In 1958, when I was 5 years old, my father took me in my pajamas to the Galesburg Drive-In Theater. There, munching mouthfuls of popcorn, I watched my first outdoor movie.
Of course, I have no memory what was playing or much else about that night, but I do remember at one point he took me inside the projection booth, where I stood in awe of giant film reels and spinning alien machinery.
Since that moment, I have been fascinated with film and movies.
That same year, according to industry statistics, there were more than 4,000 outdoor drive-in movie theaters in business throughout the United States. Today, according to industry sources, there are fewer than 400 still beaming illuminated images over parked cars in all but three states.
If you were to ask local outdoor movie enthusiasts, one of the best ones you can find a real throwback to the 1950s sits in our own backyard: The Route 34 Drive-In Theater outside Earlville.
The idea of watching movies from a sitting automobile originally came from Richard Hollingshead of Riverton, N.J. In 1933, Hollingshead decided to combine America's passionate love affair with cars and movies. He nailed a white sheet between trees and mounted a projector onto the hood of his driveway-parked car. His invited neighbors, thrilled with the unusual outdoor movie show, filled his yard with cars, chairs and blankets.
Granted a U.S. patent later that year, the enterprising Hollingshead experimented with parking arrangements and outdoor sound equipment, resulting in his hometown opening of the first drive-in theater outside nearby Camden. Like his driveway experiment, it was an immediate success.
Hollingshead's outdoor film presentation blueprint soon was duplicated across the nation as drive-ins popped up in communities both large and small. American moviegoers loved the novelty of lounging, snacking, even smoking in the privacy of their own vehicles while enjoying double features for low prices.
Catering to young suburbanites, most ran second-run features or independent horror flicks. Some featured live music, pony rides, fireworks, playgrounds and others, miniature golf. Attendance soared as the emerging teen culture adopted the theaters as their own. Couples found the lure of privacy in dark cars away from their parents too much to resist, thus earning some theaters the well-deserved pseudonym, "passion pits."
Families flocked to drive-ins. Kids would wear pajamas. Moms didn't need to dress up or even wear makeup. Dads could sneak a bottle or two of a favorite beer hidden with sodas under blankets in metal coolers. And, at many, house pets were welcomed.
As the drive-in became a seemingly instant American icon, the industry hit its peak in the late 1950s when there were reportedly 4,063 drive-ins open in the United States. Illinois had 120 itself. Earlville had one.
The 1960s also were good years for the outdoor movie business. However, in the 1970s, soaring real estate prices around metropolitan areas made it increasingly expensive for drive-ins to remain commercially viable.
The wide expansions of land become valuable to sell while modern entertainment innovations color TV, VCRs, and video movie rentals all chipped away profits from the seasonal theaters. Across America, they began to fade to memories.
But not in Earlville.
The 34 Drive-In has been showing open air movies since the late Charlie Dyas built it in 1954. Ron Magnoni Jr., who got his passion for the movie exhibition business from a father who managed theaters throughout the Illinois Valley, has owned and operated the Earlville business since 1994.
As any true connoisseurs would tell you, the heart of any drive-in is the concession stand, and Earlville's snack bar is no exception. Regulars know the food found at Magnoni's counter is outstanding, with high marks for the corn dogs, nachos, shrimp dinners and the classic Green River soda on tap and in bottles.
Open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from May to October, the Earlville Drive-In can squeeze almost 350 vehicles throughout the grass lanes. However, the 2009 season has been slightly disappointing, weather-wise, for Magnoni. Commenting on the unusually wet summer, he said, "It has rained on us more this year than any other I can remember since I've been here."
The wet summer weather hasn't kept regular drive-in patrons Nathan and Rose Sellers of Ottawa from taking their sons, Angel and Tony, up to the Earlville movies. They estimate they've been there 11 times this year.
Rose believes the time spent at the outdoor theater creates "good memories" for all of them and each agreed they enjoy the "family time together."
"It is nice to watch the sunset before seeing the movie," Nathan said. "It is much nicer than being stuck in some tiny (indoor) theater." Nathan agreed with his wife.
"The Earlville Drive-In makes for good memories for a low price."
Angel isn't as sentimental as his folks. Chomping down pizza, the young boy said, "I just love the movies!"
A few speaker poles down the lane, Kevin and Becky Dornik of Peru watch their children, Lydia and Ethan run up and down the green lanes in a race to touch the giant screen. It is the first time the little kids have been to a drive-in.
"My folks brought me here when I was a kid," Becky said, "so my husband and I wanted to come to Earlville for a family adventure."
Watching her kids tripping and falling in the soft grass, the mom said their car was loaded with candy and snacks and, after eating, she expected them to sleep through most of the features. "I'm sure they will remember being here like I do with my folks."
As I jot down notes and thoughts for this article, I pause to stand for the national anthem ,which Magnoni runs nightly to start the show. Many others throughout the green acreage, young and old, stand with hands over hearts. Back in the car, I grab some popcorn, sip from a sweet Green River soda and settle in for an exciting double feature.
And, for a moment, in my mind I'm five years old again and happy in my PJs, watching a drive-in movie with my dad.