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Wednesday, April 15, 2009 01:01 am

Fun at the drive-in

Popular attraction reopens for season

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Bob Kolhorst, left, and Sean Coady prepare a 35mm print of Paul Blart: Mall Cop for projection at the Route-66 Drive In.
PHOTO BY ZACH BALIVA

In the late 1950s, 4,000 drive-in movie theaters dotted America’s landscape. In that decade, 120 theaters, including The 66 Drive-In on Sixth Street and the Springfield Drive-In on Dirksen Parkway, entertained carloads of families and teenagers with their twilight and after-dark movies.

The Springfield Twin Drive-In came along in 1973, followed by Green Meadows Drive-In in 1976. Green Meadows, like many of its counterparts around the country, saw attendance figures and nightly revenues decline as TV and VCR sales increased. The Green Meadows closed in 1980, and its land sat vacant for nearly 22 years.

The Knight Family, owners of the adjacent Knight’s Action Park, purchased the property in the early 1990s, hoping to eventually expand their business in some way. “It just made sense for us to pick up reasonably priced land so close to the family business,” says Doug Knight, whose grandparents opened an archery range on the Action Park property in 1952. After several ideas and debates, the family decided to reopen the facility as The Route 66 Drive-In to help celebrate the Knights’ 50 years of business in 2002.

The only problem, Knight says, was learning how to build and operate an outdoor theater with equipment left unused for more than 20 years. “We got online and went to a bunch of drive-in sites and started looking around,” Knight says, adding that his company gutted and updated the original concession and projection facilities. Standard drive-in ramps were added to provide better viewing angles, but older visitors with fond memories of The Springfield Twin will notice something missing — speaker posts. “It’s all crystal clear FM broadcast now,” Knight says.

The Knights needed to find the right people to run the business, and located Bob Kolhorst, a union projectionist with 25 years of experience in Illinois and California. Kolhorst’s California work included stints on various studio lots and a gig on “The Tonight Show.” He receives each 35mm print in separate 2,000-foot (20-minute) reels, splices them together, and runs them through the maze of projection machinery. “There’s bad splices, broken sprocket holes and ruined film. My job is to make sure it goes,” Kolhorst says. Each title is “rented” from a film distribution company and sometimes comes straight from the previous theater.

After running for two seasons with just one screen, The Route 66 Drive-In re-lit its second screen in 2004. Each screen shows a double feature 30 minutes after sunset during the April to September season. Knight, who frequently brings his own kids, says that providing movies for families to enjoy was one reason to reopen the theater. “In all the years we’ve been doing this, we’ve only shown two or three R ratings. We try really hard to get good movies in here that adults and kids can watch together,” he says.

Programming gets a bit tricky because popular first-release movies come at a hefty price — 90 percent goes back to the movie company. For slightly older movies, the percentage drops. Economic realities have forced the Knights to do away with traditional carload prices, but admission is still relatively affordable at $6 per person and $4 for those age 12 and under. “People can come early, there’s a playground for kids and it’s a neat event. I think they’ll have a lot of fun,” Knight says.

The Route 66 Drive-In is open rain or shine on weekends, then seven nights a week beginning on Memorial Day Weekend. More information can be found at www.route66-drivein.com, or by calling 698-0066. For movies playing this weekend, see page 22. The drive-in is located at 1700 Recreation Drive in Springfield.

Other Illinois drive-ins :

BAC Skyview Drive-In
— 5700 North Belt West, Belleville — (618) 233-4400

34 Drive In Theatre
— Route 34, Earlville — (815) 246-9700

Harvest Moon Drive-In
— 1123 South Sangamon Avenue, Gibson City — (217) 784-8770

Cascade Drive-In

— Route 59, West Chicago — (630) 231-3150

Skyview Drive-In North — Route 66, Litchfield — (217) 324-4451

Clark Drive-In — Route 54, Summer Hill — (217) 285-2805

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