You might say it was the world’s largest test drive.

People from all over North America hopped in vehicles June 27 and cruised to drive-in theaters to watch a Garth Brooks concert on the big screen. Among those theaters was Tulsa’s Admiral Twin Drive-In.

Why was it a test drive?

If this experiment works — if people will flock to a drive-in theater to watch a concert — maybe there’s still a way to safely bring music to the masses during a pandemic.

Bingo.

According to a news release issued after the show, Brooks entertained more than 350,000 people that night with a drive-in show that had been recorded in Nashville. Admiral Twin owner Blake Smith told the Tulsa World that the drive-in was No. 1 in ticket sales for the Brooks event June 27.

“This time, I was the fan and the people were the entertainment,” Brooks said. “Watching people all night from coast to coast, in Canada and here in the U.S., laughing, dancing and singing, made me smile. It reminded me how much I miss the crazy, happy and unpredictable life we lead as entertainers. For one night, things seemed ... right.”

The success of that concert was a green light to continue forward.

Fort Worth-based Encore Live, which produced the Brooks event, is launching a series of drive-in concerts (Encore Drive-In Nights) that will begin with a Saturday, July 25, show featuring Oklahoma’s Blake Shelton and guests Gwen Stefani and Trace Adkins. The concert will be played at drive-ins all across the U.S. and Canada, including the Admiral Twin. Tickets are available at ticketmaster.com/encore-blakeshelton.

Because of current events, drive-in theaters have become a go-to place for concerts. People can practice social distancing by watching from the safety of their vehicles. Casting Crowns recently christened a “live” drive-in tour and performed July 16 at the Admiral Twin. The Casting Crowns tour is not part of the Encore Live series, which features exclusive, pre-recorded concerts shown on drive-in screens. Performers and dates will be announced for future shows.

Encore Live founder and CEO Walter Kinzie talked about the series in a phone interview with the Tulsa World and let it be known immediately that he’s one of us. He grew up near Coffeyville, Kansas, made memorable trips south to Tulsa and said he spends almost every Christmas and Thanksgiving with relatives who live near 71st Street and Lewis Avenue. He also has friends in Garth places, which proved big in making the drive-in theater series a reality.

Among conversation topics during the phone interview:

Who’s next?

Kinzie said the criteria for the first batch of artists being announced is the artist must have sold out an NFL stadium in the past 18 months. So you can expect big-time names in the concert series.

“But you are also going to see this model evolve into a regional presence,” he said. “I’m not going to tell you too much, but there are ... artists that are really popular in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. Collectively, between those three states, we have a fleet of about 30 theaters. That equates to about 50,000 people. Why not give those 50,000 people some of the music that they like to go see that maybe isn’t as popular in Maine or Washington state or different things like that? I think you will see the model evolve, certainly as we get into September and going into the fall, to have more regional stuff.”

More than country?

Brooks and Shelton are country music superstars, but Kinzie said you will see a transition from exclusively country shows to other “cultures” as the drive-in theater series progresses.

“We are very excited to offer an incredibly diverse lineup and something for everyone,” he said. “We will have stuff for just the family. I am a girl dad. I have a 1-year-old and a 5-year-old daughter. I told my team early on, I said, ‘I want something I can take my two girls to,’ and I believe they have delivered. You are going to see that. You are going to see a big diversity of options.”

Here’s how it started

Kinzie said he fielded a phone call in March from his preacher at Christ Chapel Bible Church in Fort Worth.

“My preacher and I, the senior pastor, are very good friends,” Kinzie said. “He called me and he said, ‘Listen, you are a creative guy and you are in the events business, which is not too far removed from what we do, and we are not afraid about having to cancel Sunday service with our online campus. But what we are nervous about is Easter. Easter is a great day for us to bring people to the Lord. What creative ideas do you have?’ ”

Kinzie said they came up with an idea to have an Easter service at a drive-in theater.

“Ultimately, by the time Easter rolled around, as you know all too well, we were at the heart of this pandemic, so they weren’t even allowed to do a drive-in show then,” Kinzie said.

Later, Kinzie was looking for ways to get out of the house and entertain his family of four. Advertisements for old-school movies at drive-in theaters made him wonder if the idea to stage events at drive-in theaters was worth revisiting.

“Truthfully, we have been working on this since the 11th of May,” he said. “And if you look at the fleet of theaters we have signed up and the artists we have signed up, this isn’t even a 60-day-old idea for us, so it’s pretty incredible to think we have had 350,000 people come out to a Garth Brooks show, and we have got our second show on sale and our third one ready to be announced. We are very excited, and I am damn proud of my team. They have delivered in a big way in a very short amount of time.”

Garth

Brooks was the first person outside the Encore Live leadership team to be informed about the idea to do a drive-in theater concert. Kinzie said he and Brooks became friends several years ago, when Brooks lived in Rogers County.

“When I have a weird idea or if something happens in the industry, he’s always the first person I try to call,” Kinzie said. “Not only is he an unbelievable entertainer, and he’s the best in our industry for sure, but he’s also just a really smart guy and he will tell me really fast, ‘Walter, that’s a dumb idea’ or ‘Walter, that’s a pretty cool idea.’ ”

Kinzie said he phoned Brooks on May 14 and asked for 30 minutes of his time. Kinzie used those 30 minutes to pitch the drive-in idea and said to Brooks, “Tell me if I’m crazy or not.”

Kinzie said it was a testament to what a great guy Brooks is that he offered to be the first act. Brooks gave the project instant credibility, and he said his concert would give Encore Live a chance to work through any issues that come up before announcing a series.

“I don’t care what type of music you listen to, Garth Brooks is the greatest of all time for so many different reasons and most of them you can’t dispute, whether you like his music or not,” Kinzie said.

“He would never call himself the greatest of all time. He would never do that. But I can. And for him to come and say ‘not only do I think you have a good idea, but let me be the guy that all the things that are going to go wrong happen to,’ I will love that man forever. He is the nicest guy, and it’s so cool that he would even do that for me.”

Helping an industry

Kinzie said the drive-in series is creating opportunities for humans to be together while still being apart. He said Encore Live is following state-mandated guidelines to create safe experiences for fans.

Also atop the priority list: providing a needed boost to the entertainment industry.

“Our industry was really the first kind of business tragedy from COVID,” he said. “Before the NBA canceled, before Tom Hanks was announced to have it, we had already lost a significant portion of our business. For us, this was a great way to put our industry to work.”

Serving rural markets

Kinzie said a handful of theaters participating in the drive-in tour are in major urban areas, but most are in rural areas.

“There are 100 million people in the United States and Canada that don’t live in an urban area that have an NFL stadium or NBA arena,” he said. “These folks are used to having to drive. As a kid, I had to drive an hour and a half if I wanted to go to a mall. There was one down in Tulsa that I would go to. If we wanted a decent restaurant as a kid, we had to drive an hour and a half to go down to Tulsa to do that.”

The drive-in theater series is catering to a customer who has never been catered to before, according to Kinzie.

“So that’s (why) this concept I think will work during COVID, but it will also have legs after COVID because there are a third of people in the United States and Canada that don’t live close to an arena or a stadium, so now they have something with powerful entertainment in their backyard.”

Growing up in Coffeyville, Kinzie said he used to go to the Coffeyville Inter-State Fair & Rodeo and the drive-in theater in Coffeyville. “Aladdin” was among movies he saw at the drive-in.

“As you look across our fleet of theaters, you will see a number of county fairgrounds and state fairgrounds across the United States where fairs had to be canceled, so we went and we worked with them to build temporary theaters,” he said. “We are literally catering to the two ways that I consumed entertainment as a kid.”


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Jimmie Tramel

918-581-8389

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@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @JimmieTramel

Scene Writer

Jimmie is a pop culture and feature writer at the Tulsa World. A former Oklahoma sports writer of the year, he has written books about former Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer and former Oklahoma State football coach Pat Jones. Phone: 918-581-8389