Route 45 north of Urbana
Opened Friday 16 June 1950
Closed (as the Family) at end of 1954 season
The Family Drive-In in 1950.
News-Gazette photo from the Champaign County Historical Archives in The Urbana Free Library collection.
The Family Amusement Company
Frank Stewart organized the Family Amusement Company in 1949 and purchased the Rivoli theatre in Danville, and later bought a drive-in theatre in Streator.
He had drive-ins at Decatur and Clinton under construction when, in a Daily Illini article of 18 February, 1950, he announced he was building a new drive-in in Urbana. The article quoted him:
“All of the theaters will be operated to provide entertainment for the entire family, if a picture isn’t suitable for the whole family we won’t show it. This policy has been in effect in our Danville theater since its acquisition and has proved to fill a genuine need. When this organization was formed, we investigated and found that only three theaters in the country were being operated on the avowed principle of providing nothing but family entertainment. Thirty years ago, family entertainment was the sole goal of practically every exhibitor in the country. We feel that a positive return to this policy will be welcomed.”
Frank Stewart was born September 19, 1922, in Kewanee, Illinois. He served in the army during WW II. He attained the rank of sergeant and was discharged in 1944, returning to the University of Illinois to finish his degree in accounting. At the same time, he served as secretary of the Urbana Association of Commerce. He resigned that position in October, 1944, to become secretary of the LaSalle – Peru Chamber of Commerce. He joined the Alger Brothers Theaters in 1946, remaining until he organized the Family Amusement Company in September, 1949.
Frank Stewart photo scanned from microfilm. From his obituary in the Champaign Urbana Courier 16 November 1969.
Opening of the Family Drive-In
The Daily Illini, on 18 February 1950, reported Frank Stewart’s announcement that he had plans in place to build a $125,000 outdoor theater on Route 45, east of the Illini Airport. The theater, on a 10-acre tract acquired from Mark Mansfield, was to be called the Illini. “The theatre’s appearance will be unique in that we plan to construct the buildings and fences in Michigan natural cedar, giving it a log cabin village effect, Stewart said. Construction was expected to start around April 15.
The Frank A. Somers Company had been awarded the general contract. The Champaign Urbana Courier reported on Tuesday, 11 April 1950, that excavation and leveling of the grounds had begun that day.
Frank Stewart said a name for the drive-in had not been determined. He anticipated holding a contest to select a suitable name for the theater, and said prizes would include cash awards and season passes.
The new theater’s name had been chosen by opening night.
The Family Drive-In Theatre opened Friday, 16 June, 1950. The first screening began at 8:30 p.m. and the second show began at 10:30 p.m. “The Big Wheel,” starring Mickey Rooney, was the first film. It told the story of the Indianapolis Speedway.
Parking stalls for 650 cars were arranged in a semi-circle before the big screen and individual speakers were provided at each space. The surface was graveled to eliminate mud. Owner Frank Stewart said the latest and most modern projection and sound equipment had been installed in the drive-in theatre. An enclosed concession stand offered a variety of foods and beverages.
Ad from The News-Gazette, 16 June 1950.
The 1953 Season
A Champaign Urbana Courier article of Tuesday, 10 March 1953, reported that prior to opening for the season, an additional 200 tons of crushed rock had been applied to the parking area. Another improvement was a new screen surface for better reproduction of pictures, including those in technicolor, according to theater manager Marshall Pinckard. Plans were to include one technicolor film in every change of movies.
The Family Drive-In Theatre opened for the season on Friday, 13 March. The box office opened at 6 p.m. with the first show starting at 7:15 p.m. Opening night films were “Red Mountain” with Alan Ladd, and “Red Badge of Courage” with Audie Murphy. Prices were unchanged from the prior year.
Violent storms, including winds approaching 50 miles-per-hour were in the area on Sunday night, 7 July, 1953. Patrons watching ”Niagara,” starring Marilyn Monroe, got more than they bargained for when, before their eyes, at 10:20 p.m. a gust blew down the 50-by-65-foot movie screen. The big transite-Masonite screen crashed down on the area containing children’s playground equipment. Marshall Pinkard, the theater manager, reported that no one was hurt and there was no panic. Electric power was immediately shut off so no announcement could be made over the loud speaker, but most patrons realized what had taken place, Pinkard said. State police and sheriff’s deputies assisted in guiding patrons from the theater in an orderly manner.
Frank Stewart estimated the loss at $9,000.
Scan from microfilm of the News-Gazette photo showing the debris of the screen destroyed by a wind gust and crushing the playground equipment. 6 July 1953.
The Champaign Urbana Courier reported on 6 July 1953 that Frank Stewart, owner of the Family Drive-In Theatre, would replace the destroyed regular screen with a three-dimension screen. He believed that would be the second drive-in theater equipped to show the 3-D films in this part of the state. The other, also owned by Stewart, was at Clinton.
Stewart was optimistic that The Family Theatre would be able to reopen the following week. He said it normally takes one month to one-and-a- half months to build a new screen tower. He was making special arrangements with the Boyer Products Co. of Omaha, Nebraska, for expedited delivery.
Rebuilding of the screen was completed on Wednesday 15 July. The theatre then reopened the next night with a three-dimensional film, “Fort Ti.”
1954 and beyond
Scan from microfilm showing the screen close to completion. It is at an angle and still needs to be raised completely vertical. Photo by News-Gazette reporter-photographer Dan Buckley from a Traynor-Harris Aviation service plane flown by Earl Traynor. 15 July 1953.
Ad for "Fort Ti" the first film after the screen was rebuilt. Champaign Urbana Courier 16 July 1953.
The theater began touting its giant screen early in the 1954 season with a change of logo. The ads included “SOON SOON WIDESCREEN” for several days ending with the 10 April 1954 ad. The next day featured the new combination logo of a very prominent “WIDESCREEN.” The words “Family Drive-In” were included in much smaller type.
A 2 June 1954 story in the Courier announced that the Family Drive-In would begin showing Cinema-Scope films. The first would be “The Robe”. The Family Drive-In had one of the largest drive-in screens in the area and it was the only one equipped for CinemaScope. Magnetic sound equipment and new lighting had also been added to the theater.
When the 1955 season opened, the old Family Drive-In was called the Widescreen.
(left) Ad from the Champaign Urbana Courier of 10 April 1954 hinting that "Widescreen" would be incorporated into the theater's name.
(above) Ad from the Champaign Urbana Courier of 11 April 1954 featuring the new hybrid logo.
Ad from the Champaign Urbana Courier 6 June 1954.