The most unusual thing about the two large fields in Vineland are the 80-foot screens. That and the dozens or cars that are pulling in as the sun goes down.
It’s a Friday night at New Jersey’s last drive-in theater. Kids hang out of the windows or jockey for the best spot in the car to watch the movie that will be shown as soon as it gets dark.
Parents are heading to the concession stand for burgers and fries. Young people are pregaming (premovieing?), throwing Frisbees and footballs around.
Welcome to the Delsea Drive-In Theater in Vineland. It may look a bit like 1960, but that’s OK. Memories of going to the drive-in as children are a big reason many parents bring their families to the Delsea.
“The last movie I remember seeing at the drive-in was the original ‘Jaws,’” said Sabrina Collazo, 44, of Burlington. Collazo, along with her daughter, her daughter’s husband and her grandson, made the drive down to Vineland to see “Pete’s Dragon.”
“I remember seeing ‘Jaws’ as a kid, and I wanted to see if there was a theater around South Jersey and I found it,” she said.
Drive-in theaters used to be common in New Jersey. In fact, they originated here. But the Delsea Drive-In is the only one that survives.
The theater is open Fridays and Saturdays from March to December and Sundays during the summer.
Owner John DeLeonardis said people come from all over the world to catch a flick in his field.
“We have a big Philly crowd. A huge Brooklyn crowd comes down on the weekends,” said DeLeonardis, 60, of Bridgeton. “Some people from England will come over during holiday and coordinate for when we’re open.”
Pamela Dixon and William Thomason asked not to be dipped too far in the water.
Grace and Jonathan Yu come all the way from Levittown, Pennsylvania, to the drive-in at least twice each summer with their kids.
While their sons snacked on some movie food, Jonathan and Grace said it’s a shame a whole generation won’t be able to experience a drive-in.
“We have to do it every summer,” said Jonathan. “I never went to a drive-in as a child, but, personally, as an adult, I’m so glad to go and have my kids come along with me.”
It was Paula and Calvin Smith’s first trip to the theater. The Vineland couple brought their two daughters, Callie and Megan, to let them experience something that they had enjoyed as children.
“Instead of all the minivans around here, there would be loaded-up station wagons,” Calvin said.
Along with the station wagons, and a lot of other traditional drive-in concepts are gone as well.
There are no heavy metal box speakers hanging from posts, waiting to be positioned in partially rolled-down windows.
And at the concession stand, customers can order from a gluten-free menu. The Delsea Drive-In may be the only theater where you’ll see cotton candy hanging next to bags of veggie chips.
You can even order your food online, from your car.
“It’s a nice modern advancement,” said John DeLeonardis Jr., son of the owner. Along with spearheading the online ordering process, DeLeonardis Jr. is the theater’s projectionist.
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Instead of running reels of film, the projectors are digital. Movies are stored on a hard drive, and two movies are shown simultaneously (one is usually a children’s film) on the theater’s two screens in different corners of the lot.
But not everything has changed. The gates still open up at the front of the yard with a box office where workers count each car that comes in. And the line is long on this Friday night.
“There’s still that classic value to it,” DeLeonardis Jr. said.
Between mouthfuls of popcorn, the regulars, the folks who come out to see a movie each week, call out positive comments to DeLeonardis as he walks around the parking lot. Those comments continue even as the show begins and people tune in their car radios to pick up the sound.
“People walk up and thank me for reopening it. And they’re bringing their kids and grandkids to get the experience. We keep it affordable and we keep it going,” DeLeonardis said.