Make yourself comfortable, Sonoma – drive-in movies are back!
Sonoma County has a rich history of drive-in movie theaters, and Kevin McNeely and the Sonoma International Film Festival are looking to tap into some of that old nostalgia with a drive-in movie event.
Despite COVID-19 bringing its challenges to the world of film, the SIFF team is working to find creative ways to allow moviegoers to enjoy the arts while also staying safe.
The festival is hosting drive-in screenings on July 3 and 4 at Sonoma Skypark airport.
“According to the state and county guidelines, it seemed like a drive-in would be the most effective way to show movies while also staying safe and healthy,” said festival Executive Director Kevin McNeely. The fun will begin at 7 p.m. both days as up to 100 cars will arrive for some live music and catering from Cuvee Wine Country Events.
There will also be games (all following social distancing protocols), a raffle and prizes. Raffle prizes include a ride in a 1924 biplane, as well as a hot air balloon experience once flights are back running.
As far as the movies are concerned each night will open with two short films from Pixar Studios. On Friday, July 3, the feature will be the Pixar-animated film, “Up,” and Saturday, July 4, will feature “The Quiet One,” a documentary about Bill Wyman, founding bassist for the Rolling Stones. “The Quiet One” will be preceded by two other Pixar shorts.
The films will be displayed on a 44-foot screen as moviegoers will be able to listen to the sound either through their FM radio, or through state-of-the-art speakers. Attendees will be able to place advance food and wine orders and will pick them up upon arrival. Films will begin around 9 p.m. and guests will not be allowed to arrive past 8:30.
“It will be another way people can start to get used to what a drive-in will look like and become comfortable with the format,” said McNeely.
McNeely said that while SIFF is still planning on having its annual film festival July 30 to Aug. 2 -- postponed from its original date due to COVID-19 -- they are prepared to utilize the Skypark drive-in experience with some double features during the event, is any of the festival’s usual screening venues -- the Sebastiani Theatre, Andrews Hall and the Woman’s Club -- are unable to host moviegoers at the scheduled dates.
Additionally, they will have an online film festival regardless of the availability of an in-person fest to accommodate those who wish to stay home. “There are some people who are going to be uncomfortable gathering, so we want to honor that,” said McNeely.
Along with its July 3 and 4 drive-ins, SIFF is currently working to have more outdoor film showings at wineries such as Landmark Winery and Chateau St. Jean.
While Sonoma itself isn’t historically home to any drive-ins, Sonoma County has a rich history in the trend, which had its heyday from the 1950s through the ’70s.
According to movie-theater history website cinematreasures.org, the first drive-in in Sonoma County was “The Redwood” which opened in 1951 and operated through 1984. The Redwood operated off Redwood Highway at Wilfred Avenue where current day Rohnert Park was built.
The Redwood was fairly successful early on and inspired another drive-in to open in the county named “The Village” in Santa Rosa. It had a capacity of 750 cars and featured advanced speakers, snack bars and comfort stations.
In the ’60s, two more theaters opened in the county with mixed success. “The Midway” theater on the Sonoma-Marin county line was often maligned as the theater that showed “adult films,” which many who lived in the surrounding area did not appreciate in the late hours of the night.
“The Star-Vue” theater located north of the Coddingtown Shopping Center in Santa Rosa opened in 1963 with “Mutiny on the Bounty” starring Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard. The Star-Vue was known as both the biggest and fanciest of theaters in Sonoma County with capacity for 1,200 cars on 20 acres and even a playground for kids.
As modern cinemas began to open, some of the life went out of these quaint -- and often unprofitable -- theaters, and most of the drive-ins began to close.
The fifth drive-in to operate in the county was “The Parkway” in Petaluma, which opened in 1979 and closed seven years later. When the Midway closed in 1991, the curtain officially came down on the drive-in tradition in Sonoma County.
Money problems, growing communities and the increasing price of land drove most drive-ins into the ground, but the SIFF is looking to bring back some old fashioned family fun.
“Everyone is itching to get back outdoors so we are trying to find ways to give our community some film fun while staying safe,” said McNeely.