Last week I checked another item off my two-year long "to-do in and around C-U" checklist, with an amazingly fun trip to the Harvest Moon Drive-In up in Gibson City. I'd spent summers as a kid going to double-features with my parents at a different outdoor theater, where my siblings and I would promptly fall asleep in the back seats to the sound of crickets and the tinny output of the film's audio through metal speakers hanging off our windows. I only made it to that theater a couple times as a teenager because, well, by then the managers had implemented a "windows down" rule if there were only two people in the car. More than a decade later I was caught in a fit of nostalgia for the perfect summertime activity, so I grabbed a cute date and made the trip north for a Monday movie night in the country.
From it's vintage pre-show commercials to the generous and well-priced servings at the concession stand, the Harvest Moon experience completely knocked my socks off. The scenery was perfect as the sun set and the fireflies appeared above the cornfields that surround the twin screens. My heart grew even happier as the theater lit up mid-film for an intermission, and scores of children ran, arms-flailing, to the grassy area in front of the screen for a quick game of soccer or Frisbee or catch. Once the movie ended (we saw Toy Story 3), patrons calmly packed up their cars, collected their own trash, and disposed of everything in a large wooden cart labeled "Throw Trash Here!"
As we drove back to Champaign that night, I was floored that something like this exists so close to home, and I cursed myself for never going before. I immediately emailed the manager to let him know how wonderful their business is. Before I knew it we were back at the twin screens to interview Ben Harroun, who provided us with some nifty insider information about the theatre that makes me even more thrilled to keep Harvest Moon as a staple of my summertime fun.
Emma Reaux: Who are you and what do you do here?
Ben Harroun: I'm Ben Harroun. Essentially I've been working here for 16 years. My family has owned the drive-in for 21 years.
ER: How long has Harvest Moon been in operation?
BH: Non-continuously for 55-56 years.
ER: Tell us what you do when a car drives up to get into the show.
BH: We give them a garbage bag (to clean up their own trash), an informational flyer and use our 1940s vintage ticket machine to give them tickets.
ER: I saw on your website that Harvest Moon "went green" with a new wind turbine.
BH: It started out with a few customers who worked on the wind farm near here. They mentioned that they make small ones for a home or a business. We originally thought about getting one for our home, so we did a little research and discovered it would work out well [here]. We installed the turbine January 2009 and found out we were the first wind-powered movie theatre in the world.
ER: Wow! It powers the entire theatre?
BH: No, it's more supplemental. [The turbine] brings in people who have never been here before. It made us famous (kind of), and it also offsets some of our electric costs. We run the first three months of our season without any energy costs.
ER: What other green efforts have you implemented?
BH: We divide garbage to take some to recycling centers, and use LED lighting in and outside where possible.
ER: What does a typical season look like for a theatre like this?
BH: We open at the end of March/beginning of April, then end the beginning of September. We used to go through Halloween, but it gets too chilly out and people stop coming.
ER: Your website says you're open through rain, shine and wind. What's the craziest weather situation you've had where you were still operating?
BH: We had a tornado touch down about half a mile from here. We play through anything. You couldn't see the movie, but you could hear it.
ER: How many drive-ins are there in Illinois?
BH: Six that I know of. The next closest is Springfield or Chicago.
ER: How many two-screen drive-ins are there in the U.S.?
BH: There's a 50/50 mix now of multi-sceen versus single-screen. The majority was single-screen, but the multiplexes have so much of an advantage over single-screen that most upgraded like we did.
ER: This used to be a single screen?
BH: The whole theatre was designed for the screen that's up. That's not the original screen, the back part is. [The frame] is from 1954. A tornado hit the drive-in in the 1970s. It took the roof off the building and ripped off the plaster front that was the screen. The old owner who founded this place put the phrase "Gone with the Wind" on the marquis while they did the repairs.
ER: When did you get the second screen?
BH: In 1996-1997. We owned another drive-in in Clinton, Illinois. We bought that screen from Starlight Drive-In in Kankakee, ran that for about three years and the business never picked up, so we brought the screen back over here. The first movie we played on that was Twister.
ER: So the first screen has its original frame, and the second screen has been at three different theatres? Cool! What made your family want to get involved in outdoor theatres when indoor ones would be more lucrative?
BH: My dad, the owner, has owned five different indoor theatres. He came across this one and decided to put some money into it with a partner and they opened for business.
ER: How many people come through here annually?
BH: If I had to guess, it'd be around 40,000-50,000. Last year we got a lot of press about the wind turbine, and people came from as far as Canada and even Australia to see us.
ER: A lot of drive-ins have been closing over, oh, the last five decades. Is Harvest Moon in danger of closing down?
BH: Not right now. We did get to a point at the beginning of the recession where we lost a lot of money continually for two years. We actually run five different businesses at the same time, and they all kind of support each other. Once gas prices went up and road construction was going on, it made it hard for people to get here. They started going to the closer [theatres] that were less of a hassle, and our business dropped like a rock. Then last year when we put in the wind turbine, we started making money again for the first time in three years. It showed that there's still potential to run the theatre, and since we've been doing it so long we decided to keep going.
ER: It also appeals to a new group of people. Since you installed the turbine and have taken other steps to be environmentally-friendly, do people ride their bikes here?
BH: Yes, and one guy even biked all the way from Bloomington one night. He got a ride home though.
ER: How do you choose the films you show?
BH: We like to do family-friendly stuff. Back in the 1970s and '80s, many drive-ins went more toward the sex-pit type of thing. Anyone who went to the drive-in...you knew exactly what they were doing. Around the early-'90s more family-friendly stuff started to come out. During the week when we have fewer kids we will shoot for more adult, so college and high school kids can enjoy it. [Most weekends show G and PG films].
ER: Since drive-ins were notoriously destinations for make-outs and other sorts of hanky-panky, how do you deal with patrons who aren't behaving so PG in a family-friendly environment?
BH: We generally have a three-strike rule. We have a lot of unspoken rules as well as written rules that are posted around, and some that are broadcasted over the radio. [Note: the patrons tune their radios to a certain frequency to get the film's audio]. Unless you get a customer complaint, we let a lot of things slide. If we have to talk to you, you'll get a warning. If you violate that we'll ask you to leave. We've had people get belligerently drunk. We have the police on speed dial and write down license plate numbers.
ER: What's an action that would qualify someone being asked to leave the park?
BH: Property destruction. We've had kids try to blow up our restrooms, burn off tires...typical teenage stuff where people think they can come screw around like it's their own back yard, but there are little kids playing and we don't want anyone to get hurt.
ER: What about the more teenager/adult in-car activities?
BH: With the tinted windows and being dark out, we usually don't have any problems. The only complaint we've had this year was when a mother was breastfeeding. We just had them put a blanket in the window so it wasn't on display for everyone.
ER: Other than the tornado that touched down during a film screening, what's the craziest thing you've seen in your time here?
BH: We had the cops here, lights and everything, looking for someone once. It turns out someone had escaped from a prison and was thought to be in the area. They didn't find anybody here, so that's good. Sometimes we have people fall asleep in their cars. We had to call the police once because we thought the people [asleep in the car] were going to be dead. They were out. We were shaking the vehicle, yelling, knocking on the windows. It may have been alcohol-related, we saw bottles in the car.
ER: What is the alcohol policy here?
BH: Don't ask, don't tell. If you're drunk we will call it in. But we don't sell alcohol, and we don't tell you that you can go get alcohol.
ER: How about the policy with food and other out-of-car activities?
BH: We let almost everything go. We have the big areas in front of the screen so people can play Frisbee and enjoy themselves and have something to do while they wait for the movie. We know that we can't provide enough food for everyone at the theatre, so we let them bring pretty much whatever they want. A lot of other drive-ins charge a food permit. The only problem we've had is a kid almost got hit by a car running across the street (Highway 47) to Pizza Hut. We sell Pizza Hut [in the concession stand] by the slice or the whole pizza. Now we make everyone who leaves the theatre pay to get back in.
ER: How is business different being located in Gibson City rather than in a larger area like Champaign-Urbana?
BH: We see less crime. We've looked into larger metropolitan areas, like Danville in particular. They have an old drive-in we were thinking about rehabbing, but the crime rate is just too off-the-scale. We've heard stories from other drive-in owners of tickets booths being robbed at gunpoint. We have the police on speed-dial, and because we live in such a small community, it's pretty easy to find people [if something happens].
ER: Anything else interesting we should know about Harvest Moon?
BH: We hope to keep our ticket prices low, at $6, and our food prices reasonable. You might spend a little more in gas, but if you get a bunch of people together, you can easily road trip from Champaign to here, and spend less money between food and watching the movie, than you would spend on two people going to the regular movie.
Oh, and we are doing our first-ever midnight screening with Twilight Eclipse. We're hoping for up to 500 [people], but we have a capacity for up to 1500. That's about 700 cars. We haven't had the theatre to full capacity since 2006 with one of Pirates of the Carribean movies.
ER: And when you're at capacity people can park across the street and walk in to watch the movie. Do they get a discounted price?
BH: Same price, because you're paying to watch the movie and the movie company wants their cut.
ER: Any other cool events this season?
BH: Every other Sunday we're doing a Classic Car Cruisin'. You get $1 off admission if you're in an old or muscle car or motorcycle. On some occasions we do double-features. Just like the midnight showing, we don't do them very often because we all have 9-5 jobs other than this and live 30 miles away.
Wind turbines, 50+ year old screens, six dollar admissions, oh my! If you're looking to get out of town for an evening, for a unique family-friendly activity, or the perfect date night, Harvest Moon Drive-In can help cover all those bases. Don't forget to stop inside their concession stand for affordable treats and to check out their vintage film reels and equipment, too! Visit their website for movie dates, all shows begin at dark.
Special thanks to Ben and the folks at Harvest Moon for welcoming us during the interview!
Photos by Emma Reaux.