Big E to the big screen: Eastern States Exposition to host drive-in movies

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WEST SPRINGFIELD — Lights, camera, fried Oreos.

The Big E will host drive-in movies this year in partnership with a promoter that set up similar drive-ins at fairgrounds in eastern Massachusetts starting last year.

This is the latest in a series of events — like drive-thru food truck days, to-go sales of its famous cream puffs and lifetime-pass “golden tickets” — that the Eastern States Exposition is hosting both to keep its profile high and to bring in revenue while other events are shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This will get us to the fair,” said Eugene J. Cassidy, president and CEO of the Eastern States Exposition. “We have to make ends meet.”

The Big E is running a $7.4 million deficit on a $21 million annual budget. It cancelled the fall 2020 fair — its first shutdown since World War II — and a succession of trade shows and conventions have been either canceled or postponed. It hopes to resume the fair later this year with COVID-19 safeguards in place.

“It’s a perfect fit for us,” Tim Garstka, director of sales for The Big E, said of the drive-in movies. “It’s affordable family fun.”

The drive-in will open April 23 and run weekends through the spring, shifting to seven-day-a week operation in the summer. It will take a break during the fair from Sept. 17 to Oct. 3, then reopen through December with holiday-themed experiences.

The cost is $30 per car for up to six patrons, and $6 for each additional passenger.

FestEvents Drive-in

Cars at a FestEvents drive-in elsewhere in Massachusetts last year. The promoter is teaming up with The Big E for a drive-in theater at the West Springfield fairgrounds starting next month. (Photo provided)

The Big E partnered with a promoter E.J. Dean, president of FestEvents of New Hampshire. Dean has already established drive-in theaters at the fairgrounds in Marshfield and in Topsfield.

“It started as a quick spin-off to keep our people employed, to bring in some entertainment in a safe way and to help some of our venues bring in revenue,” Dean said.

FestEvents ran carnivals in the pre-pandemic world, Dean said. “And we hope to get back into that in the summer and fall,” he said.

Garstka said The Big E was toying with the idea of doing its own drive-in when staff found out about Dean’s company. Dean has done amusements and other events at The Big E before.

“They’ve just been great to work with,” Garstka said.

Cassidy said there will be double features, probably a new release paired with a classic film. He said people can also look for theme nights and festivals.

Drive-ins have also offered livestream concerts and other events for pandemic audiences.

Dean said new movies probably won’t be available for a while. So he’s likely to open up with what he calls retro classics: “Grease,” ”Back to the Future” or “Jaws.”

The Topsfield and Marshfield drive-ins were busy last year, Dean said.

“We’ve built a really good family-friendly model,” he said.

FestEvents is expanding with additional screens at those two fairgrounds in addition to the West Springfield location. Dean said he’s talking with possible venues in southern New Hampshire and at least one other Massachusetts location.

“I think this is an industry that will last for three to five years after the pandemic,” he said. “Even though indoor theaters will reopen. It will be a regional thing. We have people travel distances to Topsfield and Marshfield. There is something about the drive-in that people will still want to experience.

The Northfield Drive-In, under new ownership, had a banner year in 2020.

At the Big E, there will be two 45-by-60-foot screens, with each screen able to accommodate as many as 300 cars. Film sound will come through car radios.

The two screens will be just inside Gate 9, the parking area on the eastern edge of the fairgrounds near the Mallary Complex.

Garstka said the location is perfect because it allows The Big E to maintain its other year-round operations elsewhere on the 175-acre property.

In addition, a full concession stand will be available for guests to not only enjoy popcorn but also popular fair foods such as fried dough, fried Oreos and cotton candy.

“So a mix of movie concessions and fair classics,” he said. “Over time we are going to look at ways we can expand that.”

There will be no alcohol sold, and rules prohibit bringing alcohol onto the grounds.

Cassidy, a West Springfield native, said the town once boasted two drive-ins. The Memorial Drive-In was on Memorial Avenue next to the very parking lot where The Big E will set up its drive-in, on land that’s now the shopping plaza with Price Rite.

The Riverdale Drive-In was across town where the Riverdale Plaza Shops now are. The Memorial Drive-In closed in 1976, and the Riverdale Drive-In lasted until 1986.

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