Last June, for the first time in years, my wife Sherry and I went to a drive-in movie. It was while we were on vacation at Iowa’s Great Lakes region. We had honeymooned in that area in 1969 and hadn’t been back since about 1978, when the third of our four children was a baby.
It was while we were exploring our surroundings on the east side of Spirit Lake on this trip that we happened upon Superior 71 Drive-in Theater at the junction of Highways 9 and 71. We immediately put it on our list of things to do.
My interest in drive-in theaters goes back to my childhood. From my third through 10th years, 1952-1959, my family lived on Dugan Court, off North Lincoln in Davenport. The Bel-Air Drive-In (1948-1986) sat to the west, with only a small, wooded ravine separating it from our small subdivision.
Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I could watch the Bel-Air’s movies — albeit without sound — from my bedroom window at night. During the day, when no one was around, my friends and I would sneak through the ravine onto the Bel-Air property, where we played in the cab of an old junk truck in the weeds at the back of the lot.
I also remember going to the Bel-Air with my parents and brother to see movies now and then in the early ’60s. The only flick I can remember, though, is “Hatari!,” a 1962 adventure starring John Wayne, Red Buttons and Elsa Martinelli.
Fast forward to rural Spirit Lake, Iowa, and Superior 71. According to an Estherville Daily News story I found online, Gaylord Kemp of Alpha, Minn., opened the theater in the summer of 2008, using a 90-foot-wide screen that he took apart and moved from the site of the former Chief Drive-in Theater near Estherville, Iowa.
Kemp’s theater, which shows double features – we saw “Date Night” with Steve Carell and Tina Fey and “Robin Hood” with Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett –accommodates several hundred cars. But we were there on a Tuesday, not a prime movie-going night, and there were less than a dozen vehicles in the place.
We chatted a bit with Kemp, the lone ticket seller. We later watched as he shut down the box office at dusk and headed to the combination snack bar/projection house in the middle of the lot, where I suspect he then became the projectionist.
Kemp’s is one of only a handful of drive-in theaters in Iowa. But drive-ins are making a minor comeback from their heyday in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when there were 4,000 of them across the United States. One reason for the resurgence is empty nesters, who have more expendable income than they used to and long for nostalgic entertainment.
If you have a yearning to step back in time and see a movie under the stars, eastern Iowa is home to two drive-ins with a third proposed for west of Davenport in Scott County.
The venerable 61 Drive-In, located south of Maquoketa, opened in August of 1950 and is still going great guns. Grandview Drive-In Theater, which opened in 2007, is located just north of that community along Highway 61 south of Muscatine.
But if you haven’t been to a drive-in theater for a while, you will notice one big change: The post-mounted, wired speaker you used to hang on your car window is a relic of the past. Motion picture audio at drive-ins now comes from low-power radio transmitters whose signals are picked up by car radios.
Copyright 2010 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This article has been submitted as a column to The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.