Drive-in concerts arrive in Philadelphia

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Workers set up for Parking Lot Social, a series of drive-in shows taking place at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Workers set up for Parking Lot Social, a series of drive-in shows taking place at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Drive-in concerts are arriving in Philadelphia to fill the gaping hole where live events used to be, before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down everything.

A local concert promoter, Point Entertainment, was the first in the region to try out a concept of keeping people in their cars while musicians take the stage in a parking lot. The company partnered with People’s Light and Theater to present a weekly series of live music concerts this summer.

It started with a pilot concept in June with The Big Takeover — a reggae-influenced band from New York’s Hudson Valley — playing in the parking lot of the theater in Malvern, to about 50 cars.

Richard Kardon, of Point Entertainment, said the event sold out almost immediately.

“At first the first band was a bit concerned, but then they said it was one of the best experiences they’ve had,” said Karden. “They felt totally safe. Everyone was courteous. No one was walking around without masks.”

Considered a success in terms of both production and audience reception, Point Entertainment and People’s Light launched a six-week series. The first was last week with a Bob Dylan tribute act Highway 61 Revisited, and this week will be Jeffrey Gaines supported by opening act Valentina Sounds. Next week will feature the John Byrne Band.

When Kardon saw all his planned concerts scuttled by the pandemic, he started looking into drive-ins as an alternative. Initially, the expense of setting up a show from scratch was prohibitive.

“So much of the expense if you go into a field or a big parking lot, you have to bring the stage and the lights and the sound and video screens,” he said. “All of that gets very, very expensive.”

Then, out of the blue, Kardon got a call from People’s Light and Theater to see if he might want to do some kind of drive-in show. It was serendipity.

“They’re theater people, so they built the stage,” he said. “They have everything in-house. We brought sound in, but other than they can build everything.”

People’s Light and Theater even has a restaurant, The Farmhouse. When drive-in patrons order their tickets online, they can also pre-order food to be delivered to their cars during the show.

After the pandemic hit, it took a couple months for promoters to figure out how to stage events as a drive-in. One of the largest is at the Monmouth Park racetrack in New Jersey, partnering with the Count Basie Center for the Arts, that can accommodate 1,000 cars. Later this summer Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia, with Live Nation, will host about 800 cars for concerts. This month the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Del., started hosting concerts at Frawley Stadium for about 185 cars.

This week a nationally touring variety show, Parking Lot Social, lands in Philadelphia at the Navy Yard marching grounds, for a 10-day stay. The run of events changes nightly, with comedy, movies, games, and car-a-oke singing (get it?), with a capacity of about 250 cars.

In most larger events, people are not allowed outside their cars. The live music is piped into their car stereos through an FM radio transmitter.

Smaller events, like Tupelo Music Hall in New Hampshire with about 75 cars and People’s Light in Malvern with about 65 cars, have a little more flexibility. The music is pumped out through loudspeakers just like a traditional live show.

At People’s Light, the cars are parked in every other space. People can spill out into the empty parking spot on the driver’s side with their lawn chairs and coolers, and listen to the music in the open air. The cars themselves act as distancing buffers.

The Parking Lot Social at the Navy Yard is produced by XL Event Lab, a company based in Florida. It earned its reputation, in normal times, with things like headphone dance parties and Big Bounce America, a huge inflatable bouncy-castle attraction that toured the country. The drive-in event stays on-brand with enormous inflatable elements, including two giant gorillas and a rainbow fire hydrant.

Parking Lot Social distinguishes its drive-in events by featuring games along with the movies and comedy and DJs. It’s an effort to get the audience to interact while remaining inside their cars.

“With the trivia and bingo and karaoke, it’s another aspect of the social vibe, because everyone has been locked up in their homes,” said Danielle Hodge, a event manager with XL Event Lab. “It’s a little more than going to a movie. It’s a social vibe.”

Parking Lot Social launched in Houston last month, then spent a week in Tampa. Before it opened for a weekend run here, organizers already extended the Philadelphia stop another week. It began July 22 and runs through August 2.

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