Feeling Nostalgic? Check Out The Clark 54 Drive-In Theatre!
This past Friday night, Dan and I enjoyed something that neither of us had done since we were teenagers – we went to a drive-in movie! Now I know what most of you are thinking. “Where is there a drive-in movie around here?” or “I didn’t know there were any still around.” Well, guess what? Situated on the west edge of Summer Hill in Pike County, Illinois sits the Clark 54 Drive-In Theatre – and that’s where we headed off to Friday night. The outdoor theatre normally runs its season May through September and shows a double feature every Friday, Saturday and Sunday during its season. The original drive-in theatre, named Clark Drive-In, opened on July 3, 1952. The current owners, Mike and Jeanie Glass, purchased the Clark 54 Drive-In in 2001, so 2012 marks their 12th season of showing outdoor movies. Dan and I had the privilege of spending some time with Mike, Jeanie and their staff Friday night and we so enjoyed ourselves that we are planning our next visit soon. Next time, we’re grabbing some friends to share this experience. Mike explained to me that an elderly gentleman was previously running the drive-in and one night, when Mike had been to Hannibal and was headed home, he drove by and noticed that the drive in marquee had the current movie on it. Mike said, “the place looked like it was closed but it had a movie playing.” So he stopped by to check it out. There was no one at the ticket booth so cars would just pull in and park. The owner would then just walk around during the evening and collect money. Mike started coming up on weekends to help clean the place up – he even painted the screen – and when the owner experienced some health problems, Mike and Jeanie purchased the property. When the original drive-in opened, the marquee, ticket booth and concession stand were all painted pink and turquoise. You can still see some of the original turquoise paint on the concrete pad surrounding the ticket booth! Even though the original colors are long gone, Mike’s choice of yellow and red still make for an eye-catching color combination. Look closely at the marquee – the yellow & red concrete block are part of the original marquee structure. And did you notice the Clark 54 sign? Look familiar? Mike told us that he purchased an old Phillips 66 gas station sign – which is also in the same shape as the US Highway symbol – and fixed it up to use on his marquee. How creative and appropriate – if you take into account that the theatre sits on US Highway 54. When the Glass family originally purchased the theatre, they used a generator to power both the marquee and the ticket booth. Over the last 12 years, Mike – being the jack-of-all-trades that he calls himself – started fixing things up around the property. The first thing he did was to fix up the concession stand and the restrooms. One year, he ran electric to the marquee and ticket booth; one year he rebuilt the ticket booth – you get the picture. Out of this gradual improvement process grew a weekend attraction that draws people from all over the bi-state area. The gate and show times will vary during the season based on the length of the daylight so it is best to check the web site at www.clark54drivein.com for exact times. Dan & I arrived early enough so we could spend some time with Mike at the ticket booth. I was surprised at the variety of movie-goers coming through the gates – many of which were repeat customers and had just been there the weekend before. What I also found interesting was that Mike left so much of the original drive-in in place – even though he might have repainted it or did some minor renovations. The marquee, ticket booth and concession stand are all part of the original property. The original speaker poles are also there but you won’t see the drive-in speakers that all drive-in’s used to have. When Mike purchased the theatre, there were only about three rows of speakers left. Over the years, these speakers get damaged so they were pulled and everything is now transmitted via an FM transmitter – perfect for that surround sound effect while sitting in your vehicle enjoying the outdoor movie. We even got a peek inside the film projection room – where most of the magic occurs. Mike has the film process down to a science and I was amazed at what he goes through prior to show time. Once Mike has booked his movie for the weekend, the film is shipped on several reels that Mike splices together and threads through the projection system – almost like threading a sewing machine. Once the weekend is over – and only if he isn’t keeping a movie for a second run – he returns the film to its original reel for return shipment. We spent most of our time there talking with Mike & Jeanie so we really didn’t have the opportunity to watch the movie – even though I caught Dan laughing a few times at Pirates, The Band of Misfits. And I admit - I could have easily become engrossed in The Hunger Games. But we had to work early Saturday morning and needed to head home. Still, we didn’t miss the chance to check out the concession stand – we urge you to do the same. The three young girls working behind the counter were so friendly – most of the staff is from the local area. Jeanie said that the concession stand is a ‘team effort’ and that she couldn’t do it without them! Both of Mike & Jeanie’s daughters also used to work at the drive-in – definitely a family-run business. An extensive menu – hot dogs, pretzels, pizza, nachos, and popcorn (THE BEST!) – they even make their own cotton candy – will not be disappointing! But we’re not the only ones who have become fans of the drive-in. Eric Fleming and family of Quincy, IL are not only fans of the drive-in but also fans of Harpole’s Heartland Lodge. I was able to spend some time on the telephone with Eric one afternoon to find out why. He explained that he and his wife, Dee, along with their two daughters, ages 11 and 13, plan a weekend getaway at the lodge as members of a local triathlon club. They became aware of the drive-in several years ago and are thrilled that “a little bit of America still exists.” As part of their family weekend, they will go to the drive-in movie one night and then enjoy the lodge activities the other night – including the hayride and bonfire. Eric said he and his wife appreciate the effort by the theatre owners to provide family friendly movies and to provide entertainment that revolves around family. He feels that they’re not paying for the movies as much as the experience and the time spent together as a family. His girls are always excited when going to the drive-in and it has become a big part of their weekend at the lodge. Good for you! Obviously, there is not the number of drive-ins around like there used to be. Drive-ins were built in a time when most households did not have a television set so outdoor theatres were a source of great entertainment. The number of operational drive-ins in the United States has dropped from a high of 4063 in 1958 to 366 in 2011. The number of drive-in theaters in Illinois as of December 27, 2011 was 12 (with 16 screens) while Missouri drive-ins numbered 12 (with 17 screens.) But times have changed, and will continue to change. Movies have always been on film but with the advance of digital technology, digital projectors will be the way of the future. According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, the change to digital projection will have a huge financial impact on small theatre owners, especially those who are open seasonally. What can YOU do to ease the transition and keep this ‘little bit of America alive’? Plan an evening out with your family, grab some concessions and enjoy a movie (or two). Mike charges only $5 for adults (over 12), $4 for children (5-12), and under 5 are free. That’s a great deal for a night out – either as a date night or for your family entertainment – and those prices are for two movies! And just think – this is something you can do regardless of the weather. If it’s nice (like it was this past weekend), bring a lawn chair or blanket and sit out to enjoy the movie. With the FM radio tuned into 89.9, you’ll hear it all. If it’s raining, well, the movie MUST go on! Sit in your vehicle and enjoy! So if you’re looking for something to do this summer, plan a weekend to Heartland Lodge, and pay a visit to Mike & Jeanie over at Clark 54 Drive-In. Even if you wanted to enjoy the wonderful dinner at the lodge and go on the hayride, you would still have time to run up to Summer Hill and grab a movie – remember, the movies don’t start until dark. Check out their website at www.clark54drivein.com for a list of upcoming movies, show times, and further information or feel free to contact them at 217-285-2805. And let them know if this is your first visit to their drive-in and where you heard about them. Be respectful of others around you and support the concession stand – the buttered popcorn is the BEST! Lori BiehlThirteen-Year-in-a-Row-Guest