‘Life finds a way’: Community-built Alexandria Drive-In comes to a close after impactful year during pandemic

‘Life finds a way’: Community-built Alexandria Drive-In comes to a close after impactful year during pandemic
Photo/Alexandria Drive-In

By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

When Dr. Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum, famously said, “Life finds a way” in the 1993 classic “Jurassic Park,” he was referring to the evolutionary miracle, the way that life can adapt to survive and thrive.

During the last year of a global pandemic that irrevocably changed how people live, work and play, those words became more relevant than ever. Despite the darkness caused by loss and uncertainty, there were glimmers of light in the ways people adapted to the “new normal.”

In Alexandria, restaurants shifted to curbside service, classical music concerts sprouted in secret gardens and, surprisingly, the screen of a drive-in movie theater became a beacon of hope for the city.

The Alexandria Drive-In’s rise to prominence during the pandemic was one of the most unexpected success stories of 2020. For almost a year, the drive-in has provided residents with a pandemic-safe form of entertainment and a way to support local nonprofits through ticket sales.

At a time when most people were lost in the dark – isolated from family and friends or at a loss for what to do – residents flocked to the shining silver screen of the Alexandria Drive-In like moths to a flame.

Against all odds, life found a way.

The drive-in comes to a close on Saturday with its final showing, “Shrek,” but it does so after making a sizable impact on the community. More than 20,000 people attended showings of silver screen classics like “Back to the Future,” “Star Wars” and, yes, “Jurassic Park,” according to Kelly Grant, of ALX Community, who along with Building Momentum’s Allen Brooks, founded the drive-in. Ticket sales from the drive-in provided more than $150,000 in support to local nonprofits.

“It’s probably the finest thing I’ve ever had the opportunity to participate in and do,” Grant said. “It’s a true community effort. It was made by the community, for the community and it went back to the community. It actually melts my heart every day.”

Humble beginnings

Although the Alexandria Drive-In became a local phenomenon during the pandemic, the original concept for the drive-in started as nothing more than a novel idea at the dinner table.

In June 2020, Brooks, chief creative officer at Building Momentum, and his wife were brainstorming ideas for how to “change things up” in terms of entertainment for their children. Brooks suggested heading to one of a number of drive-ins that had popped up in the region during the pandemic, but then he had an idea.

“I kind of had this moment of realization that we had a relationship at my company, Building Momentum, with the Stonebridge firm, who owns 5001 Eisenhower Ave. So, I had this moment at the dinner table where I was like, ‘Or we could just open [a drive-in], maybe?’”

Brooks eventually connected with Grant, chief operating officer at ALX Community, who shared his vision for what Alexandria’s version of a drive-in could be.

“It started with the premise that everybody was stuck home and we would find them a safe way to find some entertainment,” Grant said. “And immediately, we agreed on the fact that it wasn’t going to be a venue to actually earn any money. We were actually going to give all the proceeds to locally loved nonprofits, and that’s what we did.”

Photo/Alexandria Drive-In

From there, the duo quickly learned that bringing this idea to life required more than a vision and a dream. The location at Eisenhower Avenue was a start, but they still needed to transform the empty lot into a drive-in theater and that required finding a screen, licensing rights to play films, city permits, food, safety protocols, restrooms and signage.

Grant and Brooks partnered with business owners throughout the city and region in order to find creative solutions and build the foundation for the Alexandria Drive-In.

“It really was the story of all of these people coming together with their different skill sets that were complementary to everybody else’s,” Brooks said.

Grant and Brooks partnered with FunFlicks to rent a movie screen and found a valet service that wasn’t working during the pandemic to handle parking. More and more organizations rallied around the drive-in. Best Impressions donated signage, while Helbiz, an e-scooter company, donated scooters so that drive-in staff could navigate the expansive parking lot.

According to Grant, providing food to hungry moviegoers was an interesting challenge, but they found a solution in the form of Goodfynd, a company designed to partner event organizers with food trucks. Users could purchase food online and contact free, and drive-in staff would run it to the attendees, who were restricted to their cars during screenings.

In the beginning, the drive-in, with all its moving parts, was an entirely volunteer-run operation, with about 500 volunteers lending their time to help operate the theater.

“ALX [Community] pitched in at every single drive-in and every nonprofit that we supported actually provided volunteers,” Grant said. “Then, we just asked people around, and everyone wanted to help. Literally, the whole drive-in was run by volunteers.”

Eventually, as fall approached and some volunteers went back to school or work, Grant and Brooks hired staff to assist with running the drive-in.

Big screen appeal

At the center of the drive-in were the movies themselves, which ranged from animated, family-friendly fare to superhero and action films.

Early on, Brooks reached out to Mark O’meara, owner of Cinema Arts Theatres and University Malls Theaters in Fairfax, to license movies and eventually worked out a deal with Universal. The drive-in later expanded to include films from other studios, including Disney and its library of animated films and superhero blockbusters, but jumpstarting the drive-in with Universal films like “Jurassic Park,” which was the first movie screened at the drive-in in August 2020, and “Back to the Future” resulted in immediate and startling levels of success.

“It was the right thing at the right time that people needed, and we also picked some really good movies those first couple of months,” Brooks said. “I mean, ‘Jurassic Park’ holds up. I could watch it every day.”

In a city like Alexandria, with its tight-knit neighborhoods, word of the drive-in spread quickly.

“Alexandria is this perfectly knitted community where when word gets [out], people attend and people go in force,” Sean Casey, a commander in the Alexandria Sheriff’s Office who volunteered at the drive-in, said.

Photo/Alexandria Drive-In

The first slate of screenings quickly sold out, with the 220-car capacity drive-in packed full of families, couples and eager moviegoers. For two hours, the drive-in became a balm for those looking to get out of their homes at a time when there were few forms of escapism.

“You could see a movie where even if you’ve seen it before or you could watch it online, it recreated the experience of going out again and created this sense of normalcy during a crazy, hectic time,” Casey said.

For parents, the drive-in was also a chance to introduce their children to the magic of cinema outside of streaming a movie on Netflix or Disney Plus.

“Kids who had never gone to the movies before had seen their very first movies at the drive-in,” Grant said.

But for most people who caught a screening on Eisenhower Avenue, the drive-in’s appeal was more than just two hours of entertainment – it was a social experience in a year defined by isolation.

“Parents would have birthday parties there and they would park four or five cars in a row so that kids could see other kids for a little bit,” Brooks said. “Or, neighborhoods would come and sit before the movie outside their cars and be six feet away and wear masks and be connected again and see people they hadn’t got ten the chance to see.”

Photo/Alexandria Drive-In

The organizers behind the drive-in aimed to foster this sense of community as a way to enhance the experience and remind people what their ticket price was going toward.

“If you’ve ever been to Disneyland or Disney World, when the gates open, people are smiling, waving, jumping up and down,” Casey said. “We created that atmosphere the moment the gates opened.”

“Kids were jumping on roofs, being all excited. Before the movies would start, we would tell the story on the major loudspeaker of why we were there and what peoples’ time and ticket price was actually doing. Instead of clapping, it became beeping, so the entire parking lot would be beeping and cheering,” Grant said.

Ripple effect

Now, with COVID-19 restrictions easing and daylight savings time making it difficult to screen family friendly movies earlier than 9 p.m., the curtains are closing at the Alexandria Drive-In, but its impact will linger long after 5001 Eisenhower becomes an empty lot again.

“It was never intended to be a long-term venture. It was intended to be exactly what it was, something that was built for the community, by the community and gave back to the community,” Grant said. “We may see another opportunity to bring it back, but at this point, it has done more than I ever dreamed of when it started. It’s the proudest I’ve ever been of the whole community.”

The more than $150,000 in donations collected through ticket sales has gone toward local nonprofits including ACT for Alexandria, Volunteer Alexandria, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Jireh’s Place and ATHENA Rapid Response Innovation Lab. The first few screenings alone resulted in more than $15,000 for ACT’s efforts to fight systemic racism, according to Grant.

Photo/Alexandria Drive-In

The money raised through the drive-in will also provide partial scholarships for 17 Alexandria City High School students, mammograms for 125 women, adoptions for three local children and STEM programs for girls in the city.

“It feels pretty great that we were able to make such an impact for our community with a crazy idea that was cooked up at a dining room table,” Brooks said.

John Lawson was one of the first people to sign up for the drive-in’s initial screening of “Jurassic Park” in August. At the time, he said it was an opportunity for him and his wife to get out of the house and enjoy a more traditional date night. Lawson had not been to a drive-in since he was a teenager in the 1960s.

Like for so many people in the city, his experience at the Alexandria Drive-In became more than just two hours of Hollywood escapism.

“It was kind of a statement that life goes on and we’re going to find a way to coexist with this lockdown for a while and be creative about some entertainment experiences,” Lawson said. “That’s what I felt like: it was ‘life finds a way.’”