5 Mile Drive In sees increased interest due to COVID-19

DOWAGIAC — Dowagiac residents who have been itching for a chance to get back to the movie theater since COVID-19 precautions closed them down in March will soon have the opportunity to get back in front of the big screen — so long as they watch from their cars.

This weekend, 5 Mile Drive In, 28190 M-152, Dowagiac, will reopen for the season. Though the opening was delayed by several weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic and “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order that came with it, those who operate the theater believe the pandemic may ultimately increase the theater’s business.

“I think drive-ins are one of the few places right now where people can be together and still be safe,” said Milton Edwards, who operates the drive in owned by his parents, Glenda and Neil.

Drive-in theaters, which came to the U.S. in the 1920s, hit a peak of popularity in the 1950s. During that peak, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins in operation nationwide. Now only a fraction are still standing, around 300 throughout the country. Today, 5 Mile Drive In remains one of fewer than 10 drive-in theaters throughout the state of Michigan.

However, across the country, drive-in theaters have seen a resurgence in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with many viewing the theaters as a way to enjoy a movie and communal experience while social distancing. Edwards is hoping to see that trend holds in southwest Michigan.

The Edwards family also own Sunset Drive In in Hartford, which opened June 12. According to early estimates, opening weekend at Sunset Drive In drew in nearly 250 cars.

“Man, we are really looking forward to this year,” Edwards said. “We saw people not only bring their whole families but their pets. Everyone came early, and we had a really good atmosphere at the drive-in, a really good turnout this weekend.”

Despite reopening and space for social distancing, things will look different this year at both 5 Mile and Sunset. The drive-in will be raising its prices to $30 per carload and will be allowing outside food and drinks for the first time.

“This year, we are switching things up because we know some people may be bothered by visiting the concession stand or concerned or worried,” Edwards said. “But everything is still open for the people who want to buy concessions here.”

Also different this year is that the theater will be turning to some throwback movies, such as “The Goonies,” which will be playing at Sunset this weekend, or other past hits. The change comes as new releases are harder to come by due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, the drive-in will be offering presale tickets.

Despite the challenges they pose, Edwards said he views the changes as opportunities, as he knows many are excited to bring in their own food and drink while experiencing the nostalgia of an older film.

“I think for our loyal customers, there are a lot of extras for them this year,” Edwards said. “We are really excited to see them all here.”