Rockford area drive-in theaters draw crowds
ROCKTON – Bitter rivals clashed on the big screen on a Friday night this month to the delight of hundreds of spectators enjoying the area’s newest family attraction from the comfort of their cars.
Drive 815, a drive-in cinema partnership between a Rockton entrepreneur and the Beloit International Film Festival, debuted on June 12 by showing the movie “Tom and Jerry” on a 40-foot-wide inflatable screen at Rockton Athletic Fields the Old River Road.
For film buff James Hunt of Roscoe, the night was full of nostalgia.
“Being out at night is a different kind of vibe,” Hunt said. “It brings back memories of my son’s age. This was probably the last time I attended an outdoor movie.
Hunt was accompanied by his wife Casey, their daughter Holland, 14, and Ryker, 8.
“I’m super excited,” said Casey Hunt. “I’ve never done an outdoor movie before, so I think it’s going to capture some great memories.”
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Pop-up drive-in theaters, which typically feature rented screens, projectors and FM transmitters meant to recreate the drive-in theater experience of the 1950s, are becoming more and more common in the region.
The traditional drive-through saw a resurgence across the country during the pandemic, when indoor theaters were closed as health officials tried to keep audiences from rubbing shoulders with large groups of people.
But as the country emerges from the pandemic, some of the drive-in options inspired by health restrictions are here to stay.
That’s what happened in Belvidere, where the Belvidere Park District kicked off a drive-in season last summer. The series was so popular that the neighborhood brought it back this year, and this time with a permanent screen in place.
“We started last year at the height of the pandemic,” said Belvidere Park District Marketing Supervisor John Beachum. “We had just opened Sundstrand Park and we thought that might be a way to at least keep community members engaged in the park district. At first, we rented these inflatable screens. The first two films we made were so well received that we decided to build a permanent screen, which is up there now. “
The district’s second annual summer drive-through season at Sundstrand Park, 2288 Newburg Road, kicked off on May 28 with the screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”.
The Rockford Park District’s “Flix on the Farm” outdoor film series in Lockwood Park is scheduled to resume in the fall, according to the Park District website.
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According to the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association, the peak year for drive-ins was 1958, when there were 4,063 across the country. That figure fell to just 305 at the last count in October 2019.
The Drive 815 was created by Jalen Ponder, a 2020 Hononegah High School graduate who owns and operates marketing company Evendtor.
“One of the things I wanted to do was create an event that everyone in the community could be proud of,” said Ponder, 19. “I just do what I love to do and I’ll do it every summer if I can because it’s a dream for me.”
According to Ponder, the opening night at Drive 815 drew 102 cars and about 400 people.
Families eagerly awaiting the film’s debut on June 12 had fun throwing bean bags and horseshoes.
Several food trucks were on site to satisfy appetites of all ages.
“We hope to continue operating throughout the summer,” said Beloit International Film Festival executive director Greg Gerard. “As many weekends as we can go, we’re going to go.”
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New movie theaters, called popups in the industry, can’t compare to the traditional drive-in experience of previous generations, said Mark Frank, executive secretary of the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association, an organization based in Maryland. which represents 145 drive-ins in the United States
“Popups are playing classics,” Frank said. “At this time, Hollywood won’t let a pop-up theater play new movies.”
According to Driveinmovie.com, Illinois has nine permanent theaters under construction, including the McHenry Outdoor Theater in McHenry and Midway Drive-In in Sterling.
The Midway, which opened in 1950 and bills itself as “Illinois’ coolest drive-in,” was purchased in 2007 by Mike and Mia Kerz.
The historic drive-in screen tower has been renovated and painted, the projection booth equipment has been upgraded, and the concession stand has been restored to its original 1950s dinner theme.
Technically speaking, the Midway is no longer your parent’s drive-in, Mike Kerz said.
“In the old days, bulbs couldn’t be too bright because they would literally melt the film,” he said. “Now with digital projectors we have these huge lamps, so the picture is very bright and crisp. Sound was a weak link with drive-ins because of the speakers on the poles. Now the sound is transmitted to your car stereo via FM stereo, so you literally control the sound.
Midway Drive-In, located midway between Sterling and Dixon, has a capacity of 500 cars and is open from May to October.
Traditional drive-ins like the Midway have seen a resurgence due to COVID and because theaters are now licensed by studios to show first-run movies, Kerz said.
“Sure, it’s nostalgia because drive-ins are such an institution in America,” he said. “You arrive early, the sun is slowly setting and you are with family and friends. So it’s a shared experience and it’s really about being outdoors in nature, which is wonderful.