It’s Memorial Day (have a happy one, by the way), so I figured there’s no better time than now to share my newspaper column from five years ago when I was at The Daily Times in Ottawa, Ill., and visited the one place in north central Illinois …
Where it’s Memorial Day all summer long
The WISCH LIST
June 1, 2004
There were burgers. There were hot dogs. There were lawn chairs, blankets and a whole mess of giggling kids running over and around them.
And just before the festivities really got underway this past weekend in Earlville, they turned on a recording of the national anthem and staged a red-white-and-blue tribute to our nation’s military.
Memorial Day picnic, right?
But don’t say people weren’t remembering during this Memorial Day Weekend at the Route 34 Drive-In Theater.
Heck, that’s all they do there.
“My dad was a union projectionist,” Ron Magnoni, Jr., Route 34 Drive-In’s owner since 1994, said last Friday evening while tearing tickets and handing them through minivan windows outside his theater’s entrance. “I’ve been doing this kind of stuff since I was a kid.”
In the era of DVDs, flat-screen TVs and multiplex theaters not a whole lot of people catch their movies in the great outdoors anymore. But for the past five decades in the grassy field banked by a railroad track and a rural highway just west of Earlville, they’ve been doing exactly that.
“This is the 50th year here,” Magnoni, a native of Oglesby, said about the dandy dinosaur that is Route 34 Drive-In, which is selling commemorative pins and magnets this summer in honor of its milestone anniversary. “The theater opened on June 11, 1954.”
According to the original newspaper ad hanging on wall inside the concession stand — where they still sell Green River fountain drinks and have a working jukebox — the double-feature on that long-ago evening included “Pride of the Bluegrass” (starring Lloyd Bridges) and “Paris Playboys,” plus a bonus short of Walt Disney’s “Three Little Pigs.”
This past Friday, it was “Scooby Doo 2” and “Starsky & Hutch” flickering on the big screen. But, no matter the movie, the drive-in’s appeal has remained the same.
“I’ve been coming here probably 23, 24 years,” Ottawan Becky Johnson said while she and her husband, Stanley, sat on the open tailgate of their pick-up truck, waiting for the sun to go down. “The kids have grown up and ditched us … But when it’s a nice night, we just throw the bed in the back of the truck, kick back and enjoy the fresh air.”
Not to mention the price.
“Six bucks, two movies …” Becky said. “Can’t beat it.”
In the late 1950s, during the height of the Drive-In boom, Illinois had more than 120 outdoor theaters scattered throughout the state. Today in the 21st century, that number has plummeted by 90 percent, and only 12 drive-ins remain.
But one of them still stands just 20 miles northwest of Ottawa.
Or 50 miles east of Princeton — if you’re coming from that way.
“We heard about the theater through word of mouth,” said Jennifer Williams of Princeton, who made the Friday night drive over with her husband, their 5-year-old son, Jacob, and his buddy Matthew. “We came just a few weeks ago, and it’s a blast.
“Jacob even turned down ‘Shrek 2’ to come see Scooby Doo outside.”
“Yep,” said Jacob, who was missing his two front teeth but not the chance to see a show on a 50-foot screen. “I like the part where we sit in the back of the truck.”
He wasn’t the only one.
“All your problems go away for a couple hours when you’re here,” a drive-in buff named Joe said last Friday. “And there’s nothing like seeing the picture on the great big screen.
“It’s better than sitting in a shoebox theater.”
(This column — along with many more, by the way — appears in my book, “Northern IlliNOISE: Tales of a Territory,” which you can read more about here.)