Chicago, IL

How the pandemic brought back the drive-in movie and where to see one in Chicago

Jennifer Geer

A relic left over from 1950s suburbia, COVID-19 and the need for social distancing renewed the demand for the drive-in movie theater.

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Last summer, a renaissance of outdoor movie viewing returned to the Chicago area. From traditional outdoor theaters to pop-up projection screens in parking lots, a new generation of moviegoers discovered the fun of viewing a movie outdoors.

The nostalgia of the drive-in movie

When I was a kid, going to see a drive-in movie was an event. We'd load the family car up with sleeping bags and pillows. I can remember a playground and a popcorn stand, a cartoon before the main show, and those heavy metal speakers that hung on the side of the open car window.

It wasn't the crispest sound quality or the best image onscreen, but we didn't care. It was somewhere in between a public outing and a private event. Others were nearby, but you and everyone in your car were in their own little bubble of relative privacy.

We stopped going at some point, and I think the drive-in theaters in my town were all closed by the time I was a teen. It wasn't only the Kansas town where I lived, it was all over. The number of drive-in movie theaters had gone from 5,000 across the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s heydey to the current 321 that are open now.

In the 50s and into the 60s, theaters began cropping up in the suburbs, where owners could cheaply buy the many acres of land needed for space and where every family owned a car. But when land became more costly and home entertainment options improved, the drive-in movie began to fade away.

In Chicago, the largest drive-in movie was the Bel-Air at 31st and Cicero. It was unusual for a drive-in theater because it could air two films at once with back-to-back screens and enough spaces for 2,500 cars. It's gone now, having been demolished years ago.

The pandemic created a need for new entertainment

Iconic of a certain place and time in American culture, by 2020, the drive-in movie was mostly a memory. That is until the pandemic hit and movie theaters closed.

Even though you can stream anything you want in the comfort of your home, people grew restless and needed to get out. With people looking for safe options to be entertained, drive-in movies were the perfect cross between a night out, yet still inside of your protective bubble.

Is the trend here to stay, or will the reopening of traditional movie theaters put an end to the drive-in movie?

Drive-in movie theaters open now

If you'd like to take a step back in time and watch a movie from your car, check out these options around Chicagoland. There are other theaters around the area, but I am only listing those that are currently open for the season.

1. ChiTown Movies, 2343 S. Throop Street, Chicago

ChiTown Movies airs blockbuster and classic features. You can get food from the ChiTown Grille delivered to your car. Check the schedule and order tickets online.

2. McHenry Outdoor Theater, 1510 Chapel Hill Road, McHenry

About an hour's drive north of Chicago, the McHenry Outdoor Theater offers a double feature for $12 per car. They recommend arriving early, as capacity is limited and tickets are only sold at the door. You can't prepurchase tickets online. Check their website for the movie schedule and further details. The first movie of their season begins Friday, April 30th.

3. Harvest Moon Drive-In Theater, 1175 South Sangamon Avenue, Gibson City

Admittedly, at a two-hour drive south, this one is a bit of a hike. However, it may be worth it with its combination of technology (4k ultra HD picture and digital 5.1 surround sound) and nostalgia. Having survived various closings and challenges since opening in 1954, the theater has reinvented itself during Covid, offering live concerts, sporting events, new movies, and old classics. Prepurchase tickets online at their website.

Pop-up theaters this summer

In addition to these venues, keep an eye out as the weather warms up for various pop-up movie events in your area. Drive-in movies were shown in various pop-up places, from the Soldier Field South Parking Lot to special events at local suburban park districts.

Chances are when the weather gets a bit warmer, you'll be able to find an outdoor movie near you where you can watch from the comfort of your car.

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Jennifer covers lifestyle content and local news for the Chicago area.

Chicago, IL
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