Before he even knew if his drive-in theater would be allowed to reopen this summer, Midway Drive-In Theater owner John Knepp posted on Facebook that the theater was available to rent for private events.
"I’m telling you, all of a sudden I was driving to North Carolina and I was on my computer, opened my email and it just went PHEW with all of these responses. People asking what I would charge, how it works, and I thought ‘Holy cow, there’s a need for this drive-in,’" Knepp said.
Midway has since become a top choice for Portage and Summit County high schools that are looking to hold graduation ceremonies that celebrate and reunite the Class of 2020 from a safe distance. Already, Knepp has booked senior events for 14 schools at Midway, 2736 Route 59 in Ravenna, and several more at his other drive-in, the Mayfield Drive-In at 12100 Route 322 in Chardon.
"And it’s not stopping. I’m getting so many questions from different schools on what they can do. Some schools are doing fireworks after the shows, some want to put on a retro movie. One school’s putting together a light show. We’re going to make it safe for everybody, but drive-ins are really built for this," Knepp said.
Most schools using Midway are planning to record single-family graduations at their high schools so that family members can still watch their senior walk across the stage in a cap and gown to receive a diploma. The recordings, as well as recordings of administrator and student speeches, performances and slideshows, will be cut together into videos that will be screened at the drive-in.
The following high schools have reserved the Midway for graduation ceremonies: Ravenna on May 26, Kent Roosevelt on May 30, Twinsburg on May 31, Crestwood on June 3, Southeast on June 8, Hudson on June 10, Nordonia on June 18, Aurora on June 19, Streetsboro on June 25.
Tallmadge High School is planning to screen only its annual senior video at Midway on May 21, and a Cuyahoga Falls group has booked the drive-in on May 29 for its senior party. Cuyahoga Falls’ event is not a school-sponsored activity. Bedford, Western Reserve Academy and Bio-Med have also booked events at Midway, Knepp said.
Individual schools have made the decision whether to have concessions available during their screenings. Midway also has wireless microphones available if anyone wants to speak before the screenings, and families will be able to listen by tuning into the drive-in’s radio station.
"This is all brand new, and we’ve been trying to figure out how to make this work for the students. We’re going to make this a blast for the kids, and give them something to remember other than missing half of their senior year," Knepp said.
Like other entertainment establishments, drive-in theaters were closed on March 17 to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The state allowed drive-ins to reopen on May 12.
Meanwhile, schools closed on March 16, and as the Ohio Department of Health extended stay-at-home orders, school officials were developing multiple contingency plans — with varying dates, locations and capacities — for graduations. Schools scrapped most of those alternate plans in response to a joint statement from the ODH and the Ohio Department of Education recommending schools to hold virtual ceremonies as close to the original date as possible.
Southeast Superintendent Bob Dunn and his team of administrators had initially hoped to hold an in-person ceremony at Ravenna High School’s stadium, which could have potentially accommodated their smaller class size while still maintaining proper distancing. They also considered an in-person ceremony on a flatbed stage at Midway before landing on the virtual drive-in commencement.
"We felt this would be the best way to celebrate our seniors because the biggest thing we got from our families was that they wanted to see their kids walk across the stage, and they all wanted to be together one last time," Dunn said. "This class will be remembered forever, and they’ll forever be able to drive by that theater and say ‘That’s where we held our graduation.’ Rather than having them say ‘We didn’t get to...’ we wanted to give them an experience that no one else will get to do and have them say ‘We had the opportunity to do this.’"
Nordonia was primarily concerned about choosing a location that could offer an early date to accommodate students who would be leaving for military or college, and a location that would allow them to have a ceremony that honored their traditions as closely as possible.
"Because of the pandemic, we understand that some of those traditions have to look different. We started looking at our traditions, brainstorming about what they could look like and we realized fast that a perfect scenario is getting together at the drive-in," high school principal Casey Wright said. "It was clear that [the graduation advisory committee] wanted a graduation that the kids could remember, and one as close to the traditional graduation as possible. The drive-in is the one that came closest and got the best reaction."
He added that he’s heard positive feedback from seniors who are especially excited for the fireworks that will follow the graduation screening, and has heard from underclassmen that they too would like to have graduation at the drive-in.
"It’s unique enough that they’re excited for the opportunity. Hopefully as the world gets back to normal, the traditional ceremony will gain momentum, but for now, everyone’s really excited about this," said Wright, who grew up going to a drive-in theater every weekend and would listen to the dialogue on the radio when he couldn’t attend.
Hudson High School has been able to incorporate most of its traditions into their drive-in graduation, principal Brian Wilch said. As an addition, commencement will also feature a performance by the cast of the high school’s production of "The Little Mermaid," which was canceled due to the school closure.
The senior class president will be featured in the video to lead the Class of 2020 in the turning of the tassel, and then, pending Summit County Health approval, seniors will be permitted to step out of their cars to turn their tassels together. Hudson’s event will end with a 15-minute firework display from the Hudson-based American Fireworks.
"When I first shared the news that we couldn’t have our [rescheduled] June 24 commencement at EJ Thomas Hall, and that July wasn’t looking good either, we got a lot of feedback. Folks envisioned a virtual commencement as sitting behind a computer in a Zoom session and our kids are Zoom’d out. As we got the good news out about the drive-in and the fireworks, that the kids would be together one last time, we got more positive feedback. We’re doing our best to make it special," Wilch said.
Kent Superintendent George Joseph noted that all the districts have been struggling to plan graduations, given the ongoing changes to coronavirus-related policies.
"None of us have experienced this before, so I feel badly for our Class of 2020. The fact is, they really aren’t going to have the kind of deserved celebration that other classes have had the luxury of. I also see a silver lining because this is the generation that will help us in the future so that we’re better prepared for something like this," Joseph said.
For some students, as well as their parents, a drive-in graduation is the best case scenario among a host of poor options.
After walking across the Ravenna High School stage this past week, several students and their parents expressed disappointment in the unusual graduation circumstances.
"It’s all really weird. It’s a lot different than normal, but I guess it is what it is. I think Midway will be pretty cool. It’s better than nothing," said Sydney Chell, 18, who will attend the drive-in screening with her parents, brother and boyfriend.
Seymour Anderson, whose daughter Simone Noel is a senior, said that he appreciated the way Ravenna handled graduation because he does not like to be around large groups of people. Neither he nor Simone had ever been to Midway before.
For the Crick family, the limited number of people who could be in the room for the private ceremony meant that grandparents could not watch Chase Crick, 17, walk across the stage.
"It’s definitely sad. [The seniors] missed out. It’s better than nothing though. What’s upsetting to [Chase] is that we could only bring in four people, so that eliminates grandparents. My mom and dad and my husband’s parents are older and with the drive-in starting at 9:30, they can’t stay up that late, so that’s sad," said Chase’s mother, Mindy Crick.
Tracy Crum, 19, said she’s looking forward to attending the Midway ceremony with her mom, Millie, because it’ll be the first time a drive-in graduation occurs.
Knepp is excited to be a part of so many memorable experiences, but said that at some point, he’ll have to stop renting out his drive-in so that people can see the big movies they’re used to.
With standard movie theaters remaining closed, Knepp sees this as an opportunity for people to try out the drive-in, especially given that there are very few other forms of entertainment available to Ohioans. However, he’s not predicting a huge boost in profits because he has chosen to cut the occupancy in half to keep cars further apart. Less cars also means less concession sales.
"There’s just so many people out there that have forgotten about drive-ins, I guess," Knepp said. "It’s making them notice that we’re still trying."
Midway opens to the general public on May 15. For more information, visit https://funflick.com/midway.
Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, email@example.com or on Twitter @KristaKanoRCedu.