When Boulevard Drive-In opened in 1950, they were at the center of youth and family culture. Flocks of kids would come to the drive-in on weekends to watch the latest movie, hang with their friends, or a date, and enjoy some classic movie-theater snacks. They would laugh and talk on a hot summer night until the sun would disappear below the horizon and then they would be whisked away into a world enchanted by Cinderella’s breathtaking transformation in the Disney classic or some other movie.
Boulevard still stands today, and this weekend begins its seventieth movie season. After COVID-19 forced them to initially postpone their season, which was supposed to begin in May, they are finally reopening. However, with no new movies premiering, they’re leaning into the nostalgia of drive-ins by showing older movies beginning with Grease, The Goonies and The Big Lewbowski.
Their season will look a little bit different this year, however. Like most businesses, they are taking precautions to ensure the safety of their customers. Their lot will be filled at half its capacity, the snack bar will be closed and only one movie will be shown a night instead of two.
In their Facebook post announcing the reopening, they said “It is our mission to do the right thing for your family and for ours. We wish to sincerely thank all of our loyal customers for their continued support, and we look forward to better serving you in the near future when this present situation has passed.”
This isn’t the first time Boulevard has had to adapt in a challenging time. Since drive-up culture has faded over the decades—from four-thousand theaters across the country in the late fifties to just three-hundred today—Boulevard has had to adapt to stay open and thriving. They became the first drive-in to offer 4k movies, and they offer families the opportunity to not only see the big summer blockbuster of the year but get a heavy dose of nostalgia as well.
Owner Wes Neal is ninety-two years old and started working at the drive-in in 1954 as a ramp boy. He worked his way up to manager before buying Boulevard in the 1980s. He launched a popular local flea market called Swap ‘n Shop on the grounds, which has helped the drive-in through some “lean seasons.”
Wes Neal’s grandson Brian Neal and his family have taken over some day to day operations. Brian remembers growing up at the drive-in watching movies like Batman and Purple Rain in a crowded field on a summer night.
“The atmosphere brings you back to a time to the 50s and 60s, it’s about being social,” Brian Neal says.
But it isn’t just the blast from the past that has kept Boulevard’s doors open for seventy years, it’s their focus on family and dedication to their customers. In lieu of commercials, before the movies begin, Boulevard opts to give kids the chance to see themselves on the big screen filming them dancing and playing.
“We try to focus on family,” Brian Neal says.
They have been a staple of the Kansas City area for over half a century, and their innovation and willingness to change with the times has kept them around for so long. But Brian stresses that at their roots they are still a mom and pop drive-in. Where a bucket of popcorn costs less than five bucks, and you can pop your trunk and be whisked away to a time of poodle skirts and malt shops.