At Corona’s ‘Empire Drive-In’ your car is optional

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Artist Jeff Stark cuts boards as he works on the "Empire Drive-in's" screen. Photo by Kevin Zimmerman
At the "Empire Drive-In" created in Manchester, England last year, the artists opted to stack some of the cars on top of each other. Photo courtesy Tod Seelie
Artists Olivia Katz (l.) and Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels measure one of the boards in the concession stand they are building at the New York Hall of Science for Empire Drive-In. Photo by Kevin Zimmerman
Artists Jeff Stark and Todd Chandler created their first "Empire Drive-In" for a film festival in San Jose, Calif. in 2010. The duo is bringing their work to Corona. Photo courtesy Tod Seelie

Jeff Stark and Todd Chandler have fond memories of summer nights camped out in the family sedan’s backseat watching Luke Skywalker battle the Evil Empire and a giant white shark terrorize a Long Island beach community at the local drive-in theater.

Today as artists, the duo remain intrigued by the seemingly illogical dichotomy of being part of a shared group event but separated with only one or two other people.

“It is a really interesting experience,” said Stark. “You’re in private but you’re in public. In the city that is a major theme: public vs. private. This, we hope, is reflecting that feeling of being in the city.”

This is the pair’s art installation “Empire Drive-In,” which brings the experience of film watching in a vehicle to the New York Hall of Science in Corona for three weeks beginning this Friday.

But being artists, the two go way beyond just sticking a couple dozen cars and trucks in a parking lot and calling it a day.

Instead, Stark and Chandler working with a group of other artists build the movie screen, concession stand and even, to some extent, the vehicular seating all from recycled and reclaimed material.

The Corona version is the third time Stark and Chandler have created a drive-in following one last year in Manchester, England and the original one in San Jose, Calif. That first installation was created as part of a film festival that included a movie shot by Chandler.

“A lot of filmmakers work for three or four years on a film and someone watches it in an hour and a half on a cell phone and it’s over,” said Stark. “We wanted to acknowledge watching a movie should be special by being in a space that felt special.”

Each installation, however, starts someplace not usually considered too special.

For the Corona project, the two combed through a Brooklyn junkyard where they located and rented about 60 vehicles that were being prepped to be crushed.

Many of those cars and trucks have been impounded or totaled in accidents. Some are missing backseats, others have shattered windows or huge gashes in the door frames. Workers sand off the rough edges and remove the broken glass to ensure each vehicle is safe, said Stark.

Then the group assembles the cars and trucks in a semi-circular setting facing the 40-foot screen. Along the back row, some smaller cars are even plopped atop a truck or van creating box seats for some viewers, said Stark.

Although the dangerous edges may be removed, each vehicle remains littered with remnants of the previous owners’ lives including CDs, mail and in one case, a bottle of perfume. Those items stay on the floors and in the seats and become part of the installation.

“There are so many stories inside,” said Stark pointing to a stack of postcards advertising a business. “It’s like the American dream inside the car.”

Each vehicle’s radio serves as the speaker, just like in the few remaining drive-in theaters that are still in business.

People who arrive early have their pick of the roughly 240 available seats with latecomers encouraged to bring blankets and lawn chairs to create their own space in the museum’s parking lot.

Everyone will have access to the movie treats like popcorn and candy being sold at the drive-in’s concession stand.

Artists Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels and Olivia Katz were busy measuring reclaimed 2 x 4s as they cobbled together the snack bar last week. This is the third stand Fels has designed for the “Empire Drive-In.”

Fels said she had a computer screen filled with images of old concession stands and based her design for this one on a couple from the 1960s. Although still in the early stages last Friday, the basic frame was shaping up to look like an old-school Dairy Queen with its peaked roof coming to a point in the front. She hopes the stand contributes to an evening created to evoke happy memories for theater-goers.

“This is amazing for that,” said Fels. “It is such a playful experience that brings back a unique time and a sense of wonder.”

Organizers hope that wonder spills over to each evening’s programming. Working with the Queens Museum, Rooftop Films, Museum of the Moving Image, Flux Factory and other groups, Stark and Chandler have created nine shows centered around a different theme such as the Bollywood Bash on Oct. 5 and Teenage Wasteland Double Feature on Oct. 12.

Other nights include silent movies with live accompanying music and narration, animated films suitable for the whole family and the 1980s film “Breaking Away” preceded by a group bike ride from Queensboro Plaza, where the audience becomes part of the show.

“We want to bring people together to watch films,” said Stark. “And we want to connect with audiences in a special place. We feel this is a special installation and they will become involved in the space.”

For a complete listing of upcoming film programs, check the New York Hall of Science’s website at

Contact News Editor Kevin Zimmerman at or by phone at 718-260-4541.

If you go

Empire Drive-In

When: Oct. 4 to Oct. 20

Where: New York Hall of Science, 47-01 111th St., Corona

Cost: Prices range from $5 to $20

Contact: 718-699-0005


Updated 4:41 pm, October 7, 2013
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