Movies under the stars were among 2020’s very good things
Drive-in movies and concerts dotted the Chicago landscape this year, offering out-of-the-house entertainment amid a pandemic that shuttered theaters and concert venues.
2020 will be remembered as the year the cultural arts world came to a grinding halt in Chicago and across the globe.
Millions of artists on stage, on screen and behind the scenes in the entertainment industry found themselves out of work. Hollywood closed down film and TV productions for much of the year; Broadway remains shuttered.
There were glimmers of hope born of determination, perseverance and the will to bring some semblance of normalcy to the lives of theater, music, dance and movie fans. Whether it was virtual concerts, play readings, informational panels, audio performances or podcasts, the shows (completely reinvented for an online format) did go on via streaming and a few in-person, socially distanced events.
But there was one more player: the drive-in theater. The rebirth of that remnant of the 1940s and ’50s, when more than 4,000 screens dotted the country’s landscape, managed to provide a night out for Chicagoans throughout the summer and even into the winter, with holiday screenings happening through the end of December.
The summer saw makeshift drive-ins pop up in the parking lots of theaters, outdoor sports arenas and neighborhood venues. These included the ChiTown Movies drive-in located in the parking lot adjacent to the massiveChiTown Futbolfacility at 2343 S. Throop St. in Pilsen; the Drive-In at Lincoln Yards at 1684 N. Throop St. near the Fleet Fields soccer space; the Lakeshore Drive-In adjacent to the Adler Planetarium; the ChicagoDrive-InTheaters at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview; and the Now Arena, formerly Sears Centre, in Hoffman Estates.
Two tried-and-true drive-in theaters — theMcHenry Outdoor Theaterin McHenry and theRoute 34 Drive-inin Earlville — ramped up their old-school efforts. Walmart converted hundreds of its parking lots across the country into makeshift drive-ins.
Even Soldier Field got into the drive-in mood, with Wednesday and Sunday night movies throughout the summer shown on a big screen outside the South Lot festival area.
Tickets to the drive-in were sold on a flat fee, “per car” basis, with autos socially distanced in parking slots. Some theaters offered VIP car sections, complete with an outdoor area for lawn chairs. Masks were required at all times on the premises; concessions were sold either at onsite pop-up tents or via golf carts delivered directly to car doors. Shipping containers were configured at several sites as “screens.” Audio came through loud and clear via cars’ FM radios.
Family-friendly classics dotted the movie lineups: “Goonies,” “Star Wars,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Elf,” “Black Panther” and “Jurassic Park” were a few of the films fans enjoyed under the stars.
Concerts — both on film (Garth Brooks, Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani, to name a few) and live in the case of rapper DaBaby, who performed during a three-day drive-in festival at Cross Pointe Park in Hazel Crest (after each song, fans honked their horns in lieu of applause) — brought music back to a live audience. Chicago’s Julian Jumpin Perez brought house music to a socially distanced drive-in crowd. Fans of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” were treated to a live “Drive ’N Drag” extravaganza at Soldier Field’s South lot.
“We are primarily an events-based organization,” said Louie Mendocino, a fixture on Chicago’s music scene and co-owner/program director for Chicago Drive-In theaters, which operates the sites in Bridgeview and Hoffman Estates.Those events include some of Chicago’s largest music festivals such as Riot Fest, Spring Awakening and Mamby on the Beach.
“[The music festival] business shut down, so we had the opportunity to utilize all our vendors and staffing that we use throughout the year and pivoted toward the drive-in theater concept,” he said.
While some will vividly remember the drive-in experience of their childhoods or teen years, Mendocino admits audiences were a mix of old and young, many of the latter completely unfamiliar with the concept.
“It not only has to do with the aspect of social distancing, but it’s also a nostalgia thing,” Mendocino said.“It was an opportunity to have the free time to dive into that world again. I’m 38 and have never been to a drive-in theater; the first one I ever went to was the one that I built. I think for the most part people really [liked] the concept. It was, for a while, the only thing you could do in the entertainment world during the pandemic.”
ChiTown Movies, which accommodated 130 cars per screening, was also “home” to several major film festivals forced to pivot to virtual events, including the Chicago International Film Festival, The Midwest Film Festival and the Destinos Al Aire Festival.
“It isina safe, quiet area of Pilsen, conveniently accessed from many different parts of the city,” said a spokesperson for ChiTown Movies. “The overall experience is both nostalgic and novel at the same time. We have access to great movie titles and delicious food from our restaurant delivered directly to cars. We hear so much positive feedback from our guests.”
Just over 300 true drive-ins remain in the U.S., according to driveinmovie.com. While the arts community is targeting spring for a rebirth of its own, it’s not clear if drive-ins will be part of that landscape.
“I don’t know that the concept is here to stay necessarily,” Mendocino said, “because when the world gets back to normal and every other avenue is at your fingertips the nostalgia mightwear off. But it’s definitely been a good outlet for people at a time when they really needed it.”