(from the Chicago Tribune May 2021) The number of outdoor drive-in theaters has plummeted in recent years. But thanks to a few hundred drive-in theaters that remain throughout the U.S., the experience of seeing a movie while sitting in your car is not a forgotten piece of cultural history.
Movie fans in the Chicago area can still park their cars, turn on an audio speaker or their radio, and watch a flick under a starry night on a mammoth-sized screen.
The history of drive-ins
Going to the drive-in is a part of American culture that goes back to 1933 when Richard Hollingshead, an auto parts sales person, opened the first drive-in theater in Camden, New Jersey, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Patrons handed over 25 cents per a car and per person to take a gander at the British comedy “Wives Beware” starring Adolphe Menjou.
The next drive-in was Shankweiler’s, which opened a year later in Orefields, Pennsylvania. But drive-ins really didn’t hit their stride until the early 1940s when in-car speakers became widely used. The 1950s, with its plentitude of children born during the baby boom, were a high point for drive-in theaters that provided casual, family-style entertainment at a relatively inexpensive price.
The number of drive-ins reached its zenith in 1958 when they numbered 4,063 in the U.S.The number has dipped dramatically according to the United Drive-In Theater Association, which reports that, as of 2019, there were 349 theater locations with a total of 549 screens throughout the country.
Scott Dehn, owner of the McHenry Outdoor Theatre in Lakemoor, attributes some of the loss to evolving technology. He says some theaters went out of business when digital films arrive, and the costs of acquiring the necessary equipment was out of reach for some drive-in owners.
“Those digital projectors cost $150,000” he says.
In the heyday of drive-ins, many of them were built on large, open properties on the outskirts of towns. However, as communities have expanded, those properties became ripe for redevelopment, the properties were sold, and the theaters disappeared.
When COVID-19 struck in 2020, outdoor theaters, like many other businesses, had to make adjustments in order to survive.
McHenry Outdoor Theatre was closed for a while, but managed to open for part of its normal May to October season.
They operated at reduced capacity.
“We can comfortably fit 800 cars, but we could only have 400 cars”, Dehn says.
The theater also required patrons to wear masks when visiting the concession stand and placed handwashing stations all over its property.
When the theater was able to reopen, Dehn says patrons were starved for entertainment.
“We opened the gates at 6:30 p.m.;’ he says. “I saw two cars there at 10 a.m. I thought they might be having some trouble. I went over and asked them what they were doing and they said,’We’re just in line for the movie tonight.’
The theater also withstood the pandemic by bringing in outdoor concerts and comedians to perform in person. Dehn says those in-person events also helped it cope with fewer movies being released last year due to the pandemic. This season, in addition to movies, he says the theater will host concerts and a monthly car show.
The theater was slated to reopen the weekend of April 30 through May 2 with two classic films on tap:”Jaws”and “Twister!’
Dehn expects the parking lot to be full with carloads of people who’ve forsaken Netflix and other streaming services, and are craving just the sort of entertainment a drive-in theater provides.
“They want that nostalgia and it’s a unique way to see a movie and enjoy the summer;’ he says.
While the McHenry drive-in continues to draw loyal patrons, there are other ways that people can view a movie while relaxing outdoors in the warm breeze of a summer evening.
MOO-V-Night is a Westmont-based venture that was founded in 2007 and brings the screen, audio and projection equip-ment to their patrons.
“Our slogan is,’We bring the drive-in to you,;” says Al Kohout, president of Alkaye Media Group and founder of MOO-V-Night.
When the pandemic struck in 2020, Kohout was concerned that it would have an adverse impact on the business. The opposite turned out to be true, and the business doubled its income in 2020.
“Our slogan really resonated in 2020 as the pandemic required people to maintain social distance.” he says.
“But they still really had a need for a recreational outlet.”
While the company brings the equipment, patrons, if it is a private gathering, provide the movies they want to see.
MOO-V-Night will screen films for a private gathering of a few people in a backyard or for hundreds of people who congregate in a park, school playground, store parking lot, golf course, or any other place they choose to watch a movie under the stars.
Some of the places where MOO-V-Night has shown movies include at Katherine Legge Memorial Park in Hinsdale, Long Beach Country Club in Long Beach, Indiana, and the DuPage County Fairgrounds.
MOO-V-Night is full service. They bring screens, all audio gear, DVD players and even transmitters to broadcast to cars. The crew stays all during the event as well to assure a great time. The cost to rent the equipment and crew begins at $595 and there is no limit set by MOO-V-Night on the number of people who can view the movie.
The company does only one job per night, provides the staff to set up the equipment, and has a back-up set of equipment for all jobs. They also offer free rain dates to all clients.
“We’re all about providing a great experience;’ Kohout says, adding that they have screens in various sizes and can serve private residences or larger venues.
Joy for all
Kohout says bringing films to outdoor venues brings a joy that he finds irresistible.
“I love the smiles on people’s faces”, he says. “We love what we do and the reactions of clients:’
Like Kohout, Dehn enjoys being part of a business that makes people happy, and creates memories they’ll not soon forget.
He enjoys seeing people kick around a soccer balls, toss a Frisbee or playing catch before a movie begins. He also likes the communal experience of seeing a movie at a drive-in.
“It’s really wonderful to see everyone having fun,” he says. “And when something interesting happens on the screen, everyone honks their horns.”