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Enjoy drive-in theaters on their 80th anniversary, while you still can

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The drive-in theater turned 80 years old this summer, but this summer is when Peoria's Landmark Drive-In started its first full season, continuing into September.

The first official drive-in theater was in Camden, N.J., which ushered in the era in 1933. By the mid-1950s one in four moviehouses in the country had an outdoor screen where people packed into cars, used playgrounds before sunset, ran to the concession stand and settled in to enjoy movies and a car's passengers, either talking or trying not to doze with other kids in the backseats.

Soon, real estate prices, TV and alternative activities combined to cut the number of drive-ins from 5,000 nationwide to fewer than 400 today.

One of them is in Peoria.

After a trial run of five weeks last summer, Landmark Drive-In this May opened on the north-end parking lot of the property at 3225 N. Dries Lane in Peoria. It can accommodate 200 cars and on Fridays and Saturdays features mostly films that have been out for a while ("The Blind Side" and "Gremlins," Indiana Jones and even "Plan 9 from Outer Space," plus other family fare), available as licensed DVDs shown via a large-venue projector.

"The picture is absolutely fantastic, a real upgrade from last year," said manager Zach Washburn, who for eight years worked at the High Lite 30 Drive-In in Aurora, then the biggest in Illinois.

"It was a piece of history," he says.

History could be repeating itself, if on a more modest scale. Landmark and a handful of new drive-ins, such as the Coyote Drive-In in Fort Worth, Texas, could signal a comeback of sorts, together with a market to which watching movies while sipping micro-brewed beers or enjoying other refreshments is appealing.

One speed bump on the road back to the lazy, crazy days of summers watching films under the stars is the "modernization" from celluloid to digital, which is threatening all moviehouses, but especially operations in small towns and drive-ins. The motion picture industry in the next year plans to drop 35mm film prints and switch to digital delivery, saving on production and shipping (even if seeming to violate anti-trust laws). Gibson City's Harvest Moon drive-in had a successful fund-raising campaign to make the transition and the twin-screen Autovue in Galva is promoting itself as part of Honda's "Project Drive-In" contest to award digital projection equipment to the top five vote-getters.

Dubbed the Digital Cinema Initiative, it's a costly upgrade that benefits big entertainment conglomerates at the expense of independent operators – and audiences.

"They'd make us jump through a whole bunch of hoops and it's hard to justify a $60,000 to $65,000 investment right now," Washburn says.

Still, for now, an "absolutely loyal audience" is developing, discovering – or re-discovering – fun entertainment that could be appreciated as an endangered species of amusement, Washburn says.

Landmark notes that it doesn't encourage smoking or drinking, but they're not prohibited – nor are pets if Fido wants to watch contemporary character-actor equivalents of Benji, Lassie or Rin-Tin-Tin. "Tailgate" cooking, however, is banned on site.

"You get to hang out with friends and family without people harping on you for talking or whatever, and you can picnic, enjoy a cold beer or a cigarette and do what you want and not upset the guy behind you," Washburn says..

The sound – delivered via vehicles' radios on FM 100.7 – is amazingly better than the classic metal speakers on poles that theatergoers detached to hang on their car windows decades ago.

The "seating" is better, too (unless you drive some 1933 roadster): your own car or truck, whether a bucket seat, a rooftop or the bed of a pickup.

"When they come here, a lot of them don't know what to expect and they're surprised – pleasantly surprised," Washburn says. "Being in Peoria, we have high hopes but aren't sure what to expect, really."

Illinois in the 1950s had more than 120 outdoor picture shows, but that number has dropped by

90 percent and few remain in operation.

"I suspect that not many people are going to travel (from the Peoria area) to Galva or Springfield for the drive-in experience, as cool as it is," Washburn adds.

If you go to Landmark's drive-in on some Friday and want more the next night, here are a few drive-in options within a couple of hours driving time from the Peoria area:

Galva AutoVue Drive-In Theater, 8 James B. Young Rd. near the school on the north side of Galva; (309) 932-2919.Harvest Moon Drive-In, 1123 S. Sangamon Ave., Gibson City; (217) 784-8770.Litchfield Skyview Drive-In, North U.S. Route 66 in Litchfield; (217) 324-4451.Midway Drive-In & Diner, 91 Palmyra Rd., Sterling; (815) 622-2900.Route 34 Drive-In, 4468 E. 12th Rd., Earlville; (815) 246-9700.Route 66 Drive-In (formerly the Green Meadows Drive-in), 1700 Recreation Dr., Springfield; (217) 698-0066.Skyview Drive-In, 55700 N. Belt West, Belleville; (618) 233-4400.

Landmark's open-air theater opens at 7 p.m. and shows start at dark. Admission is $5 for adults; $3 for children and $20 for a carload of moviegoers. For films or other details, visit landmarkreccinemas.com or phone (309) 682-6350.

About the Author
Bill Knight recently retired after a couple decades teaching journalism at Western Illinois University. Now, you might find him strolling through the streets of Elmwood with his wife and fellow writer, Terry Bibo, along with their son, Opie, and his beloved collie, Lassie.* *Actually this last bit isn’t true. Not to mention the fact that our writer got “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Lassie & Timmy” mixed up.