Like the renewing night sky that envelopes it, the Drive In is ever changing. Time and circumstance make sure that in structure, environment, and experience cinema under the stars will adapt. One who has weathered its seasons and bridged these changes became a gate keeper along the way. With understanding and pieces of the story Craig Binnebose created the Drive In Theater Museum, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the history of the Drive In, and also directs the modern theater called Moonlight Movies. This alliance of the old and the new uses proven methods, new ideas and the latest in technology, items which may be useful to future outdoor exhibitors.
Currently working with the Iowa Historical Museum he has contributed to an exhibit which tells the history of Iowa and the film industry, its people, personality, and how it played back home again.
“Hollywood In the Heartland” is a multiyear project opening this June 27th and is sure to be a success in Des Moines.
Craig also stays busy as the director of the Iowa Independent Film Festival. During the summer months this organizing brings free movies to the public square at Clear Lake IA.
I asked Craig if I could ask a few questions about his museum and experiences, and out of his busy summer schedule he has answered.
Beginning with a local ozoner, the Mason City Drive In, Craig set out to see what could be done when he heard of its scheduled closing.
Where or how did it all get started?
The Drive-In Theatre Museum got started in 1997 when I was given access to the Mason City Drive-In Theatre when it sold. I went and asked the new owners and they gave me the keys. All the equipment was scrap to them and I was able to save it just before it would have gown to the scrap yard. I spent 4 months saving everything I could. Then I called CSTC the company who I had worked for in 1970 and got lucky, the one who was now running the company was a Drive-In Theatre manager. He liked someone caring enough to save the old things so he let me in as they sold the last of their Drive-In’s. I got into the Ranch Drive-In and then the Hillcrest about a year apart as they sold. I then tracked down the new owner of the Bel-Air Fly-In Drive-In, one of only 5 built that included an airport. I then found out about the 1st Watts hardtop theatre in Osage, IA when the projection booth from 1920 was found in the late 1990’s, last used in about 1951.
Did you ever have any inkling of the value that the collection would have or where you just trying to save history from destruction?
I have never thought of what I saved other than the historical valve to me. I just could not sit by and watch it disappear; I had to try to save it. I already saw Mason City tear down the Cecil / Park 70, Palace and the Strand Hardtop for a Mall that now keeps going bankrupt. These were theatre’s that I worked at and viewed so many movies for so many years. Being able to watch a Christopher Lee Dracula movie with real bats flying around at the Cecil / Park 70 theatre was priceless. Later looking down at the Strand Theatre’s Carbon Arc which had fallen into the basement was hard to see as I had once run that equipment. I still have photos of those days. Earlier in the 1980’s, I tried to get in and save things but the city and the manager would not let me save anything. The carbon arc lamp houses changed to xeon so the old ones had no monetary valve. Also stored at Strand but not allowed to be saved were The “Music Man” painted plywood panels, which I had looked at for years while working there.
So in 1997 when the new owners of the Mason City Drive-In let me in to save what I could I was very lucky, and that was the actual start of my collection.
How did collecting outside of the immediate area come about and the cost?
When I did get a chance to travel, I always looked for ozone and hardtop theatres. When I was collecting, I was still working 10 to 12 hour days so I could only look on weekends. The paper records I found at the Mason City Drive-In gave me names so I called then and they helped me get into other Iowa Drive-In’s as they closed. I never thought of the money it cost, I just wanted to save the theatre history.
How did it come about when you thought others might be interested in seeing some of the collection, and how you would like to share it?
Nobody was able to see most of what I saved; it was always behind closed doors to the public. So I found a glass building at 604 N. Federal were I could put the equipment on display without the opening the doors. For many years people would contact me and tell me how much they liked seeing the projectors. I was surprised so many people liked seeing what I have saved.
Six years ago I lost that location and transferred to a 5 plex which had closed its doors, but still had many windows for display. This was at the same mall which had been built upon the torn down theater. There I was able to once again display the pieces of my collection. I had plans and was ready to open up the abandoned theatre in the mall once again to show older movies and keep the items on display. Every time I had ever walked into the mall, people were standing looking at the displays so the public enjoyed seeing Theatre history.
However the new mall management from the second bankruptcy notified me on December 17th that I had until December 31 to get out.
Today it still sits empty.
It’s been a long journey, what would you like to share about your experiences.
I am wondering what will now happen to what I have saved now that I’m reaching a point where I can’t keep it. I had to scrap almost 1 ton of my lesser items. I did not want to do it but with my disability, I have to face the facts that I cannot save everything I collected. The Iowa State Historical Museum did take some of the best things for their collection but they do not have the space for so much that still needs to be saved. I will hold on to what remains as long as I can but it does not look good.
How did the exhibit at the State Historical Museum come about?
Word of mouth and my web page. Some years ago the State did a survey of Iowa theatres and contacted me.
What would you like to see your museum become in the future?
The internet and the 3 year display at the State Historical Museum in Des Moines “Hollywood in the Heartland” starting in late June are now what remains. I still hope I can find a place that could save the remainder of my collection but it does not look like that will happen.
How about the future of the Drive In Theaters?
With just under 400 still in operation, old ones reopening and new one being built, it looks like they will still hang on at a much lower level then the 5,000 we had at one time in history. Increased land valves and Daylight Saving almost wiped out this American invention but it is still hanging on!
One last question. Your website displays an ad by Ballantyne for a complete Drive In Theater kit, called the Rustic Theater. In your travels, have you ever seen one of these kits constructed?
Folks, any of us gifted with the accursed and non-profitable call to preserve history knows it’s a very very hard journey. In Craig’s own words you see the motivation, reason, and struggle to pass on the knowledge of the past. When a rare person comes along and takes the chance to devote much of their life to that endeavor, it’s a shame not to assist them in ways that we can. I ask that you visit his museum, write him, and see what can be done to make sure that this important part of our history is not lost.