Keeping the tradition alive: 61 Drive In entertains drive-in movie enthusiasts
Four drive-in theaters still operate in the state
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“I can’t get nooooo satissssfactionnn” rang from the speakers just before 7 p.m. at the 61 Drive In. Despite the Rolling Stones’s words, those arriving to the outdoor theater seemed to be quite satisfied with the clear sky and temperatures in the lower 70s.
Children ran around on the tiered lawn, sat on colorful blankets sprawled out in front of their family’s vehicles, played on the swing set beneath the screen or rode on the free train making loops around the theater’s lot.
People flocked into the indoor concessions, and couples, of all ages, sat in their cars or on blankets waiting for the movie to start.
The theater is one of four remaining drive-ins in the state. Community members and those from surrounding areas make their way to the 61 Drive In, which is open seven days a week during the season.
Joshua Merritt, 21, and Kristin Robey, 20, from Dubuque drove a little more than 30 minutes to get to the theater and were the first in line after arriving 90 minutes before the gates opened at 6 p.m.
“It’s a really good day for it,” Merritt said.
The couple had been there when they were younger and were excited to return as adults.
The theater, surrounded by corn and farmland five miles south of Maquoketa, attracts more than 300 cars on a good night — and the experience, the owner said, is what keeps people coming back.
“It’s part of summer — you get to watch two movies out under the stars,” said Lindsey Holst who was helping fundraise for her daughters’ softball team from the Maquoketa area while cars waited in line.
“I just like getting to be on top of dad’s car,” her daughter, Addie Holst, said.
The theater’s free train — now on its third engine — has been part of the experience since 1972. Dennis Voy, the drive-in owner, bought the theater in 1972 which opened in 1950.
“I bought it over a cup of coffee,” Voy said.
He also owns the local radio station KMAQ 95.1 and Voy Theaters, an indoor theater in Maquoketa.
The drive-in theater opens three hours before the movies start to allow people to find their spots. The theater, which is open until the weather turns cold and reopens shortly after the snow melts, plays family-oriented movies with the first starting at 9 p.m. and the second movie immediately after. These days, the movies don’t even require someone starting the film, the projector automatically starts at 9 p.m. without any manual action.
Over the years, more entertainment options have made people are more selective about the movies they’ll attend, Voy said, so the theater has become just as selective.
“Movies have been in America for over 100 years — it’s still a great option,” Voy said. “It’s a good feeling to know I’m providing something they like.”
The experience also wouldn’t be the same without the food the theater offers.
“When the doors open through the intermission of the second movie, it’s just a flood of people,” said Taylor Casel, who’s worked at the drive-in’s concession stand for the last two years.
Casel said that movie goers come for the movie the first time, but come back for the large buttered popcorn.
The crew estimated they go through 50 pounds of popcorn kernels, 44 pizzas, 120 hot dogs and 120 pretzels on a busy night.
Shelley Hoye, who leads the concessions crew, said she gets food started a little after 5 p.m. The concession stand crew sometimes works until midnight or as late as 3 a.m. for longer movies.
The crew said the best part about the job is getting to talk with the customers — some who’ve never been to a drive-in, some who’re from a different state or country or some who come for a blast from the past.
“A lot of people say, ‘I used to come here when I was a teenager,’” Hoye said.
But while the drive-in still is flourishing, one tradition isn’t as popular anymore.
“People always ask me if they still come in the trunks — to my knowledge, no one does anymore,” Voy said.