks changed. “You could see the relaxation of the wrinkles in the corners of the parents’ eyes, and the eyes of the children would go up in a smile,” Dr. Calabro said. “I felt really good. It was a bit of a relief valve.”

For them and for him. The Circle is “a labor of love” for Dr. Calabro, the chief executive of Physicians’ Practice Enhancement, a company based in New Jersey that assigns health care professionals to hospitals in seven states — emergency-room physicians, hospitalists, pathologists and psychiatrists. He pointed out, dryly, that the company is known by its initials, P.P.E.

An uncle had owned the Circle for more than 50 years, as drive-ins faded in the national consciousness. The pandemic changed that. “It found its place again, a niche in the community,” said Frances Kovaleski, the register of wills and clerk of the orphans’ court in Lackawanna County, which includes Scranton. “You’re in your car. Social distancing to see the movie? You don’t have to worry about anything.”

Around Dickson City, the Circle is a throwback. “It remains the way it probably was, back in the ’50s or the ’60s — the architecture of the concession stand, the layout of the place, the ticket booth when you drive in,” said Steven Serge, who runs a car dealership down the road from the Circle. “It’s a part of Americana.”

Drive-ins were a quintessential element of car-crazed American culture in the years after World War II that had long since been written off like junkyard relics. As drive-in audiences dwindled — lost to brick-and-mortar theaters that multiplied, amoebalike, into triplexes and quadruplexes and later into multiplexes and megaplexes — rising land prices and property taxes drove many drive-in owners to cash out, making way for subdivisions, office parks or shopping centers.

But the pandemic made 2020 different. “Drive-ins started to reopen earlier than other businesses” in many places, said Nick Hensgen, who follows the drive-in industry as the owner and operator of the website driveinmovie.com, “because they’re built for social distancing and you can control who gets in and out of your vehicle. They were literally one of the only entertainment options available.” Many sold out, weekend after weekend, he said, in part because most have been operating at only 50 percent capacity, to widen the space between cars.

Dr. Calabro took charge of the Circle after the death of the uncle, Michael Delfino, at age 98 in February, just before the pandemic closed in. Mr. Delfino and his wife, Guenelda, who went by Gwen, bought the Circle 57 years ago. It now has two screens and broadcasts the soundtracks on FM radio so the moviegoers can listen in their cars. There are no more speakers on cords that you have to remember to put back on their stands before you drive off. There was trouble if you forgot.

Dr. Calabro had pitched in at the drive-in as a teenager, popping the popcorn, serving the drinks and filling in as a manager at the Circle or another drive-in that the Delfinos owned when someone took a night off. In the 1990s, when he returned to the Northeast after a career in the Army Medical Corps, he helped his aunt and uncle modernize the Circle. Mrs. Delfino, a former schoolteacher, died at 92 in 2014. Mr. Delfino carried on, with Dr. Calabro’s help; the family celebrated his 98th birthday at the Circle last fall.

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“Realistically, they could’ve sold that property and made a lot of money because of the location,” said Cesare Forconi, the Dickson City borough manager, “but they stayed and operated through good times and bad.” And there are signs that the Circle’s good times will continue for at least a while. It has scheduled more than a dozen live shows through mid-October — concerts or comedy programs — and is already hearing from promoters about possible bookings for 2021, Dr. Calabro said.

Greg Betti, 56, who runs a winery down the road from the Circle, said that “everyone my age has memories of going there when we were kids.”

“Everyone had station wagons,” he said. “You’d pile in the back. And when you got a little older, you’d take the special girl with you.”

And when you got older than that?

“I was there on a date” for the “Independence Day” screening, he said. “I’m divorced. What’s interesting about it, it was like the first time I really went out after the coronavirus hit in March.”