Drive-in away the social distancing blues at the MGVC

Summer didn’t bring the usual swell of tourists to view the Mendenhall Glacier, but the visitor center parking lot has still been packed for a different attraction: Drive-in lectures and movies. The Tongass National Forest’s Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, along with Gold Town Theater, Juneau Underground Motion Picture Society, and Science on Screen found a fun and educational way to bring people together in these times of social distancing. 

Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center Drive-in presentation

A series of drive-in lectures and movies started July 16, 2020, with a pandemic pairing. Charlee Gribbon, Bartlett Regional Hospital’s Infection Preventionist, spoke first about foreign invasion on the cellular level – the path of viral infection. Her talk was followed by a showing of the sci-fi horror movie The Thing (1982). The film features a parasitic alien life form that takes over an Antarctic research camp. The opening sequence of a husky sled dog racing over an icefield followed by a gun blazing helicopter, and other vignettes in the movie, were filmed on the Juneau Icefield near the Mendenhall Glacier.

Attendee Lee Parker said, “This version of The Thing is one of the rare horror shows I can tolerate -- even fearfully enjoy. The COVID lecture gave me fresh insights to the story.  When I got home, there was a husky (my beloved dog) greeting me at my gate -- giving me a moment of hesitation.”

Next up, on July 29, 2020, was a talk by Anjuli Gratham and the feature film Mad Max: Fury Road. Gratham is a writer, curator, public historian, climate change activist and on the board of Renewable Juneau and Juneau Carbon Offset. Her talk was entitled Founding Furiosas: How the suffragette movement inspires modern local climate action, and was delivered live from the back of a convertible 1979 International Harvester Scout to a full parking lot. A filmed version of the talk preceded subsequent showings.

This partnership was kicked off by Goldtown Nickelodeon’s owners Colette Costa and Mark Ridgeway. Because of their passion to make sure Juneau-ites had things to do even during times of social distancing, they started doing drive-in movies at Juneau Yacht Club, which had challenges due to light, wind and weather.

Meanwhile, the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center was looking for new ways to provide interpretive services and events, despite the visitor center being closed. With no cruise ship visitors this year, the bus lot was vacant. And with the Science on Screen partnership funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which couples science lectures with movies, Mendenhall found a perfect fit for the Center’s interpretive mandate.

“We’ve been delivering fireside chat programs for over forty years at the Mendenhall,” said Barb Miranda, the Director of the Visitor Center. “Science on Screens seemed like a perfect way to extend this offering into a pandemic summer.”

Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center Drive-in parking lot

To do the series, the visuals are projected on the big screen while the sound is transmitted over the radio into vehicles using an FM transmitter.  Goldtown Nickelodeon provided all the equipment necessary.

To hold drive-in movies in your community, you’ll need to invest $150 -$200 in a FM transmitter that works with your projection equipment, acquire scaffolding and a large white tarp for a screen, and get some volunteers to welcome folks, instruct them on the proper radio channel and to properly park cars.  Then, enjoy a LARGE, silent but safe community event without disturbing the neighbors!