The 35-Millimeter Race: A push for new technology might be leading film to celluloid extinction, but the ambiance of drive-ins helps this breed of entertainment live on

Theatergoers enjoy birthday cake while waiting for “Monsters University” to begin. The environment resembles a family picnic, said a frequent drive-in patron. (H-W Photo/Jonece Dunigan)
Posted: Jul. 31, 2013 9:18 pm Updated: Nov. 28, 2014 8:15 pm
Riley Akright, left, from Barry, and Delanie Casto and Caylin Dean, both of Pittsfield, Ill., sit in the back of a van and watch a movie at the Clark 54 Drive in Theatre. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)

Herald Whig Staff Writer

SUMMER HILL, Ill. -- Michael Glass stumbled upon the Clark 54 Drive In Theatre in the summer of 1999 on his way home to Jerseyville after a family trip to Hannibal, Mo.

His wife, Jeanie, and daughter, Jessica, gazed at the marquee diseased with rust and the ticket booth that sagged from a black plague of rotted wood. Nonetheless, curiosity lured them to accompany four other cars waiting to watch a movie on a 10-acre lot where saplings were reclaiming Mother Nature's territory.

Michael's inspiration was ignited.

As the movie "Drop Dead Gorgeous" flickered to life on the 60-by-80-foot screen, he initiated a conversation with then-owner Tom Gates. Jeanie watched the unexpected encounter evolve into a partnership from the car window.

"Watch, your dad wants to buy this thing," she remembers saying with a laugh to her daughter. "Wouldn't that be funny?"

Jeanie's predictions materialized when Michael took a detour from his career of welding and truck driving to shadow Gates for a year and a half. He watched and learned as Gates weaved the 35-millimeter film between the machine's spools of the projector.

"I really didn't have a theater background," Michael said, "but I had to learn it. Learned it fast. Now, I feel like I'm somewhat of an expert at it."

Planted on what was once known as the Ray Williams farm in Summer Hill, halfway between Louisiana, Mo., and Pittsfield on U.S. 54, the business blossomed into a family affair when Michael bought and breathed new life into the theater in March 2001. Jessica and her twin sister, Jennifer, became the drive-in's walking promotions as they informed family, friends and the community's 205 residents about their parents' investment.

"It was neat to say that my parents owned it," Jennifer said, "We would have family that would come and see it. It's something that I really wouldn't expect my parents would do, but it was neat how it all happened so fast -- they bought the place and fixed it up and the business grew."


Made in the U.S.A.

Drive-in movie theaters are an American-born industry, pioneered and patented by Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. of Camden, N.J. His backyard experiments with a screen nailed to a tree and a 1928 Kodak projector birthed a new breed of entertainment in 1932.

Clark 54 was one of the 4,063 drive-ins created during the business' golden age of the 1950s and 1960s. With just 10 acres of land to work with, Russell Armentrout and a handful of contractors built the theater from scratch by drilling a well for water, installing their own sewer tanks and erecting a handmade, pearly white screen. After three months of construction, Russell decided the theater would have two namesakes: his father, Clark Armentrout, and the rural U.S. 54 that runs beside it.

Customers paid 50 cents to watch the movie "Tomahawk" on July 2, 1952. Michael says he wouldn't be surprised if the first movie attracted the 400-car maximum for its opening night.

"Most people didn't have televisions, and if they did, there wasn't much on there. So people looked to drive-ins for entertainment," he said.

After Russell died in 1973, Gates took over the operation. He kept it running while 1,000 other screens across the country went dark in the late 1980s, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. Michael suspects that customers were trading in the drive-in's outdoor entertainment for the mom-and-pop video rental stores.

"When people first got VCRs, they thought it was great and thought, ‘Hey, if I could rent it, why not?' " Michael said.

Gates opened the theater some years and didn't in others, and the Clark 54 started to deteriorate. The snack bar resembled a prop from a war movie with busted windows, spider-web cracked concrete, and a sea of trash marinating in the moisture leaking from the rafters.

"It looked like a typical drive-in that had been closed for 15 or 20 years," Michael said.

Michael bought the property after Gates was diagnosed with cancer. He spent his first three months of ownership reversing time by throwing out the garbage, hand-carving the countertops and uprooting the underground cables of the window speakers. After concealing the chipping exterior behind broad bands of red and yellow paint, he returned the site to its former glory and caught the eyes of new customers on June 15, 2001.

"When I first opened, I used to hear, ‘Man, that place looks so much better,' " Michael said, "I don't hear that anymore, because people have forgotten how it looked back then."


$5 a head

Nostalgia lured Michael into this line of business. For $5 a head, with kids age 4 and younger free, he recreates the experience he enjoyed 40 years ago as he watched Clint Eastwood's Western persona while lying in the comfort of his father's arms.

"It's one of those things, like the food you grew up with that you like. Something about being outdoors always made it seem like a natural way to watch movies to me," Michael said.

Going to the drive-in also was a weekend tradition in Jeanie's family when she was a child in Hartford, a small town in Madison County. The buttery smell of the popcorn helped seduce her to buy Milk Duds, Junior Mints and a Chilly Dilly Pickle combo.

"It seemed like I would eat the pickle and always get sick because they were so big and so sour, but sure enough, when I came to the drive-in, I would always get a Chilly Dilly Pickle," Jeanie said.

Bobby Hunn and his family from Vandalia, Mo., recently made their first visit at Clark 54, dancing outside their car to the song "You Can't Stop the Beat" from the musical "Hairspray." The movie's 1960s setting, combined with 1960s charm of the drive-in, created a time-travel experience they couldn't get at home.

"It took us back to that time era, especially here," Hunn said, "We actually bought the movie and watched it at home quite a bit, but it's nothing like coming to the drive-in."

Michael witnesses more cars rolling down the gravel path with every April through September season. The theater lot maxed out once in 2007 with 410 cars on a Saturday night when Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" was featured. Michael remembers his body pinballing between the two ticket windows that night, trying to get an average of five cars a minute through the gate before showtime.

"It was stressful getting them through there, but it was really an amazing sight to me to look out from the ticket booth and see nothing but cars," Michael said.

Clark 54 doesn't see 400 cars much anymore, and depending on the weather, the theater attendance could be in the teens or as many as 200.

The theater continues to function as one of the 357 drive-ins open today, according to the industry group.

The number could drop to 356 if Michael decides to sell the property.


Unknown future

Michael opened the drive-in two weeks late this season. The property has been on the market with an asking price of $245,000 since March. He struggled with the thought of letting it go.

One morning, the little kid inside of him won.

"I thought, ‘Let's go ahead and open it, because we won't sell it before the summer anyway, and there's no point of losing all the business we built up waiting for someone to buy it,'?" he said.

Many factors make the Glasses' desire to sell fluctuate, but the main one is that they're just plain tired. The family has invested 13 years of work into the business, with summer camping trips and family outings as collateral damage. Michael wants to trade in his days hauling in movie reels and arranging candy on the concession stand for cruises on his fishing boat.

"I'm 51 years old, and Lord knows how many healthy years you got left," he said. "I'd rather spend my time on other things … that and all the hard hours and the late nights get you tired."

Michael has only closed two weekends because of family emergencies. Six days a week, you'll see him pulling into the lot after the hourlong ride from his home in Jerseyville to prepare for the frenzy. He spends the seventh day making phone calls to Hollywood, negotiating prices with the major studios for next weekend's movie.

"It's like a whirlwind," he said. "I absolutely can't get a day off for the summer. I can do it, but I have to arrange it. I can't relax knowing there's work to be done."

One of Michael's jobs is to inspect the celluloid strips with the rigor of a diamond examiner. It's a critical step in the ritual of keeping the images crisp, so the audience doesn't realize the difference between digital quality and film quality. Technology might be altering the products, but it doesn't change the experience of the customer.

"Very few people care about the projector," Michael said. "I've been asked to pause and rewind sometimes … all they know is that there's a picture up there."



If he doesn't sell the drive-in, Michael soon will have to pay $70,000 for a digital projector. The device is built with a $20,000 light engine and $5,000 in special lenses. The bill also includes an investment in a heating and cooling system to keep the equipment at a constant 80 degrees. He also must install an Internet connection to keep the movie streaming through the refrigerator-sized server. A security gate of encrypted information protects the movie from piracy. Michael estimates the maintenance will be $3,000 more.

"That's more than anything I've ever spent on in years," Michael says, "So, that's a big pill to swallow there, but if I decide to stay in business, my main goal would be getting that projector."

A January story in the Los Angeles Times reported that 90 percent of the nation's drive-ins had yet to convert to digital projectors.

Major film studios like Warner Brothers and Walt Disney Pictures pay $1,500 per copy to manufacture and transport film, but it will cost only $150 to translate the film to an electronic drive that can only be inserted in a digital projector.

Michael hears rumors that production studios will stop making film by the end of the year, leaving unconverted drive-ins with an ultimatum.

"You either convert, or you don't get movies. It's not a good deal for the (drive-in and indoor) theaters, because we bear the cost of the projector, and the studio saves all the money," Michael said.

There are other avenues for financing the device other than going out of pocket. Bigger drive-ins apply for Virtual Print Fees -- a program that pays theater owners a small percentage for every digital movie played. It's a privilege the Clark 54 doesn't qualify for because it's not open seven days a week.

Other smaller drive-ins around the country are trying to raise the money through campaigns, but that goes against Michael's moral code.

"I don't want to feel like I'm obligated," he said, "I don't want to spend all that money and still be doing this and still wanting to get out of it. I would rather someone else buy it that's fresh and let them do it."


Rain or shine

Managing a drive-in requires someone to be a jack of all trades.

Michael is part electrician, fumbling with the mechanics of the projector. He's part gambler, tracking the views of major films around the world to judge whether it'll be a moneymaker. He's part meteorologist when the weather gets bad; the worry lines on his forehead frown as he patrols the sky for storm clouds.

"I always try to figure it out," Michael said, "I'm at the snack bar, and I see the clouds and say, ‘Oh, it's going to miss us.' Then I get up to the ticket booth, and it starts gushing rain down on me."

Clark 54 doesn't shut down because of bad weather. Michael believes it's bad business to make customers believe that he won't show up. His policy, however, can create disappointment when walls of wind and sheets of rain make the lights flicker, shake the ticket booth shake and muffle the audio with static.

"You work hard all week for a good weekend, and then the rain comes at the worst possible time," Michael said.

The good weekends, defined as "a popular movie and calm skies" in Michael's terms, always cancel out the bad ones. When the theater showed "Monsters University," 700 cars spilled onto the lot for the three double-feature showings that weekend. The business made $100 more than the previous six stormy weekends combined.

"When one weekend is over," Michael said, "you're looking toward the next one, and you have renewed optimism from the next week's weather for movies."

A little drizzle doesn't always dampen the mood of the crowd. People flee to the shelter of the car or the snack bar's awning to monitor the weather on their phones, calculating how many minutes it'll take for the swirls of green on the radar to pass over.

Seeing the excitement on the lot despite the weather keeps Jeanie happy as she mops up the rainwater in the snack bar.

"Rain or shine, we still have fun," she said.


Family builders

The Glasses' four grandkids renamed Jeanie "the grandma at the drive-in." Clark 54 is their amusement park during the summer as they mask their faces with chocolate morsels and Blue Bell ice cream. Jeanie looks forward to recovering her grandmother duties if the business is sold.

"The only grandma times I get in the summer are at drive-in. I wish that we could do more things as a family, like go to Six Flags or the swimming pool, but since this is where I am, this is where they come," Jeanie said.

After college and marriage, Jennifer Glass Schmidt stopped working at her parents' drive-in and now teaches preschoolers how to count and how to spell their names.

She'll never forget how her mother taught her the art of making cotton candy and stringing the colorful assortment of clouds above their heads.

She would keep the business in the family's name if she had the money to buy it.

"I hope (my parents) keep this place forever. It's been a part of our family for so long that it'll be so sad to see it go," she said.

The Glasses created another family over the years within the cramped space of the snack bar. They have watched the employees grow up -- from the time they start work at age 16 until they start college and venture on their own career paths.

Former concession workers still stop by and help Jeanie conquer the snack bar marathon. Before showtime, they race together, glazing popcorn with butter sauce and jumping over to the hissing grill moments later to flip burgers.

While a line of customers curls around the building, Jeanie and the employees toss words of encouragement across the room as they bounce off each other like electrons in an atomic cloud. The extra help lifts Jeanie's spirits when she sleepwalks into the snack bar on Friday nights after crunching numbers full-time as a regional bank teller supervisor during the week.

"I couldn't do it without my girls. Sometimes I come in down and tired, and they always cheer me up," Jeanie said.

Cassie Cathorall, a concession employee, daydreamed of working at the drive-in since she was barely able to touch the top of the counter. As long as the next owner keeps the building's 61-year-old heritage, she'll be happy -- but it will be difficult for her to picture Jeanie and Mike out of the business, she said.

"They're like my second parents. They're great to be around, and they listen. They are definitely like my mom and dad," Cathorall said.


Family picnic

On the lot, the atmosphere crackles with children's laughter in a parade of glow sticks and kickballs before showtime. Parents place air mattresses in the beds of their trucks or kick back in lawn chairs as smoke from mosquito repellent candles curls around them. Some keep it simple by perching a pillow on the hood of their car.

To Hunn, the environment resembles more of a family picnic than a movie theater.

"We never run into any problem with people here," Hunn says, "Everybody's so nice, just like a big family."

Jeanie watches from the snack bar as groups of customers enter and congregate around the screen, share a laugh or a scream with the strangers next to them, then exit as friends when the movie ends. It's a process she doesn't see in the dark fixtures of indoor movie houses.

"It's more of a family gathering here. Groups of people get together as a family more so than sitting in the seats in the row of a theater," Jeanie said.

Seeing the parent-and-child bonds catalyze on his lot keeps Michael anchored in this business. He observes as kids become adults and create a new tradition in their family by bringing their own children years later. Those moments keep the Clark 54 sign glowing like a pale yellow moon over the highest point in Pike County and the movies flashing into the night.

"No matter what happens," Michael says, "if the drive-in doesn't survive after this year, it's been 13 seasons that a family did what I did as a kid. It makes me feel good that they are out there making memories, and that sure feels like a good thing to be involved in."




Michael Glass loads film onto the projector at the Clark 54 Drive In Theatre in Summer Hill, Ill. (H-W Photo/Jonece Dunigan)


Michael Glass watches the lights flicker in the ticket booth during a severe thunderstorm. Glass says the weather is always a factor in the drive-in business. (H-W Photo/Jonece Dunigan)


Clark 54 continues to function as one of the 357 drive-in theaters open today. (H-W Photo/Jonece Dunigan)


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