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Drive-ins' last gasp?

Establishments scramble to keep sun from setting on a tradition that's spanned 80 years
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The Cascade Drive-In outdoor movie theater is being converted from 35-millimeter film to a digital projection system on April 25 in west Chicago. The upgrade includes digital sound, which will improve sound from these car speakers.MCT
 Posted: 2:00 AM May 13, 2013

GIBSON CITY, Ill. — Mike Harroun sat in the ticket booth of his Harvest Moon Twin Drive In Theatre collecting admissions, well-aware of the inevitable. He couldn't afford the $160,000 needed to convert his film projectors to digital. He'd have to close the quirky, wind-powered theater with the 1940s carousel, a regional landmark he and his sons had run for nearly a quarter-century.

Then a woman in an SUV carrying a load of little girls pulled up and handed Harroun a jar filled with coins. Tracy Jennings explained that her daughter, Macy, and her friends ran a lemonade stand and wanted to donate all the proceeds — $80 — to save the drive-in.

"It brought tears to his eyes," Mike's son Ben recalled, "and I had to switch places with him."

Macy and hundreds of others ended up saving the Harvest Moon, which has occupied that spot about 110 miles south of Chicago since 1954. The Harrouns recently threw a party to thank all the contributors, offering free food and admission to the first public screening of what might be considered a love story — a documentary about drive-ins, "Going Attractions."

Across much of the country, many of the 357 drive-in theaters that remain from the original peak of more than 5,000 are opening this season — the 80th anniversary of the drive-in and perhaps the most precarious year.

Of Illinois' 12 drive-ins, at least four have converted to digital or are about to, including the Cascade Drive In of west Chicago, where the owners are willing to dig deep to fund the transition. Others, such as the McHenry Outdoor Theatre in McHenry, are launching fundraising campaigns while relying on movies produced on film, a rapidly evaporating pool that might disappear by the fall.

Some probably will be nudged into the Hollywood hereafter by the staggering cost of changing to digital projection.

The predicament has made this year something of a referendum on how Americans value drive-ins, and perhaps by extension, how much we value nostalgia and the offbeat ambience of taking a typically indoor activity outdoors.

"It's just like when sound came to movies," said Scott Dehn, owner of the McHenry Outdoor. "You either have to go with the change or you're going to go extinct."

The Harrouns began serious consideration of that gloomy possibility in about February 2012. Converting to digital required them to replace their conventional film projector, an initial investment that can reach into six figures.

But the cost of creating a digital copy of a movie is $50-$100 compared with up to $1,500 for a 35-millimeter feature film. Digital projection already had swept through most indoor theaters, and drive-in owners knew the availability of movies on film soon would drop drastically. "We decided to do a little fundraising to see how many people wanted to save the drive-in," Ben Harroun said.

They announced a campaign via Facebook and on the drive-in's website. They raffled off a 1967 Mustang, which generated about $9,000. They hosted a concert, which lost $5,000.

After a few months, the Harrouns raised about $10,000. Then they heard about an indoor theater that raised $150,000 in two weeks for the digital changeover, via Kickstarter.com.

The fundraising clearinghouse allows individuals and groups to create an online donor campaign for projects, typically artistic or cultural, over a set time period. If the fundraising falls short, the project creators get nothing and the potential donors' credit cards are not charged.

The Harrouns sought $120,000. By their self-imposed deadline of late September, they'd received pledges of $49,000, Ben Harroun recalled.

"When that fell through," he added, "we almost lost hope."

But they reorganized and created their own fundraising campaign, "Save the Drive In," on the Harvest Moon website. Among those who donated were Macy, of Bloomington, and Payton Whitman, of Cullom, population 550. The 10-year-olds and their families were regulars at the Harvest Moon, and both kids decided independently to set up lemonade stands to help the drive-in. They ended up donating nearly $350.

"I love it more than the (indoor) movie theater," Macy said a few days before attending the donor party. She enjoys playing Frisbee or jumping rope before the movie and during the intermission, and watching movies from her sleeping bag in the back of her family's open SUV hatchback.

Businesses also had gotten involved. Neal Tire and Auto Service, which has 22 stores in Illinois, including a Gibson City location, started by donating $25 for every oil change and ended up contributing a total of $10,000, said Scott Carlon, director of marketing and strategic planning. A number of employees have frequented the Harvest Moon, he added.

"In the whole realm of things, it was a relatively easy decision to make," Carlon said, noting that the Harvest Moon has been a successful enterprise for years and clearly is valued by the community.

By late February, the community had raised nearly $60,000, the Harrouns said, allowing Mike Harroun to borrow $100,000 to make the conversion.

McHenry owner Dehn is hoping for a similar outcome as he mounts a campaign to pay for digital. The Volo Auto Museum has given him a truck from a Superman movie to use in a promotion. Meanwhile, he's going to show movies on film until the supply runs dry, he said.

Drive-ins are "kind of like a time machine," Dehn said. "You go in there, and you're back in the '40s and '50s. That's not something that's created anywhere else."

He'll officially start his campaign on Memorial Day, trying to capitalize on the summer season, when drive-ins achieve their highest recognition in people's minds.

"I haven't thought about not making it," Dehn said. "I'm pretty dedicated to finding some way to make this happen."

Many drive-ins have quirky details that give them notoriety. Apart from the Harvest Moon's wind power, which generates about one-third of its electricity needed during a season, the Harrouns are installing solar panels. The McHenry Outdoor Theater's screen is a seven-story tower with indoor compartments and a ladder that runs to the roof.

West Chicago's Cascade, according to owner Jeff Kohlberg, is the only drive-in that provides grills for customers, and it has a giant 117-by-49-foot screen. Kohlberg, 66, who grew up working at his father's Starlite Drive In in Oak Lawn, said he considered fundraising for the Cascade's digital change but ended up funding the effort himself.

"I could operate that theater if I could just break even and survive," said Kohlberg, who was supervising his drive-in's conversion last week. "I couldn't do anything else. I haven't done anything else. This is in our blood."

Nationally, the fate of the 357 drive-ins remains uncertain. Some estimate that about 250 will remain open this time next year, a precipitous fall from the 4,500 to 5,500 drive-ins that existed in their heyday of the late 1950s, before they were ravaged by suburban sprawl, VCRs, DVD players and sophisticated home entertainment systems.

Against that bleak backdrop, April Wright sees reason for hope. Wright, a Chicago-area native living in Los Angeles, spent five years and visited more than 400 open, abandoned or former drive-in sites in the 48 contiguous states to make the documentary "Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie."

She said Americans are looking for more family-centric activities, particularly affordable activities. Drive-ins' ticket prices often are lower than those of indoor venues, and viewers get two films. Some outdoor theaters even allow patrons to bring their own food.

The other sign of hope is Hollywood's trend toward superhero, animated and more family-friendly movies, Wright said. All of those factors play directly to drive-ins' strengths. The genres — for the most part — appeal to families, and drive-in screens are massive compared to indoor theaters, making the viewing experience that much more powerful and larger-than-life.

"The other thing you have to look at is drive-in capacity is so large compared to indoor theaters," she said, noting that the typical indoor theater has 250 seats. "When a drive-in is selling an audience, it's bringing in 500 to 2,000 people to a screening," Wright added. "These big movies that are family-friendly are exactly the types of spectacle movies that play well at a drive-in."

Dehn, who has fond memories of spending summer weekend nights at drive-ins, wants to perpetuate that ambience.

"I think it would be unfair for us "¦ not to allow that to continue for other generations," he said.



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