There aren’t many places in the U.S. where you can spend a day at the beach and a night at the movies while barely packing up your beach chairs and coolers, and that’s only one of the things that makes the Misquamicut Drive-In Theater — celebrating its 10th anniversary this year — a unique and special place. In the 1950s there were more than 4,000 drive-in movie theaters in the U.S., but by the last decade that number had dwindled to around 300, with most killed off by a combination of changing tastes, expanded home movie viewing options, and increased land costs. Few traditional drive-ins ever occupied a prime piece of near-beachfront property, either, so the Misquamicut Business Association was fighting several strong headwinds when leaders decided in 2011 to turn the former Neptune Beach Club property on Atlantic Avenue into a seasonal drive-in showing beach classics like Jaws and family friendly films like Jurassic Park and The Goonies.
“It started out makeshift, with a couple of cargo containers and a small screen and a projector and DVD player mounted on the back of a Jeep,” recalls MBA president Caswell Cooke. Later, the sound system was upgraded to FM radio along with improved projection equipment and a big, permanent screen. Movie nights steadily increased over the years, from just Thursdays, to Thursdays and Fridays, to five nights a week and — during the first summer of COVID-19 in 2022 — seven nights a week.
“With all the drive-ins that closed up this was one of the few to open,” says Chris Walsh, a local video producer who compiled the vintage preview reel shown before each movie at the drive-in. “Then in 2022 the drive-in became the perfect thing for people to do.”
“The drive-in has a real retro feel, and I’m a retro guy,” says Cooke, who is quick to give credit to his fellow MBA members, the theater’s enthusiastic young staff members, and partners like the United Theater and the South County Tourism Council for contributing to the program’s decade-long run.
An estimated 100,000 people have seen a movie or — starting last season — attended a concert or other event at the beachside drive-in over the years. Community surveys help guide what goes up on the marquee: Jaws is the perennial favorite, with multiple showings most seasons, and even the sequel Jaws 2 gets some drive-in love. “People like to see them on the big screen,” says Cooke. Eighties movies like Dirty Dancing, ET, and Back to the Future are also popular, and the drive-in goes the extra mile to create a festive atmosphere. A DeLorean “time machine” rolled into the lot for Back to the Future along with actor JJ Cohen, who played a member of Biff Tannen’s gang. The RKO Army performed an interactive live show for a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And of course the movies are preceded by old-school commercials touting the treats at the concession stand and movie previews. “Some people enjoy the coming attractions as much as the movie,” says Walsh. For a showing of Eddie and the Cruisers, local musical legend John Cafferty — who along with his Beaver Brown Band provided the soundtrack for the film — made a special appearance.
John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band also were one of the first bands to play on the new performance stage at the drive-in; others included Roomful of Blues, the Boston-based Adam Ezra Group and Peter Noone, the former singer for British Invasion band Herman’s Hermits. Other events added during the COVID-19 pandemic included fundraisers and the graduation ceremony for Westerly High School seniors. “Especially for a community that thrives off of summer for revenues the drive-in was a bright light out of the darkness,” says Avery Moody, a four-year employee, actor, and avid movie fan who started out working the concession stand and now helps manage the drive-in. Playing the bars of Misquamicut in the 1970s “was kind of a jumping-off point for us, because a lot of out-of-staters came there in the summer and it opened a lot of doors,” recalls Cafferty, who added: “Drive-ins were a big part of my childhood, and playing at the drive-in under the stars when nothing else was really open for bands to play at last ya was pretty memorable for us. It was a beautiful night, especially for kids who never had been to a drive-in or a rock and roll show.”
The intent of opening the drive-in was to support local businesses and increase the entertainment options for people visiting Misquamicut between May and October, says Cooke, but the theater has unexpectedly become an attraction in its own right, with people coming from all over Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts to enjoy the nostalgia of open-air movie viewing with a sea breeze. “The beach at night is magical,” says Moody, who grew up 10 minutes from Misquamicut and now gets paid “to do what I love — watching movies on the big screen.”
MBA vice president Tim Brennan, who owns Two Little Fish next door to the drive-in, is among the local merchants who have benefited from the nightly movie crowds. “The gates open at 6 p.m., so if people don’t want the snack bar food they can go to the surrounding restaurants like Two Little Fish or the Windjammer, go to the gift shop, or walk over to the beach,” he says. “The drive-in is such a slice of Americana,” says Brennan. “Kids these days didn’t have that experience before, and they love it. We’re looking forward to doing it again this summer. The drive-in survived Superstorm Sandy and the pandemic, so I don’t see why the drive-in won’t be here to celebrate in another 10 years in Westerly.”