Over a half-century ago, the drive-in movie theatre was a cultural icon. But since the 80’s, they’ve been disappearing from the American landscape. The remaining drive-ins still open today are fighting to survive in this digital age.
When Merle and Ruth Lemon of Jacksonville, Illinois first met, they say it was love at first sight.
“I knew we was going to get married. I just knew she was gonna be my wife,” says Merle.
“I knew I wanted to marry him, just…very quickly,” says Ruth.
They met at a local diner when they were students at Illinois State Normal University.
“I wrote to my sister,” says Ruth, “and I said, ‘I met a redheaded farmer and we haven’t got a thing in common.”
Except for a love of movies. Merle says their first date was back in 1957 to see “Jet Pilot” starring his favorite actor, John Wayne.
“John Wayne has never died, you know that, right? John Wayne has never died,” says Merle.
“He’s like Elvis, they keep seeing him somewhere,” says Ruth.
They say the drive-in was the place to go back then. Ruth says it was more romantic.
“You can cuddle better in a car!”
“Yeah! I would lean back against the seat and up against the corner of the door, just pull her up, put my arms around her, you know!”
He says it was so romantic, that he proposed to Ruth at a drive-in.
“I bought the rings and we were up there at the drive-in and I thought, you know, I could lose those rings, what the heck. I’ll just reach back there and give them to her now and see what she says,” laughs Merle.
“And that’s when he reached in the backseat of the car and said, ‘Well if we’re going to get married, I better give you this.’ He never asked me to marry him. So then we got married a month later,” says Ruth.
The Lemons lived through the golden era of drive-in theatres. In the late 50’s, more than 4,000 were in operation across the U.S.
“You can watch the show in your pajamas. So you can, in essence, take your living room with you and see something on the big screen,” says Dr. Shari Zeck, the Associate Dean of the College of Arts at ISU. She says drive-in culture is not what it used to be. Over the past decade, 44 drive-in theaters have gone dark. Equipment expenses, aging owners and an increasing number of entertainment options have caused their steady decline.
“We can stream anything on the planet from Netflix to our home TV set, or we can watch TV shows on Hulu, so the decline in the number of drive-ins and people going to drive-ins is something that I think is unfortunate, not just for itself, but for how it is emblematic of how the consumption of cinema has changed in general,” she says.
Today, about 350 drive-ins are left with twelve sites in Illinois, including Harvest Moon Drive-In Theatre up the road in Gibson City. Now, as 35 millimeter film distribution gets phased out, Manager Ben Harroun says the push to upgrade to expensive digital projectors is putting even more pressure on those remaining drive-ins.
“Last year, about 10 drive-ins closed just in anticipation over the course of the winter, we had another 30 close down say, we’re not even opening this year, the vast majority are hoping to run through the end of the year with film and if they can’t afford a conversion by the end of the year, then they’ll be closed down too,” says Harroun.
Since Harvest Moon has two screens, Harroun says the price for digital conversion is twice as much…about $165,000.
“It’s gonna be the most expensive and dramatic improvement the theater’s seen since we turned it into a twin drive-in in 1996,” he says.
They’ve held fundraisers, auctions and created a Kickstarter campaign online to raise money for a loan, which came through just in time. The new projectors arrived this morning ready to be installed for this season’s grand re-opening.
A long line of cars pay admission and file in on the gravel road to secure a spot for the best view. Greg and Kathy Brown of Bloomington stand outside their mini-van with their three sons Matt, Stephen and Ben.
“My wife and I kinda surprised the boys that we’re going to come out tonight to watch a movie,” says Greg.
They’re in front of Screen 1, showing G.I. Joe: Retaliation.
“Takes you back in time,” says Kathy.
“Excited to introduce them to drive-in movies,” says Greg.
The sun sets on the farm fields surrounding the theatre and it’s finally dark enough to start. Audio from the movies pipes in through car radios. In this vintage setting, you wouldn’t expect vivid images of GI Joe’s lead actor, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson projected on the screen. But the nostalgia of drive-ins combined with modern digital technology might be exactly what saves this struggling business. That’s good news for the Lemons back in Jacksonville. Fifty-five years of marriage, and they’re still watching movies together.
“We went to see the King and I, that was early on in dating,” says Ruth. “The king dies in the end, you know. And I’m sitting there crying and I thought, ‘He’ll think I’m a real idiot.’ And I look over at him and there’s a tear going down his cheek and I thought, ‘He’s a pretty good guy if he’d cry at a movie!”
“I had to really work to get that tear out!” laughs Merle.
Merle and Ruth Lemon can still relive those first dates back at the drive-in.