The Delsea Drive-in keeps a vintage summer tradition alive

In Philadelphia, movie-in-the-park events are popping up everywhere. It’s all very trendy, but it’s not a new idea. In fact, you’re grandmother probably used to do it. But the Delsea Drive-in in Vineland, New Jersey is not your grandmother’s drive-in. “Nostalgia will get you in my gate once,” said Dr. John Deleonardis, the owner. He’ll charge you eight bucks to get in, but he only makes money if you hit the concession stand. Hence menu choices like stir-fry asparagus and shrimp kebob. He’s going green, too, and putting in solar panels. “I don’t want to just put out a product,” Deleonardis said. “I want to put out a good product.”Delonardis feels his drive-in must be the best, partly because it’s the only one in New Jersey–the birthplace of the drive-in. In 1933, the first one opened on Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Pennsauken. According to the United Drive-In Theater Association, the industry’s gone from 4,000 theaters in its heyday to about 400 today. Edward Vogel, spokesman for the association, says the success of a drive-in comes from an owner’s passion and personality. And he happens to think Deleonardis has the goods. “The doctor has an amazing ability to multitask,” said Vogel. “I’ve never seen anyone doing it like this one gentleman. I mean it.” It’s true, too. At the Delsea one recent Saturday evening, Deleonardis’ cell phone rings its quirky ring frequently with calls from the hospital or his office.

Deleonardis is a practicing pediatrician, and for now his day job keeps the Delsea open while it fights to break even. “The accountant says we’re not losing as much money as we lost in the beginning,” Deleonardis said.It’s all pretty stressful. “I like being under the gun,” said Deleonardis. “In medicine, you’re under the gun doing surgery and it’s life and death. Those are big decisions. You make them, because that’s what you do. But here, you get that same rush but there’s no life and death. What’s a bad outcome? The popcorn burns. Big deal.” As dark approaches, somewhere near 500 cars park in a choreographed dance, and the concession line goes way out the door. Adults and children alike get comfortable in car seats, truck beds and folding chairs.Steph Wiltsee’s a rookie here, and she enviously checks out a neighboring car’s set-up. “Oh my goodness,” Wiltsee said. “There’s this wonderful white pick-up truck and these cute people in the back with these huge inflatable chairs that are just like lounges. They’re all set! And we’re in our little Volkswagen.” Chris Schneider and her son Jimmy are lounging in the back of that truck. It looks like a living room, complete with throw pillows. There’s only one word for it, said Schneider: “Awesome.” When night falls, its time for the main event. Car stereos blast the movie audio over an FM radio frequency, drowning out the crickets. Just take care to not listen too loudly, or you’ll get what Deleonardis calls the “full experience”– dead car battery. 

But he’ll gladly give you a jump start.

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