Florida cinema offers a return to drive-in glory days
Drive-in days returned to Northeast Florida as the independent Sun-Ray Cinema in Riverside ventured out to the Callahan Speedway Friday to show a well-aged, Southern-fried classic movie under the stars.
Burt Reynolds’ 1977 hit, “Smokey and the Bandit,” played on a 32-foot wide LED screen built for the event, with sound coming over the radio of the 100 cars allowed in.
The show was a quick sellout in these shut-down days, as was the movie shown the next night, “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
Tickets to both were gone within nine hours of being offered, said Tim Massett, who with his wife owns Sun-Ray Cinema, which had to cancel its regular schedule as the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States.
“It was good to put something together safe enough for people to join,” he said afterward. “I guess people wanted to get out and do something.”
Some moviegoers pulled straight into their spaces, while others backed in and lounged on blankets spread over truck beds or inside the open hatches of their vans. One family sat in lawn chairs, with a bottle of champagne on a small tray.
Before the show, the screen showed old Burt Reynolds clips, Florida orange juice commercials, an anti-drug PSA and folksy ads for Schwend Insurance of Callahan.
The Sun-Ray’s owners noted the gravity of the event.
“This has been a strange couple of months for all of us,” Massett said, “and it’s really great to get around the campfire.”
“This is the first time in Sun-Ray history I don’t have to tell people to turn your cellphones off,” said Shana David-Massett.
Horns began honking in excitement, and then the movie — a car crash-filled good time from 1977, with bootlegging, CB radios, big trucks and a famous Pontiac Trans Am — began.
Rachel and Jody Love wouldn’t have missed it. After all, they have shrines (pictures and movie posters) to Burt Reynolds in their Riverside home. Jody Love went to Florida State University, as did Reynolds. And besides, who doesn’t like Burt Reynolds?
“I like that who he plays in most movies is who he was in real life,” Rachel Love said. “They just played all his roles on his charisma — instead of writing a whole new character, they just said, `Hey, do your thing.’”
And since some of “Smokey and the Bandit’s” highlights are provided by a droll basset hound named Fred, the Loves of course brought their basset hound with them to the speedway drive-in.
His name is Bochephus, though he often goes by just plain Bo, the name of Reynold’s character in the movie.
Bo was a hit. “A lot of people came up and petted him,” Rachel Love said. “He was really good”
Love, who is 29, is an artist, and noted that a good number of people who she sees at art shows and at the Sun-Ray made the trek out to rural Nassau County, some 30-plus miles away, to see the movie.
“Oh yeah, this is our group of people, showing up for Sun-Ray,” she said.
Sally Hamilton, 19, and her boyfriend Kurtis Louth, 21, came from a bit closer. She’s from Duval County not far from Callahan, and he’s from Bryceville.
Hamilton said she’s seen “Smokey and the Bandit” more than a few times. “It’s one of my favorites, so like 100 times,” she said.
So why see it again?
“Because it’s a drive-in,” she said. “I’m not going to miss that one. It’s a whole different experience.”
Hamilton said it felt good to get out and do something with other people again.
“I think it’s a fun new thing we should have brought back a long time ago,” she said. “I think quarantine gave us just the right push to bring drive-ins back.”
Times-Union writer Emily Bloch contributed to this report.
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082
This story originally published to jacksonville.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.