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Movies Al Fresco: A Uniquely American Experience

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The drive-in theater was once the place to be, for good reason. Step back in time to explore the history of this very American tradition. Meet some creative drive-in owners who are bucking the odds to keep this experience alive.

Moviegoers enjoy The Avengers at Highway 18 in Jefferson, Wis. (Karla Nagy photo)

The little girl comes charging up, weaving between cars, her big brother close behind. He plops into a lawn chair near the back bumper of their parents’ van, which is backed into a parking spot, while she dives into the open hatch, reappearing almost instantly with a large cup of soda.

Lying on her stomach, her head poking out, she takes big sips on the straw in between offering a breathless account: “I liked the slide best the one boy slid down first and then I slid down and before I was all the way another girl came in between us and I barely made it and then we all did it again it was so fun!”

Melody Breckenfelder, 10, and brother Alex, 13, have been frolicking on the playground equipment in front of the 90-foot screen at Midway Drive-In, 91 Palmyra Road, Sterling, Ill.

Dusk has fallen, and the movie is about to start. Despite the cool March temperatures, the 500-car-capacity lot is about a third full, and people are scooting to and from the concession stand, stocking up on treats for the $7.50 double feature of The Hunger Games and Silent House.

The Breckenfelder family, Dixon, Ill., are transplants from Hoffman Estates. Parents Pete and Becky fondlly recall going to the drive-in when they were growing up.

“I went to the Cascade in St. Charles,” says Becky.

“I remember the Starlight in McHenry,” Pete adds.

[Editor’s note: Both of these drive-ins are still open.]

The Breckenfelders go to the Midway regularly during its short season. “It’s awesome,” Melody gushes. “I like everything so far. I think I went to another drive-in once, but I don’t remember where.”

“It was here,” her brother reminds her. “She’s too young to remember.”

Their parents enjoy coming to the Midway for many reasons.

“The price is reasonable,” says Pete. “The indoor multiplexes are so expensive, and here, you always get two shows. Plus, it’s just a great way to watch movies. Our first night out has to be chilly – of course! – but we don’t care. You park your car, sit in lawn chairs with blankets, look up at the stars. I’m not big on going to the movies – it’s usually Becky’s idea – but I like this.”

“Da-ad,” interrupts Alex. “The ra-di-oh. It’s star-ting.” The image of a fluttering American flag flickers to life onscreen, and strains of the National Anthem are heard drifting from other cars.

“I’m so glad that we live in an area where we can expose our children to this kind of thing,” Becky sums up. “It’s just a big bag of experiences.”

That’s exactly why owners Mike and Mia Kerz, Niles, Ill., bought the 62-year-old landmark five years ago. Mike, who majored in business and film at Columbia College Chicago, spent 35 years managing and owning indoor movie theaters; Mia worked in the corporate arena.

“Literally, we wanted to preserve the tradition of the American drive-in,” Mike says. “Obviously, I have a huge passion for movies. I believe in movies being shown on the big screen, in the dark, with other people. With today’s technology, movie watching has become too much of a solitary activity. It’s meant to be a shared experience.”

Typically, opening night is later in the season, but this year, the unusually warm weather and the release date of The Hunger Games prompted the Kerzes to start early. Mike spends show nights tramping between the box office and the concession stand, roving the parking lot and greeting customers during each trip.

“Isn’t this great?” he exclaims, pausing on his rounds and grinning broadly. “It’s a bit cool, but the stars are out, kids are playing on the playground, people are anticipating dusk and the start of the film. What could be better? They say Disney’s the happiest place on earth, but I think it’s my drive-in.”

Up at the concession stand, Mia runs the cash register while a trio of local high schoolers takes care of hungry customers.

“It’s so different from my other career,” she says. “It’s constantly busy, but it’s so much fun. Our customers really seem to enjoy the experience, and we’re very appreciative that they come out. We have two kids, 10 and 14, they have a blast here every weekend.”

Shows always begin with the National Anthem, followed by cartoons and previews. During intermission, Mike shows vintage ads, with dancing hot dogs and countdowns to showtime.

“At the Midway, we recreate the original experience,” he says. “Drive-ins are a purely American experience. They represent family values. There’s a peacefulness, an innocence about that time.”

The Midway opened in 1950 and has been in continuous operation ever since. All structures are original, from the “spaceship” box office to the humongous screen, the oldest standing drive-in screen in Illinois. “It was all intact, but run-down,” Mike says. “We spent a lot of money after we bought it. We restored the buildings, replaced the projector, painted the screen, updated the electrical and plumbing. The Midway is classic 20th century architecture and stands out as a landmark in the area, and it should be kept that way.”

Auto-Matic Hit

The first drive-in movie theater opened in Camden, N.J., on June 6, 1933. Creator Richard Hollingshead perfected and patented his “invention,” after noting that even in the throes of the Depression, people continued to drive their cars and attend their local movie theaters. By 1939, 18 drive-ins had opened, mostly along the eastern seaboard; as the 1940s drew to a close – despite a major stall during the war years – there were 820 across the country. To acclimate an unfamiliar customer base, drive-in theater owners hosted open houses during the day. For families with children, they installed playground equipment on the grass in front of the screen. Typical lot capacities were from 100 to 500 cars.

Hollingshead designed his first screen with three giant speakers mounted behind it, but the sound wasn’t very clear for cars in the back rows, and neighbors complained. So individual speakers, hanging from wired poles at each parking space, became the standard outdoor theater “sound system.” The driver would pull up next to the pole, bring the speaker inside the car and hang it from the top edge of the window.

Hollingshead’s patent was declared invalid in 1949, launching a drive-in boom that rivaled the baby boom. By 1960, the number of outdoor theaters in the U.S. hit 5,000, with nearly 5,000 indoor theaters closing during the same period. Owners responded to growing competition for drive-in audiences by growing their screen sizes, lot capacity, concession offerings and amenities. One of the largest drive-ins was in New York state: Encompassing 28 acres, it had viewing spaces for 2,500 cars; indoor, climate-controlled seating for 1,200; playground; full-service cafeteria; even a train to shuttle customers to and fro.

Many drive-ins added other features to attract customers, like pony rides, kiddie boat rides, merry-go-rounds and miniature golf, and opened as much as three hours early, to encourage families to take part in these activities.

Daylight saving time, used inconsistently throughout the U.S. since World War I, was finally standardized and made mandatory in 1966, costing drive-ins an hour of viewing time. By the mid 1970s, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, the rise of multi-screen indoor theaters, home VCRs and subscription cable television triggered a major decline in drive-in attendance. These things, coupled with difficulty in obtaining first-run films and the rise in real estate values, convinced many struggling drive-in owners to sell to developers, who razed the big screens to put in subdivisions, strip malls or modern multiplexes.

A wave of nostalgia in the 1990s brought an upswing in the number of drive-ins being built or reopened, some with as many as three screens. Even so, fewer than 400 drive-ins operate in the U.S. today.

A Driv-in’ Passion

Though small in number, drive-in owners are a determined and united group, the majority expressing the same ardor about it as the Kerzes.

“Most of us do it for the love of it,” says Lee Burgess, who owns and operates Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre, W6423 Hwy. 18, Jefferson, Wis. “My theater is a very special place I offer to my customers, and I’m very protective of it.”

Burgess was in management/consulting, working long hours, traveling often and always in a rush, it seemed to him. “Then I had a midlife change, I guess you’d call it,” he says. “I decided I wanted to slow things down.

“I was working in Madison and living in Chicago. Driving back and forth, I passed by the drive-in every trip, and I noticed when it went up for sale. I had worked in a movie theater all through high school, and my music teacher was the projectionist. So even before my job there, I’d sit in the booth with him. He showed me how to run the projector, and we’d watch the movies together. It’s always been a special memory for me, so I decided to buy the drive-in.”

Highway 18 was built in 1953 and ran continuously until 1994, according to Burgess, when its owners went out of business. “The property was tied up in bankruptcy for a long time before I bought it,” he says. “Once I took possession, I spent a year restoring it.”

The original screen had been blown down by a tornado, and its replacement met the same fate years later. The current metal screen is 90 feet and designed to withstand a category F-10 twister. The largest fabricated by Selby Industries of Ohio, a family company that’s been making drive-in movie screens for 50 years, its cost today would be $100,000. All other structures at Highway 18 are original – restored, rewired, replumbed and upgraded.

Nowadays, sound comes over each vehicle’s sound system; tuned to a specific FM frequency, the radio picks up a signal provided by a low-power transmitter in the projection booth. But that’s not the only option for customers at Highway 18.

“I dug up all of the speaker poles, retrenched some of the wiring and put all the poles back,” Burgess explains. “The first six rows have the old-fashioned speakers that you hang inside your car window. They were all still here, and I checked them all and repaired the ones I could. I want the experience to be as authentic as possible for my customers. So, anyone who wants to can park in the first six rows and use the old speakers.”

The drive-in’s original sign wasn’t distinctive, so Burgess installed a customized, retro neon sign. “It gets a lot of attention,” he says.

With a lot capacity of 600, Burgess says 300-400 cars is a good night, and that happens only a handful of times during the season. “Business is OK,” he says. “It depends on the weather, the movie. Part of the problem is that the studios are releasing their summer blockbusters earlier and earlier every year. The drive-in season, basically, is Memorial Day to Labor Day. Hunger Games is the big release this season, and it was out in March. I don’t open until late April. We’ve had some early warm weather this year, but you can’t count on that.

“Then, everything dries up in August, because there’s just no quality product coming out of Hollywood. We’ve got good weather for outdoor movies through September, but with kids back in school, we’re competing with soccer and football games and all of that. So we really need to have a solid June, July and August, and the studios are making that harder and harder.”

Driven to Digital

Burgess is working hard on preserving the past, but he’s also embracing the future; in 2011, he converted from traditional 35mm reel-to-reel to a state-of-the-art digital projection system. The picture is much higher quality, of course, but given the $80,000-plus price tag, his decision was more a matter of survival.

“The major Hollywood studios have announced that in two years, they’re going to stop making 35mm film copies of new releases,” Burgess says. “I considered running the drive-in until I couldn’t get 35mm any more, and then closing, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. There’s nothing to be done about digital, so I decided to go with it.”

Beyond the equipment upgrade, Burgess had to completely renovate his projection booth, to provide the stringent climate control required for the delicate computerized devices: dry air, no hotter than 85 degrees and no colder than 10 – no easy feat in an exposed cinderblock building. “I didn’t have to worry about the projector during the winter, but for the digital, I’ve had to install heaters and come out regularly to make sure everything’s working OK,” he says.

Then, to ensure prompt repair and service for his new system, Burgess learned how to do it himself. “I went out to California and took a class to became a certified service tech,” he says. “Reel-to-reel projectors would break down, of course, but usually, it just meant replacing a gear or some other moving part. It wasn’t that hard. But a digital projector is run by a computer. If something goes wrong, I can’t afford to wait for someone to travel hours, or even days, to get to me.”

All small theater owners, indoor and outdoor, are dealing with the digital issue, including Robert “Duke” Goetz. Goetz’s family has been in the movie biz since 1931, when grandfather Chester and great-uncle Leon opened The Goetz, an indoor theater in downtown Monroe, Wis. When Leon retired, he was bought out by Chester, who then brought his two sons, Robert (Duke’s father) and Nathan, into the business.

In 1954, those two brothers opened the Sky-Vu Drive-In, N. 1936 Wisconsin State Road 69, Monroe, and it’s been in continuous operation ever since. Downtown, the original indoor theater has been expanded to three screens, and Goetz brought all three into the digital age in December 2011. This year, it’s the Sky-Vu’s turn for the upgrade.

“I saw a demonstration of digital in 1999 and was blown away,” says Goetz. “With traditional projectors, you have to deal with starlight, a full moon, rain, fog. And the more distance between screen and projector, the more clarity and brightness you lose at the edges, because it’s just one beam of light. Now, with digital, it’s millions of beams of light, because it’s projected in pixels. The picture stays crisp and clear all the way to the edge of the screen. I’m really looking forward to having it at the drive-in.”

Goetz says he would have converted 10 years ago, except for concern about how the signal would be delivered. Also, as many of us do regarding new technology, he was hoping for cost to come down. That hasn’t really happened, and with the imminent extinction of actual film films, Goetz couldn’t afford to wait any longer.

Highway 18’s original reel-to-reel projector.

Like Burgess, Goetz says his biggest challenge with digital is climate control. “It’s a huge projector – 50 percent more pixels than the largest in the inside theaters, and 33,000 BTUs versus about 20,000,” he says. “My son and I built an insulated wall on the exterior of the projection room last summer, and in anticipation of digital, I added a 3-ton air conditioner.”

Goetz is also getting a new neon sign for the drive-in and has added an ADA handicap-accessible bathroom. Except for other electrical and plumbing upgrades, the Sky-Vu concession stand today is much the same today as in 1954. Goetz has replaced deep fryers with pizza ovens, offering made-to-order, homemade four-cheese pizzas, made with award-winning Green County cheese, instead of fries and onion rings. But grilled hamburgers, foot-long hot dogs, nachos, pretzels, fresh-popped popcorn and other expected fare are still available.

Short of a tornado or loss of power, Goetz says, films are shown every night, rain or moonlight.

Support Your Local Drive-In

Just like other drive-in owners, Goetz has customers comment on the nostalgic experience.

“Some people reminisce about the fishing pond we used to have,” he says. “New customers say they love it and want to know the history.”

And, if cars are any indication, there’s no pinpointing a demographic. “We get Mercedes, semi tractors – without trailers – motorcycles, vans, sports cars,” Goetz says. “People like to come.”

Just like at the other drive-ins, Goetz says, people snuggle inside their cars or sit on lawn chairs in front of them, coming with family, groups of friends, or that special someone. With no playground equipment, the grass in front of the screen is used for tossing a Frisbee or football prior to shows.
Unlike Burgess and the Kerzes, however, Goetz is less of a romantic about why he keeps the drive-in open, saying simply, “Because it makes money.”

Not that Goetz isn’t committed to the family legacy. He’s the only full-time employee for both the indoor and outdoor theaters, using part-timers for concessions, ticket-taking and projection. A trained architect, with a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard, he also owns Robert W. Goetz, Landscape Architect, but spends his time booking films, managing the theaters’ websites and doing much of the maintenance and upgrades himself, with help from son Lucas. Goetz says he hasn’t been paid in nearly two years.

Like most drive-ins, Sky-Vu is open seven days a week, June through August. Goetz recalls how, when his father was alive, he wouldn’t allow them to close the drive-in on weekdays, no matter how slow. Increased advertising in the Madison area brought in more customers, he says. “The weekend that Jurassic Park opened, we had between 500 and 700 cars and only four employees. We couldn’t keep up.”

At the Midway, the Kerzes are scrambling to respond to the demand for digital. For the 10th year, they’ll be hosting “Flashback Weekend Chicago Horror Convention,” Aug. 10-12 at Crown Plaza Chicago O’Hare in Rosemont.

“We use it as a fundraiser for our restoration of the Midway,” Mike says. “Two years ago, we had Robert Englund [best known for his role as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street]. This year, our celebrity guest is John Carpenter [director of 28 films, including the Halloween franchise]. Last year, we brought the convention to the Midway, with a dusk-to-dawn event featuring actor Bruce Campbell. We put up a stage, and he spoke and signed autographs, and we showed all three of his Evil Dead movies. We had more than 500 cars here for that. One couple came all the way from Canada.”

With the looming demise of 35mm, Mike isn’t certain what the future holds. “Large theaters received subsidies for the digital conversion, but mom-and-pops have it tough,” he says. “We can only recoup some of the cost through increased attendance. Our outdoor season is shorter, so we don’t have as much time to make the money necessary to convert to digital.”

Says Burgess: “My guess is that one-third to half of drive-ins will be gone in three to five years.”

Despite obstacles, the Kerzes remain determined. “This latest digital challenge is one that can be overcome,” Mike says. “We’re dedicated to preserving the Midway Drive-In for future generations. With increased support from our community, we’ll be able to convert to digital. They can help by visiting us often, spreading the word – especially on our Facebook page – and by patronizing our concession stand.”

As with any business, it’s going to take customer support to help these American icons to stay open. At drive-ins, the cost of admission only covers the cost of film rental, especially since every show is two for the price of one.

“The only way we can keep our drive-in open is through concession sales,” Mike says.

This means that drive-ins have strict policies of no alcohol and no outside food or drink – a tough call in tough times – not to mention, a tough rule to enforce. Many boomers recall bringing coolers with snacks and drinks to the drive-ins of their youth, and old habits die hard.

At Highway 18, Burgess says, some customers have become so irate at his attempt to enforce the policy that he’s been forced to call the police. While remaining an amiable host, he sticks to his guns.
“I’ve become very strict about the food and drink policy, because it’s not fair to the bulk of my customers who do play by the rules and buy at the concession stand,” he says. “Why should they subsidize those who sneak in their own refreshments?

“Also, as I said before, this isn’t just a business to me. I put my heart and soul into it, to make it a special place for people to visit, and when someone doesn’t respect the rules, I take it personally.”

One look at the menu, and diners will find that offerings are much more diverse at today’s drive-in concessions. At Highway 18, in addition to hamburgers, hot dogs and the usual snack fare, Burgess offers battered fish, pork tenderloin, handmade pizzas and even a vegetarian burger.

In spite of the challenges, these dedicated drive-in theater owners are determined to stay in business. Their success will give those of us with fond memories of nights spent at our local drive-ins the chance to introduce this purely American experience to a new generation of moviegoers.

So pack up the kids and head to one of these nearby 1950s icons. Grab a snack, sit under the open sky, and once the sun sets, see movies the way they were meant to be seen: on a big screen, in the dark, among a crowd.

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