NJ Couple Opens First Black-Owned Drive-in Theater: Newark Moonlight Cinema

I had the pleasure of speaking with Ayana Stafford-Morris, the wife of Siree Morris, both Newark natives who worked together to create a beautiful experience for everyone to enjoy at Newark Moonlight Cinema which launched on July 24.

Ayana, a William Paterson alum, has a background in filmmaking. Despite most other festivals and in-person gatherings being canceled, virtual, or postponed, her latest documentary, “Why Is We Americans?” screened at an outdoor pop-up movie film festival in New Jersey on June 19th. Ayana loved the idea of a drive-in theater which coincides with her passions. Immediately, she went to her husband with her thoughts. He responded, “the Bear stadium is a great site”, and she replied, “LET’S DO THIS!” By her expression alone I could tell she appreciated his excitement, there’s nothing better than a supportive companion!

The Bear Stadium was previously a baseball stadium but it closed and was in talks to be developed. It’s been sitting for a while and was recently demolished, so her husband, Siree, who is a real estate developer was able to help with the construction and having the stadium leveled and ready for the pop-in theater. Now, the Newark Moonlight Cinema sits on a 7.41-acre site set to hold approximately 350 cars at a time.

This power couple opened what became Newark Moonlight Cinema about a month and a half following the idea! This is the first drive-in movie theater that operated in New Jersey since the mid-1960s.

This seasonal experience is scheduled to run Fridays through Sundays until October 4, however, Ayana states, “we’re already speaking with the owners of the lot now to extend it to Thanksgiving”, however, her biggest concern is that people may not want to go to the drive-in theater in the colder weather. Of course, you can roll your windows up and relax in the warmth of your car, but only time can tell how well Newark Moonlight Cinema might do when the weather changes. One thing for sure though, “I’m definitely coming back next year, and earlier, probably around March”. They already have another lot secured if they aren’t able to stay at the Bear Stadium, and that stadium is even bigger and in Newark.

Still, you might wonder, “What makes Newark Moonlight Cinema so special?”

To say the least, it’s a rewarding experience. You drive in, and from the gate, you can hear the blasting oldies (hip-hop/R&B) giving you nostalgic vibes with employees dancing to compliment the positive atmosphere. You scan your QR code from your phone, and then you are directed to your parking spot. Gates open at 7pm for those who like to have the best seats and a wide selection, but the movie starts at 9pm. You can either listen to the audio of the movie from your car radio on 97.5 FM, or listen from the speakers placed around- either way, it’s a quality movie theater experience. For food and snacks, you download the Fan Food app, place your order (you can even check out with apple pay), and lastly, you go to the concession stand when your food is ready for pickup with a short wait time. How convenient!

From classic cinematic masterpieces to recent releases, each weekend provides a quality experience for about 1500 people. The films are carefully selected by their team to highlight African American filmmakers, actors, and actresses. With growing headlines, it is important now more than ever to celebrate Black filmmakers and actors, because there aren’t enough in the media. Some movies shown include newer highly acclaimed films like: “Creed 2”, “Girls Night Out”, “Us”, “Queen & Slim” and even classics like: “The Last Dragon”, “The Wiz”, and “Friday”. Celebrating minorities, the Newark Moonlight Cinema also takes into consideration the suggestion of guests, so don’t be shy to DM the Instagram account @newarkmoonlightcinema.

“Amazon Nights” allows Newark Moonlight Cinema to offer free screening on selected nights (next one is Wednesday, August 26). All you need to do is sign up, but the problem is that passes go by super quickly.

You can have a picnic in your car, bring lawn chairs and put them in front of your car, put your back seats down and lay in your trunk, windows down with breeze blowing while watching, or customize the experience however you’d like in the comfort of your own car.

And no need to worry, there are porta-potties, wheelchair accessible as well.

Even with the pandemic, the helpful crew at Newark Moonlight Cinema is there to guide you to park properly in the socially distanced designated parking spots. They come around taking pictures, informing you, answering questions, while also waving goodbye as you drive out. It’s more like a family even though you’re only together for an evening. You’re able to let loose, but when leaving your car, of course, a mask is required. This spot is definitely a worthwhile visit and only about 25 mins from Jersey City! Super affordable, and super fantastic experience with unmatched vibes. Thank you to Ayana Stafford-Morris and Siree Morris who placed this gem in a city we’d never expect a drive-in theater. This is what we all needed.

For more information and tickets visit www.newarkmoonlightcinema.com

© 2020 by JC Wonders.