*The Bear Drive-In is currently closed for the winter season and is looking to reopen in 2022.
Bob Weir recalls it vividly. It was 1971, and Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory mesmerized as it unfolded onscreen while Weir sat on the roof of his uncle’s car at the old Pleasant Hill Drive-In in Stanton. “There I am,” he recalls. “Popcorn, soda, speaker, blanket, screen.”
Earlier that night, Weir snuck off while fetching snacks and peeked into the theater’s projection room. “It was the sun in a box,” he says. “I was 11, and I remember that as if it was yesterday.”
Weir, a longtime fixture in Delaware’s arts scene and the technical director for The Playhouse at The Grand Opera House, knows how to manifest movie magic.
Those picture days from his youth no doubt inspired the opening of his Bear Drive-In. After only one season, it’s already a favorite family destination.
Weir stumbled upon a vacant lot behind a Lowe’s, owned by local developers the Reybold Group, and quickly raced to open the two-screen venue. He shared a proof of concept with a few friends on social media. Within 48 hours, it had been shared 10,000 times. The response is no surprise as Delaware hasn’t had a drive-in theater since 2008.
After the drive-in closed for the winter, the developers decided to move forward with their plans. Weir is currently looking for a new space for the drive-in and hopes to return for the summer of 2022.
For many younger patrons, the experience is completely new and alien. “People over 50, they’ve been to drive-ins,” Weir points out. One local couple who shared their first date at a drive-in theater are now among one of Weir’s many regulars. But the theater’s biggest draw is families. In a fast-growing area with a less-than-sparkling reputation for family activities, Weir’s gem found an eager audience.
“Being able to have your whole family there in your car or backed up with the hatch open, the kids are laying in the back and you’re out there and the adults are out there in their lounge chairs, that’s the main [experience],” Weir says. “Families are just taking it and absolutely running with it.”
Though Bear Drive-In hosted a modest but full concession stand (think popcorn, hot dogs, nachos, candy and soda), patrons often packed their own goodies—an act that’s technically prohibited but rarely enforced at the laid-back screenings. Around 120 cars could fit into the lot at the former location. Friday nights were for new movies, while throwback favorites also filled the screen during the summer.
A drive-in theater is also tailor-made for the COVID era, with built-in social distancing and a vibe that’s halfway between staying at home and going out. Moviegoers often roll in donning cozy sweatpants and slippers. Their cars are the new couch.
“It’s a community thing,” Weir says. “Newer families are looking for stuff like that. And they’re looking for stuff they can afford because they’re still on a budget.”