EARLVILLE – Ron Magnoni Jr. doesn’t want to switch the Route 34 Drive-In to digital, but he has to adapt or close the Earlville landmark as movie makers eliminate the use of 35mm film.
“I’ve survived through a lot out here,” said Magnoni, owner of the Route 34 Drive-In. “I won’t let them beat me.”
By them, Magnoni means the movie companies that announced last year they were going to stop making the film drive-in movie theaters like his use. This year, those companies have made limited amounts of the films, although Magnoni expects he has a little more than a year before he’s forced to convert.
Until the film stops rolling from the moviemakers, Magnoni will keep projecting it at the Route 34 Drive-In every weekend from April to October. But in the meantime, he needs to raise about $50,000 to make the inevitable switch.
The Route 34 Drive-In is among a group facing extinction across the country. According to the website, drive-ins.com, in their heyday more than 4,000 drive-ins dotted the United States.
Today, only 338 remain, including 10 in Illinois.
For Sycamore or DeKalb residents, the Route 34 Drive-In is about a 45-minute jaunt down Route 23 and west on Route 34. The next nearest drive-in is the Cascade Drive-In in West Chicago.
In Earlville, Magnoni is about a third of the way to having enough money for a machine that will run the movies off a thumb drive. He plans to hold fundraisers to gather the rest of the needed $80,000, but also accepts donations through the theater’s website and in person.
With the money he’s already collected, Magnoni prepared his projection booth for the new machine, which will replace two projectors that have been displaying movies for eager patrons for decades.
Magnoni’s projectors are made of a combination of parts from the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘70s. The new machine will have a 5-year warranty. Not only is the life expectancy of the new machine shorter, but Magnoni will only have one, meaning he won’t be able to quickly shift from one machine to another if the machine falters.
“If something happens now, in one and a half minutes I can change from one machine to the other,” Magnoni said. “If something happens and I don’t have another machine, I’m done.”
Cars keep coming
The Route 34 Drive-In is a piece of nostalgia from the 1950s, when the first films played across the screen that seemingly sits in the midst of surrounding cornfields. Magnoni’s father was a union projectionist, inspiring him to own a theater of his own. When the option came to buy the Route 34 Drive-In in 1994, Magnoni knew it was his chance.
Cars didn’t always pack the drive-in, he said. For the first three years the drive-in struggled because of the theater’s reputation for attracting trouble-making teens. But after changing the rules and deciding not to show R-rated movies, Magnoni said families started migrating to the theater.
Now, a good night means 400 cars lined up to watch a film on the 60-by-40-foot screen. Many of them, Magnoni said, come from Chicago or Rockford.
Dawn Denison brought her grandson, 18-year-old Tyler Owens from Davenport, Iowa, recently for his first drive-in experience. Owens wasn’t exactly excited about trading his indoor video games for an outdoor movie, but “Godzilla” and “Transformers 2” changed his mind.
James and Teresa Raske, both of Sandwich, decided on a whim to make the trip to Earlville. Neither of them had been to the drive-in since they were children. They were instantly transported to those childhood memories when they parked their car, smelled the scent of popcorn wafting from the concession stand and looked at the old-time speakers lined up.
“It’s a really good nostalgic feeling,” James Raske said. “Thinking about a world without drive-ins, it makes me sad. I mean, we’ll survive, but there’s something about it. If we want this type of stuff we have to support it.”
Joe Wagner, who has worked at the drive-in for years, keeps a tally of all the cars rolling in using a click counter. While Magnoni takes people’s money, figuring their totals either by looking at pre-made spreadsheets or using a paper and pencil, Wagner tears off admit-one tickets and clicks away.
He also doesn’t like to think about the disappearing field of drive-ins.
“Once it’s gone the next generation will never know what they missed,” Wagner said. “There’s nothing to compare it to.”
How to help
Donate through www.rt34drivein.com or make a donation before seeing a movie at the drive-in, 4468 E. 12th Road, Earlville.
What’s playing this weekend
Movies: “Planes: Fire and Rescue,” then “Maleficent”
Times: Gates open at 7 p.m., show starts at dusk
Admission: Adults, ages 13 and older, $8; Seniors age 62 and older, $7; and children ages 12 and younger, $5.