Of late, pandemic-inspired drive-in movie “theaters” and open-air church services have popped up throughout this area and well beyond. That said, longtime Conshohocken-Plymouth-Whitemarsh residents might recall the summer one local drive-in did double duty as both.

Specifically, 1969. The summer astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon, some 350,000 humans made Woodstock a cultural byword and demonstrations against the war in Vietnam came to a boil. Miniskirts were “a thing.” So were bell bottoms. Social-distancing and mask-wearing were not.

Two decades earlier, on Sept. 3, 1948, Plymouth Township’s Ridge Pike Drive-In Theatre had opened on Ridge Pike just west of Colwell Lane. Eventually, innovations like VCRs, video rental stores and cable TV contributed to the demise of drive-ins all over the country. But during its heyday, Budco’s Ridge Pike Drive-In operated seven days a week and drew sold-out crowds, including lots of families, on weekends.

Along the way, one local religious leader saw another possibility. The Rev. Robert A. Godfrey, Jr., then pastor of the now-defunct Spring Mill Baptist Church on Cedar Grove Road in Whitemarsh, knew drive-in theaters in places like California and Florida doubled as drive-in churches and figured why not here.

Godfrey reasoned the ease of attending such a “church” would attract people inclined to skip hot weather Sunday services and – helped by his regular Spring Mill Baptist parishioners, fellow local clergy and Budco staffers -- debuted a non-denominational prayer session at Ridge Pike Drive-In that June. His opening sermon was “I Am Curious Yellow? No. I Am Curious Courageous” -- a nod to a 1967 blockbuster. At summer’s end, Godfrey described a typical Sunday morning crowd as 15 to 20 cars, both out-of-town and local attendees.

The Ridge Pike Drive-In and Spring Mill Baptist Church are long gone. But a half-century on, COVID-19 has led a number of contemporary congregations to introduce religious services in non-traditional open-air venues.

For example, St. Matthew Roman Catholic Parish in Conshohocken is conducting Sunday Masses on the football field at the borough’s A-Field (A.A. Garthwaite Stadium), 11th Avenue and Harry Street, roughly eight blocks from the church-rectory complex on Fayette Street at Third Avenue. Upcoming services are scheduled for July 26, Aug. 2 and Aug. 9 at 9:30 a.m. Father Thomas Heron, the church’s pastor, celebrates Mass and distributes Holy Communion with the assistance of retired Monsignor Philip Ricci and Deacon Joseph Carr. Participants bring their own lawn chairs or sit in the site’s bleachers.

Meanwhile, neighboring Storehouse Church has been hosting Sunday morning “Church in the Field” services on its spacious grounds at 1090 Germantown Pike in Plymouth Meeting. Organizers use hula hoops to designate family seating areas that are socially-distanced for the 10 a.m. gatherings. No hula hoops, but socially-distancing members of the First Presbyterian Church of Ambler, 4 S. Ridge Ave., are invited to attend 9 a.m. Sunday services in their cars or from beach chairs in the municipal parking lot behind the church.

In North Wales, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, 211 S. Main St., celebrates with outdoor services at 9:30 a.m. Sundays with parking, social distance and bring-your-own-chair. 

In Chester County, Malvern’s St. Peter’s Church in the Great Valley has also begun to host limited open-air gatherings, and Rector Abigail Crozier Nestlehutt has taken abbreviated services to the courtyard at Echo Lake in Malvern, enabling the complex’s senior residents to “attend” from their balconies and patios.

In Spain, balconies and patios in assorted Madrid neighborhoods have become seating for free, open-air movie screenings during the pandemic.

Pre-coronavirus, any number of film buffs from this area were happy to make an occasional trek to Lehigh County and iconic Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theatre on Route 309 in Orefield. But given COVID-19 restrictions on indoor theaters, several variations on traditional drive-ins -- complete with oversized portable screens, socially-distanced parking and meticulous sanitizing -- have sprung up here and nearby.

Locally, the Souderton-Telford Rotary Club recently sponsored a drive-in Christmas in July screening of “Elf” at Souderton Community Park. And one of the pandemic’s earliest and most popular movie partnerships is the one between the State Theatre of Boyertown and Sunnybrook Ballroom in the latter’s Pottstown parking lot. On offer: $20-per-car admission, food service from the Sunnybrook menu and family-friendly films.

Family-friendly in a whole different way? One Pottstown couple’s unique June wedding ceremony: Broadcast live before a parking lot full of car-bound “guests” on the big screen at Sunnybrook.

Not all pop-up movie “theaters” are landlocked.

The city of Paris has been hosting “cinema sur l’eau” – movies viewed from mini-boats that float on the Seine or from deck chairs on the annual Paris Plages, the temporary sand beach along its famed river. And an Australian firm called Beyond Cinema will supposedly bring its version of floating cinemas to several U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, this fall.

Stay tuned.

comments powered by Disqus