Last 2 Quad Cities-area drive-in theaters survive

In a Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018 photo, Gary Hastings Sr. of Burbank, Illinois, watches the previews, as he sits outside the car with his son, Gary Jr., and Ashley Colman at the Blue Grass Drive-In theater. (John Schultz/Quad City Times via AP)

DELMAR — The road has not always been smooth for the one-screen drive-in movie theater off of Highway 61 in Delmar, Iowa.

There have been plenty of ups and downs since 1972, when an over-coffee-conversation with a friend landed Dennis Voy with the keys to the 61 Drive-In.

Back then, drive-ins made a mighty showing in the Quad-City area and nearby Iowa cities.

“Everyone kind of had their own drive-in,” Voy said. “We basically just served Jackson County.”

Voy has seen the industry flip on its head, a few times.

In the 1950s, there were about 4,000 drive-ins across the country.

The Quad-City Times reports that as movies became available for watching via indoor cineplexes, renting or buying at local movie stores followed by the most recent — and most convenient — option of online streaming, the number of drive-ins has dropped to 324, as of June 2016, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.

Of the only four that remain in Iowa, two drive-ins continue to stand within short driving distances from the Quad-Cities metro area.

Voy says he bought his drive-in, located next to a cornfield 5 miles south of Maquoketa, all those years ago because he wanted to see it survive.

“We had some very slow times,” he said. “It’s an up and down business.”

As far as business goes today, Voy says, “There’s more competition than ever.”

So, what keeps these drive-ins around?

Drive-ins may be regarded as totems of the past, but not all were built sometime in yesteryear.

Randy Lorenz and his family opened the Blue Grass Drive-In in 2014 in their small town about 13 miles west of Davenport.

Next season, they’ll add a third screen to their 10-acre operation.

Lorenz, a native of Long Grove, remembers when going to the drive-in “was the thing to do in high school.” Later, the self-proclaimed movie buff would drive to the 61 Drive-In to share the experience with his three kids.

“I was a dad who would take the kids up to see movies in Maquoketa and drive back at 1 o’clock in the morning while everyone else is sleeping,” he said. “I started thinking, ‘Why don’t we have a drive-in in the Quad-Cities?”

Lorenz, who works as store manager at an area Walgreens, took the leap.

“I was nervous,” he said, explaining where his courage came from using a reference to “Field of Dreams.” ”But as they say, ‘If you build it, they will come.'”

And they have.

“A lot of buzz” surrounded the drive-in’s opening months, Lorenz said, because “there hadn’t been a drive-in in the area for such a long time.”

In fact, it opened after a 25-year stretch of the Quad-Cities being without a drive-in theater.

Also because of that, Lorenz got a few phone calls from people asking, “So, how does a drive-in work?”

Around the time he opened, the majority of drive-in theaters transitioned from reel-to-reel to digital projection. So, Lorenz embraced digital.

He also made sure the concession stand was stocked with top-notch and affordable eats, which is where Lorenz says the drive-in makes most of its money.

“In the four years we’ve been open, the best thing has been the comments from people,” he said. “They want to come and be part of the experience — it’s not like an indoor theater where you can’t talk to people. It makes you feel good that people are enjoying it.”

And people are making memories as seen by the “Happy anniversary” or “Will you marry me?” messages often displayed on the pre-movie screen of the drive-in.

Now that summer is nearly over, the drive-ins in Delmar and Blue Grass show movies only on weekend nights.

Ahead of showings of “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Meg” on recent evenings at the Blue Grass Drive-In, the lot was full of kids climbing the playground or tossing baseballs and parents unfolding lawn chairs and couples getting a popcorn refill.

“It’s a great time for both adults and kids,” Lorenz said. “For some, it’s a time to remember. Others are experiencing it for the first time.”

Voy likens the hours before the movie starts to “tailgating for a football game.”

“People drive hours to come to the drive-in,” he said. “It’s a fun family experience.”

Voy, who is 79 now and has long owned Maquoketa’s KMAQ radio station, recalls two occasions when he thought he might have to shut down the 61 Drive-In.

The first was when the movie rental business took off in the 1980s.

“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness,'” Voy said. “This is the beginning of the end. That really scared drive-in movie operators.”

That feeling wore off.

“Still,” he said. “People wanted to get out their house to see a movie. I think we’ll always have that.”

The second occasion was after a tornado tore down the drive-in’s sole screen.

“I didn’t know if it was worth it to rebuild,” he said. “I decided, after hearing from the community, to build it back up.”

There’s another looming challenge.

“One thing you can’t predict about a night at the drive-in is the weather,” Lorenz said.

The Blue Grass Drive-In plays movies “rain, sun or snow.”

“We’ve played movies in November before when it was snowing,” he said. “And people still come out.”

As “frustrating,” as the drive-in business can be, Voy said he hopes to see the 61 Drive-In continue to survive.

“We’ve made it this far,” he said. “And that makes me happy.”

The reason drive-ins still exist, Lorenz said, is simply because people want to see a movie in that setting.

Watching a new release on a 48-foot-long, 27-foot-high screen is different, for example, than watching it on a smartphone.

“It’s so much different than any other way of watching a movie,” he said. “It’s something you’re going to remember — not just the movie you saw, but who you saw it with and where.”

Editor’s note: The headline of this story was updated to reflect that the two drive-in theaters featured are the last two in the Quad Cities area, not the state.