Published May 14th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Weekends of silence in the shadow of the 100-by-75-foot blank screen might suggest that Wes Neal’s 70-year-old Boulevard Drive-In movie theater is on the ropes.
For years, April showers have been the main concern during the springtime start to the season at Boulevard. This year, though, is unlike anything the Boulevard has ever seen.
Instead of cars lined up early to enter the cinephilic time capsule off Merriam Lane in Kansas City, Kansas, the COVID-19 clampdown has put a halt to Friday and Saturday night screenings.
But don’t roll the credits for the Boulevard. Not just yet.
A screenwriter would weave the global pandemic into a feature film about the Boulevard, perhaps as the region’s premiere drive-in theater’s ultimate challenge.
Now is the moment when Boulevard must get creative — even more creative than when Neal, now a 92-year-old man, came up with the early morning Swap ‘N’ Shop, which continues today, to save the beloved theater back in 1975.
That was 20 years after Neal took a second job directing cars through the Boulevard’s lot during the height of drive-in popularity, when more than 4,000 such open-air theaters dotted America. Fresh off the farm and fed up with his desk job at Bayer, Neal found hard work that kept him on his feet.
Nine years after Swap ‘N’ Shop’s success, Neal bought the theater outright in 1984, despite drive-in theaters’ long slide in popularity.
Thanks largely to digital and audio adaptations, staying ahead of the curve technologically through the turn of the millenium, Boulevard remains among some 350 operating drive-in theaters in the country.
But, like life on the farm, the hard work never stops.
The theater now faces serious questions regarding the no-go on public gatherings smack in the middle of what should be its 70th season, not to mention recent movie industry mayhem.
Leawood-based AMC Theatres, the nation’s largest operator, has closed its theaters and is gasping for cash to survive social distancing forced by the coronavirus. Major movie producers, meanwhile, are flirting with pushing more features direct to streaming services rather than releasing them first for theatrical runs.
Neal’s hopes now ride on some drive-in(novation) and on the shoulders of KCK high school seniors. And no, not the ones who snuck beer into their back row date spots through the years.
Last month, the Kansas City, Kansas School District announced plans to hold six nights of graduation at Boulevard Drive-In, starting June 1.
Brian Neal, Wes Neal’s grandson and Boulevard president, welcomed the conference call from KCK Mayor David Alvey, Health Department and school district officials, who laid out the plans for the family theater’s unofficial opening. Commencements will be at half capacity — about 350 cars. No bathrooms. No snack bar. No one gets out of the car.
The nod for graduation ceremonies with strict social distancing guidelines has the junior Neal thinking. There’s now a template in place — and not just for movies.
“Dance recitals, private parties, companies like Keller Williams — I talked to them just today — and a lot of bands, I must have had 10 or 12 requests from bands. There’s a YouTube comedian who wants to do a drive-in tour,” Neal said, rifling through a list of event requests in what just might become an era of drive-in resurgence.
“Another one is the Kansas Department of Agriculture,” he added. “They called me and wanted to rent the theater to continue education for their pest control certification.”
While Neal hasn’t accepted any of the oddball offers outside of graduations, he’s taking note of when each event could take place.
All of this raises a tantalizing question for the Boulevard and its brethren. Could it be that, in a plot twist straight out of Hollywood, the coronavirus could suddenly make drive-ins the hub of popular culture again?
Should Boulevard stay true to its trailblazing ways, with an OK from city health officials of course, the Neals’ theater would join the likes of drive-in theaters across Europe that have pulled off raves and concerts for fans in the comfort of their cars.
Just last week, Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino said the concert and ticketing giant is testing drive-in concerts heading into the summer, which may come as welcome news for Neal, who falls in the “let’s get back to work” camp and just so happens to have a stage built for live music on the drive-in’s property.
“We’ve had 10 or so live bands play there before, usually in concert with a triple feature,” Neal said, citing a Clint Eastwood and John Wayne screening a few years back, which also rolled out a mechanical bull riding contest, musical performance and an entertainer on horseback doing a trick roping and gunslinging routine.
Speaking of John Wayne, showing retro movies is also not out of the realm of possibility as Boulevard lays out its plans, especially considering the number of new films pushed back due to COVID-19, along with the movie industry issues that recently rocked AMC.
The recent straight-to-streaming release of “Trolls World Tour”, which grossed nearly $100 million in its first three weeks, prompted AMC, which has closed all of its theaters due to coronavirus, to issue an open letter threatening to ban Universal Studios movies from its theaters.
“Universal’s unilateral actions and intentions have left us with no choice,” wrote AMC Theatres chairman and CEO Adam Aron. “Therefore, effectively immediately AMC will no longer play any Universal movies in any of our theatres in the United States, Europe or the Middle East.”
Neal, who backs AMC in the controversy, said: “That’s not good for theaters. There’s really a problem with that.
“The only concrete plan that we know is that Disney is going to be one of the first studios to release a new movie July 24, ‘Mulan’,” Neal added, thinking of ways his family business will get by.
“We are very fortunate that we own our property and don’t have to pay rent on our property. But, I think doing these events and showing some older retro movies, if the studios will give them to us at a reasonable price… I don’t need the snack bar to be open to make money if I can get a retro movie that people will come out and see,” Neal said.
“I think they will come out and see anything, they are just bored.”
Until then, the Boulevard has plans to stay afloat thanks to Grandpa Neal’s lessons learned from growing up during the Great Depression. And whether it’s a movie that everyone and their mother has seen a dozen times, or a landmark first-ever event for the famous drive-in, getting back to work won’t mean what it has for Boulevard’s lone resident, whenever the 70th and perhaps strangest season to date actually hits.
If you ask his grandson, the years of hard work was hardly about what was showing in the theater. Wes Neal simply wasn’t made to social distance.
Shaking hands and chatting with customers has always been more important than whatever is playing in his backyard, says the younger Neal, who admits that despite the desire to return to normal, he has concerns about the Boulevard’s owner, who had a quadruple bypass heart surgery several years ago.
“The theater is what keeps him alive — and this is killing him.”
Editor’s note: The story has been updated to correct the time it took for “Trolls World Tour” to approach $100 million in gross revenue. It was nearly three weeks, not the first weekend.