PLEASANT VALLEY — Seventy-three years have come and gone, but there has been no force strong enough to stop the Pleasant Valley Drive-in Movie Theater from providing its customers with a sense of nostalgia and good old-fashioned family entertainment.
The outdoor theater has been in operation since 1947, and has never been closed or shut down, according to its present owner Donna McGrane.
However, as opening day of this year’s 25th season drew near, McGrane was uncertain if she would be allowed to open due to the mandated closing of all non-essential businesses in the state.
But a closure of the theater was not meant to be. After receiving permission from the Farmington Valley Health District, Pleasant Valley was able to light up its screen and welcome movie-goers from near and far.
“We’ve had to make some changes,” McGrane said. “But everyone is being really good about it. People are really being amazing.”
Although the presence of a worldwide pandemic has certainly been a unique challenge, it is not the first difficulty that the theater has encountered this year.
McGrane explained that just prior to opening the theater for the season, it was discovered that the roof of the concession stand had collapsed over the winter season.
Shortly thereafter, a GoFundMe account titled “Keep the Movies Under the Stars Shining Bright” was established. The initial goal was to raise $8,000.
“I know it’s a lot of money and I know it’s a lot to ask especially at this time but the theater holds so many wonderful memories for so many people, and it would be a shame for it to go dark when it has never been closed in the 73 years it has existed,” McGrane wrote.
Within four hours of launching the GoFundMe, the account had accumulated a total of $10,000. Within two weeks, the amount jumped to $40,000.
“It was crazy,” McGrane said.
Due to the surplus raised, McGrane was able to make other improvements to the theater. Not only was the concession stand roof replaced, but the movie screen was completely refaced and painted, and improvements were made to the pavement and walkways on the premises. The remaining funds were put in an emergency account.
Now that the theater is open, customers can expect some changes to its normal operations. The most notable revision is the reduced capacity of visitors that the theater is able to allow. Under normal circumstances, Pleasant Valley is able to accommodate 250 vehicles. In order to open for the 2020 season, the theater was required to cap its capacity at 175 cars.
“I’m a little over half of what I can normally hold,” McGrane said.
Despite the requirement to reduce the theater’s capacity, the staff of Pleasant Valley has witnessed visitors from all over the state, as well as neighboring states.
“Most of the people that are coming aren’t my normal customers,” McGrane said. “Many of them are people that didn’t even know the drive-in existed.”
Deja Perry of New Haven is just one of the numerous customers who posted a review on the theater’s Facebook page in order to detail their recent experience at Pleasant Valley.
“We drove all the way from New Haven so my boyfriend and I could have a date night,” Perry wrote. “We went on Friday and had such a great time. Definitely will recommend going even if it is a long way. We will definitely be back.”
In addition to exhibiting the willingness to travel long distances, McGrane noted that her customers have reacted positively to the changes that the theater has had to enforce in order to remain open.
For the first few weeks, the local health department would not allow customers to sit outside of their vehicles. As of May 20, the restriction was lessened and patrons can now sit directly in front of their cars, McGrane said.
Other changes include one window for ordering and a separate window for pick-up of concession items. There are also distancing markers on the ground to maintain separation of 6-feet between customers.
“The thing that I found fascinating both weekends that we first opened; when I thanked people for coming, people were saying, ‘no, thank you for opening up,’” McGrane said.
Although the weather did not cooperate on opening weekend, the theater has since welcomed a steady stream of customers. In fact, several showings over the past few weeks have sold out. The Pleasant Valley staff posts on its Facebook page when the theater has reached capacity, as a courtesy to customers.
The theater itself is very near and dear to McGrane’s heart, as she fondly recalls many summers spent at the drive-in during her childhood.
“My dad ran the projectors and my mom worked in the kitchen, so I spent my summers there,” McGrane said.
Pleasant Valley Drive-in is located at 47 River Road (Route 181) in Barkhamsted. The theater is open Thursday through Sunday, rain or shine. Leashed pets are welcome on the premises. The theater is cash only, credit cards are not accepted.