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COVID-19 Revives Local Drive-In Theaters, For Now

Courtesy of Frank Cope
The Arroyo Drive-in theater in Cortez was demolished in the late 1970s, but its sign stayed up until approximately 2005, when this photo was taken.

Lifelong Cortez resident Richard McClellan remembers going to the Arroyo Drive-in movie theater on the northwestern side of town when he was a kid. His family lived in the neighborhood just above the theater and, according to his mother, the Arroyo was “the best babysitter in the country.” 

“They’d load everybody up and go there, and the kids would all go to sleep in the back seat,” McClellan said. “They’d watch a movie, and that was it.”

The Arroyo was open every night in the summer, and McClellan would visit several times a month while growing up.

“I remember cramming people in the trunks of cars so you could go in the gate and not have to pay for everybody,” he said. “You just worried if they [were] going to let you out of the trunk when you went in!”

The Arroyo was built at the bottom of a small canyon, just next to the modern-day site of Carpenter Natural Area. It opened in the early 1950s, around the same time as an oil boom started in the region, which brought more people to Cortez to work in nearby oil fields.

The theater held around 300 cars, had a giant screen made of sheet metal and painted white to better reflect the films, and even had a playground where kids could play if they didn’t like the movie. Other details about the Arroyo are not easy to find, but McClellan says he has good memories of the place, including an all-night horror show he attended there as a kid.

“The next-door neighbors up the road and folks took us down there, parked the car, and left us there all night,” he said with a laugh.

A second drive-in theater, the Tsaya, was located on the south side of Cortez. Other small towns in the Four Corners area had drive-ins, as well, including Monticello, Shiprock, and Dove Creek.

According to Russell Allen, president of New Mexico-based Allen Theaters, drive-ins were especially popular at that time because of an abundance of cheap land. Allen Theaters purchased the Arroyo from developer Marge Gai in the 1960s. 

Credit Courtesy of the Cortez Public Library
Cortez’s drive-in movie theaters, the Arroyo and the Tsaya, advertised upcoming screenings in a 1956 issue of the Cortez Sentinel newspaper.

“It was easier to put up a screen and build a small projection booth and a snack bar and restrooms than it was to do an indoor theater,” Allen explained. “The drive-ins [were] a way to get out to the movies and be with the family, and they were quite successful for many decades.”

However, he said the drive-in days did not last forever.

“When drive-ins were built … what ended up happening is the communities grew around them. And when the development happened around the drive-ins, it made the drive-in property more valuable for another purpose,” he said, explaining that light pollution from nearby development also made it difficult to get a good-quality picture on the screen. Furthermore, changes in sound technology and the improved comfort of indoor theaters also made them preferable to their outdoor counterparts.

Cortez’s drive-in theaters were demolished by the 1970s. An empty field is all that is left of the Arroyo, and a mobile home park now occupies the location of the Tsaya. Surrounding towns gradually lost their drive-ins too. One in Farmington stayed open until 2004, but was replaced by a Walmart when Allen Theaters sold the land.

“It was more valuable as land than it was as a drive-in at that point in time,” Allen said.

Across the United States, only about 300 drive-in theaters remain open, according to a March 2020 report in U.S. News. The nearest drive-ins to Cortez today are in Montrose and in Monte Vista, each over 100 miles away.

COVID-19 Drive-Ins: A 2020 Revival

COVID-19-related restrictions have allowed a version of the old drive-in days to make a brief comeback for the summer.

On a Friday night in mid-July, over 100 vehicles filled the parking lot of Joe Rowell Park in Dolores. Some folks sat on top of their cars, wrapped in blankets; others parked their pickup trucks backward so they could sit in the beds while they watched the movie. 

Credit Austin Cope / KSJD
Cars pull out of the Joe Rowell Park parking lot in Dolores following a drive-in film screening organized by the Dolores Chamber of Commerce.

The movie? “Star Wars: A New Hope.” The film projected onto a screen made from a large thick white tarp suspended by irrigation pipe, 20 feet high by 30 feet wide. The audience tuned into the film’s sound via FM radio, and heard it through big speakers installed at the back of the parking lot.

The Dolores Chamber of Commerce set up this pop-up drive-in. Chamber director Susan Lisak said that because of COVID-19, the chamber had to cancel many of its other events this year. The board was looking for a way to encourage people to come to the town, support local businesses, and also to stay safe from the virus.

“So we tossed around a lot of different ideas, and we came up with a drive-in movie theater,” Lisak said. “We’re encouraging people to come in beforehand, to get their takeout dinner at one of the restaurants, come back here, park, enjoy [themselves], and then be able to watch a good movie on a Friday night — kind of like date night.”

Entry to the drive-in is by donation only, but Lisak said concession sales have brought in a modest revenue. The chamber has shown a different movie each Friday, and production studios have been generous about approving the rights to screen the films, Lisak explained.

“This is something I think that the community really needs, to come together, and to be able to have something memorable come out of this year other than COVID,” she said.

A Drive-In Future?

Partway through the film, Dolores residents Karla and Josh Robson sat in the back of a pickup truck with an oversized American flag attached to the cab. They were there with a total of 12 members of their family, divided between three vehicles.

“I’m sitting in my ’77, watching a ’77 movie,” Karla Robson said, explaining that the truck was a 1977 model and that she saw Star Wars for the first time that year. She didn’t see it in a drive-in, but Josh remembered going to the Arroyo as a kid.

“I wish they would open [it] back up because we need something around this community for that … it’s like an old landmark,” he said.

Allen Theaters still owns the land where the Arroyo once stood. But unfortunately, Russell Allen said building a new drive-in theater would be a lot less realistic today.

“By the time you put it up, it’s going to be about a million bucks a screen, which is about what you pay for an indoor,” he said.

“They’re only good for four months a year, and you can only show one movie a night, two at the most,” he continued. “When you add all those things up, opening a new drive-in this day and age just doesn’t make any sense.”

The company tried its own pop-up drive-in theater in Farmington earlier this summer. Allen said it was relatively successful for the first two weeks, but attendance began to drop shortly thereafter. A COVID-19-related halt in movie production has presented increased difficulty for theaters, whether they’re drive-in or not, he said. In July, Allen Theaters temporarily closedthe indoor Fiesta Twin Theater in Cortez until studios release new films.

But despite the lack of viability for commercial drive-ins, Allen says he still appreciates people’s nostalgia.

“The most comforting thing about the drive-ins is people still want to watch a movie,” he said.

And even if commercial drive-ins don’t make a comeback, the Dolores chamber has planned its Friday drive-in movies into September, and is coordinating the construction of a new screen that can fit onto a trailer to facilitate setup. Lisak says there is a chance the movies will continue in the summer of 2021.

“It’ll be interesting to see what the future holds for drive-in movies,” she said. “It is coming back into play because it can be safely done."

So, even if the summer of 2020 won’t have too many bright spots, COVID-19 has at least brought a few more bright screens to the region than it has seen in a while.

Correction: A previous version of story stated that the Arroyo drive-in was located on the northeastern side of Cortez. The site was actually on the northwestern side of the city. The text has been updated.

Austin Cope is a former Morning Edition host for KSJD and now produces work on a freelance basis for the station. He grew up in Cortez and hosted a show on KSJD when he was 10 years old. After graduating from Montezuma-Cortez High School in 2010, he lived in Belgium, Ohio, Spain, northern Wyoming, and Himachal Pradesh, India before returning to the Cortez area. He has a degree in Politics from Oberlin College in Ohio.