A Nod to Nostalgia: Sun-Ray Cinema brings back the drive-in theater to deal with pandemic

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The historic building in downtown Riverside at 1028 Park Street has gone by many names throughout the last 94 years, and been home to many different things. It began as a movie theatre, then became a playhouse, a night club, and for the last decade or so North Florida residents have come to know and love it as Sun-Ray Cinema.

When the pandemic struck last March, and businesses around the country closed their doors, co-owners of Sun-Ray Cinema Tim Massett and Shana David-Massett knew they wanted to find a safe way to bring people the movies they loved.

So at the beginning of last spring they partnered with property owners and vendors in the area to put together a temporary drive-in movie theater, where guests could stay in the safety and comfort of their own vehicles while still getting the full movie theater experience.

This month, Sun-Ray Cinema announced to excited fans and newbies alike that they were opening a new, permanent drive-in movie theater, in addition to their classic location, at 869 Willowbranch Ave.

“People really want to see new content, and they really want to get out of the house,” said Shana David-Massett, “but they also really want to feel like they are making a decision that is safe by their family.”

Now that Sun-Ray officially owns their own equipment and no longer needs to rent items from outside vendors, David-Massett said they can be much more relaxed with their movie showings, and offer guests week night options as well as weekends.

“We are more and more being introduced to the population in a way we were not before,” said David-Massett, referring to the newfound attraction of Jacksonville residents to the drive-in.

Despite the fact that many movie theater brands are struggling right now, such as Regal Cinemas closing all 536 of their national locations in October, David-Massett said that places like Sun-Ray do not fall into the same category as other big name theaters.

“It has been fascinating to me, the concept of nostalgia surrounding drive-ins,” she said. “We are nostalgic for a lot of things right now, our friends and family for one thing. Drive-ins just give people the good feels when they think about it.”

Sun-Ray Cinema’s new, permanent drive-in features a 50-foot screen on a cozy lot tucked between the Riverside and Murray Hill neighborhoods. The theater will primarily show new movies and offers a variation of concessions such as hot dogs and popcorn, food trucks, and delivery of pizza from their Pizza Cave back at the original theater.

David-Massett said that they feel extremely fortunate to bring the joy of movies to the community once again in these uncertain times.

“There are few blessings these days that you can ignore,” she said. “Our creativity is a blessing, our capacity to work hard and to problem solve is also a blessing that has gotten us this far.”

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