Ozoners rev it up for Drive-in Day


Families and friends who are looking for that evening of entertainment and nostalgia under the stars know the appeal of the drive-in theater. Not many of them remain as compared to the industry’s height in the 1950s and 1960s, yet the roughly 300 locations still in business for the 2023 season are doing the good deed of keeping this slice of Americana alive.

Today, they’ll promote National Drive-in Day, celebrated on the date the first-ever drive-in opened in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey, and the 90th anniversary of the ozoner’s legacy, as its owner and designer Richard Hollingshead, Jr., premiered the concept on the night of Tuesday, June 6, 1933, when the Camden Drive-in Theatre presented a British comedy from MGM called WIVES BEWARE. History buffs can find ephemera about this milestone and notes regarding hundreds of drive-ins past and present on websites like Cinema Treasures, DriveInMovies.com, and the official page of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, while our dearest researchers can learn about the local by visiting Perry Morris’ indispensable Champaign-Urbana Theater History page.

Why not map out a few summer road trips right now? Of course, the Harvest Moon Twin Drive-in of Gibson City is the go-to destination for residents of Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal, and all the neighboring towns; they’ll show SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE and SHREK on Screen 1 and GREASE and THE LITTLE MERMAID on Screen 2 tonight to mark the anniversary. The Route 66 Drive-in on the grounds of Knight’s Action Park in Springfield will be back open tomorrow night, June 7, with MERMAID and THE BOOGEYMAN on Screen 1 and SPIDER-MAN and FAST X on Screen 2. C-U Blogfidential friend and former columnist Tyler Tharpe continues to bring the retro goods at the Centerbrook Drive-in of Martinsville, Indiana, and will show MERMAID and FAST X tonight.

The other Illinois venues, according to DriveInMovie.com, are the Drive ‘N in Newton, the McHenry Indoor/Outdoor in McHenry, the Midway in Sterling, the Route 34 in Earlville, the Skyview in Belleville, and a different Skyview in Litchfield.

It may be dispiriting to fans of the “automotive movie theatre,” per Hollingshead’s ballyhoo back in 1933, to see the regular thrum of headlines bemoaning the fate of the drive-in. Benefits have dwindled from the brief surge of ticket and concession sales they enjoyed during the pandemic, when moviegoers could watch a show and practice social distancing as a default, or the national press coverage that followed.

For every persistent location with decades of miles on the odometer like Shankweiler’s Drive-in Theatre of Orefield, Pennsylvania, the oldest remaining example, there are multiple teetering on the brink for a myriad of reasons such as the 88 Drive-in Theatre of Commerce City, Colorado, near Denver. For every set of partners that takes a chance and establishes a brand-new venue, such as the owners of the high-tech LoCo Drive-in of Loudon, Tennessee, near Knoxville, there are folks who are forced to make big decisions as to whether the screen remains dark, such as the Magnoni family of the aforementioned Route 34 Drive-in Theatre after the husband, operator Ron Magnoni, Jr., passed away in February.



The struggle is real in a specialized corner of the entertainment world that, not so long ago, was put upon by the studio system to discard reel projection in favor of high-priced digital projectors. Can these rarefied souls behind the scenes ever catch a break in the simple quest to give their customers a good time and nice memories without emptying their pockets?

Heavy conundrums and rays of hope are explored in the most recent “Going Attractions” film produced by Illinois native and Los Angeles resident April Wright, BACK TO THE DRIVE-IN, which received sneak previews at select locations on National Drive-in Day a year ago, consistent bookings through the summer and fall of 2022, and a digital VOD release on multiple platforms as of Tuesday, March 14, courtesy of MPX and Uncork’d Entertainment. It is a direct follow-up to the first GOING ATTRACTIONS that addresses the fortunes of 11 theaters and their stewards, none of them cut from the same particular cloth, as they adjust to new realities in 2021 and an uncertain future. The Harvest Moon has a more prominent role in BACK TO THE DRIVE-IN than GOING ATTRACTIONS and it’s neat to see co-operator Ben Harroun doing a live Facebook update at the beginning of the official trailer.

Just as filmmaker Wright has gone above and beyond over the last decade to tell the stories of this quintessential American pastime and what once constituted “the movie-going experience,” the Harroun brothers and their families and staff work hard to bring excitement to their events. Look over the website and you can feel the deliberate effort to infuse every weekend with a welcoming sense of fun. This includes outside-the-box thinking on how to use the drive-in grounds for other purposes, such as a late spring arts-and-crafts fair and an upcoming kids’ carnival to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and is exactly the kind of creativity we’d hope for from a locally-owned business. It radiates personality and fosters community.

While hardly a walk in the park along the outskirts of Gibson City, as Ben shared with CUBlog last year, it’s been worthwhile for the Harrouns so far. Their father Mike, who took a big swing in helping to revive the Harvest Moon in 1989, should be proud.

On the receiving end of the flickering images cutting through the hazy summer air, we need to put our collective foot down with our dollars and sense if we want these theaters to continue. Find one or more online that float your boat and plan a trip with spending cash, plenty of gas, picnicking gear, and GPS directions on your phone. Check the listings carefully, though. Most drive-ins rely on first-run fare to pay the bills and satisfy the families, but some will program catalog titles on the off days or late in the season.

It is unfortunate that few open-air houses dare to book genuine B-films that fully recall the classic drive-in aesthetic, but not everyone can be the Mahoning Drive-In Theater in Leighton, Pennsylvania, either. To that end, we’ll call it a wrap by linking to a new PSA collaboration between AuthenticDriveIns.com and Wright’s April 9 Entertainment in honor of National Drive-in Day that features the popular cult-film slingers of THE LAST DRIVE-IN on the Shudder network, Joe Bob Briggs (John Bloom) and Darcy the Mail Girl (Diana Prince). Why? Because, according to them, the drive-in will never die. And, scene.

~ Jason Pankoke



p.s. The PSA also effectively serves as a PSA for Joe Bob and Darcy’s upcoming extravaganza, the third annual World Drive-in Jamboree, which moves this year to the West Wind Drive-in of Las Vegas, Nevada. (The joint has six screens. Oof.) Hit it here for more information on attending and submitting your films.

p.s.2 Despite my personal vote that drive-in theaters should stick around if there is any justice (and a livable outdoor environment) in the coming years, I’ve had very little interaction with them up until now, even the ones I happened to live by over my lifetime. Maybe I’ll tell you about it on ND-ID next June. Maybe I’ll also get it together and, you know, take my own advice. Who’s riding shotgun?

p.s.3 That said, I haven’t felt the good conscience to regularly go out and do fun-time things in the last few years given my circumstance. That’s sad, considering the Route 34 Drive-in is less than 20 miles from Momkoke Manor and the second-closest theater to me after (bleh) a shoebox AMC. I haven’t gone there yet and I’ll be fortunate if I can finally check it out. No films have been shown in Earlville this year and their website is down, but a cryptic message posted to Facebook on June 4 implies the family is intending to reopen. CUBlog sends best wishes to them in making the appropriate decisions, and here is a video by John Sweeney that I found in which Ron Magnoni, Jr., talks about running the Route 34. He sits by a 35mm projector, debates DCP conversion, and name-checks Christopher Nolan, so that’s its vintage.


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