Route 45, north of Urbana
Opened April 1955 (the renamed Family Drive-In)
Closed 5 November 1985
Photo of the Widescreen circa 1955. Posted to the Champaign Urbana History Facebook page by Mike Moran 29 July 2012.
When the drive-in opened for the 1955 season, still owned by Frank Stewart's Family Amusement Company, it was now called the Widescreen Drive-In.
Frank Stewart announced a promotion in late September, 1958, in the form of the treasure hunt. The treasure being a certificate that could be redeemed for $500.00.
To participate, one had to obtain a “Prospectors License” available at the theatre beginning Sunday 28 September 1958. A ticket purchase was not required. Clues to the treasure’s location were given each evening of the following week at the theater and over a local radio station during the day. The first person to put the clues together and locate the certificate, and has a license, would win the $500.
Two family-oriented movies were playing Sunday through Tuesday when the contest began. The top-billed feature was “Littlest Hobo,” the story of a stray lamb and a dog who leads it away from the danger of being slaughtered. It starred London, as the dog and Fleecie, as the lamb. “Littlest Hobo,” the story of a stray lamb and a dog who leads it away from the danger of being slaughtered, receives top billing. Stars are London, as the dog, Fleecie, as the lamb. “Snowfire” with Don McGowan, Molly McGowan, and Claire Kelly was the co-feature.
Ad for season opener of the Widescreen. The News-Gazette 11 March 1955.
Short stories in early March in both the News-Gazette and the Courier announced the season would open on Friday 6 March 1959. Owner Frank Stewart said free popcorn would be given to the first 200 cars through the gate. Richard Goyne would return as concession stand manager and Harold Goyne, for the for the fifth consecutive season, would be the theater manager.
Elizabeth Taylor in ”Elephant Walk” and Tony Curtis in “Houdini” were opening attractions for the new season. Frank Stewart was hoping for a good night. He joked: “Maybe Houdini can provide us with one, he was a great magician.”
A new company called the Champaign-Urbana Drive-In Theaters was formed in early 1960 to jointly operate the Widescreen Drive-In and the Twin City Drive-In. This was to make possible better scheduling of movies with a wider selection of films available. The new company was a joint venture of Frank Stewart, owner of the Widescreen, and George Kerasotes of Springfield, owner of the Twin City Drive-In. Stewart had charge of local business activities and Kerasotes managed the office functions and booked programs.
None of the other Kerasotes theaters were included in the Champaign-Urbana Drive-In Theaters organization. This marked the first joint operation of a Kerasotes theater with one owned by another person.
A story announcing the spring openings of the drive-in theaters appeared in the Wednesday 30 March 1960 issue of the Courier. The Widescreen would open Thursday with “The Blue Angel” starring May Britt and Curt Jurgens and “The Beat Generation,” announced Frank Stewart, who went on to note: “For the past five years, it has always snowed once more after we opened. It didn’t matter whether we opened in February or May.” New manager of the theater will be Harold Goyne, assistant manager for the past five years, was now the Widescreen Manager, while his son, Richard Goyne, was managing the concessions stand.
This was the first season Frank Stewart, owner of the Widescreen, would be operating both the Widescreen Drive-In Theater and the Twin City Drive-In under the new joint venture with George Kerasotes, owner of the Twin City Drive-In. The Twin City was expected to open about April 15. It was undergoing extensive remodeling that included building a new concession stand.
The Courier reported on 10 January 1961, that Frank Stewart had sold the Widescreen Drive-In Theater to Kerasotes Theaters, Inc., of Springfield.
The Kerasotes chain at the time owned the Princess Theater in Urbana, the Co-Ed and Twin City Drive-In in Champaign, the Rantoul Home and Drive-In Theaters in Rantoul, about 40 other theaters in Illinois, and other midwest theaters. Kerasotes had planned to retain the same personnel and continue operating under the same policies.
Frank Stewart continued to own Joyland, a children’s amusement park across the highway from the Widescreen theater.
A story in the 12 May 1986 News-Gazette reported that rather than opening for the season, the George G. Kerasotes Corporation was putting the Widescreen up for sale. Kerasotes district manager Robert Zoll said, “We’re just closing for pure economic reasons. We’re not making money there.” During the season, eight to ten people typically worked at the theater. They had not shown any movies in 1986.
The George G. Kerasotes Corporation did not open two drive-in theaters in Decatur that they also owned. Kerasotes split their company in 1985 with the George G. Kerasotes Corporation retaining ownership of the Champaign and Urbana theaters. The other company, Kerasotes Theaters, continued to operate three drive-ins in Illinois: the “66” in Springfield, the Starlite in Pekin, and the Belford in Rockford.
Final ad for the Widescreen Drive-In.
The Champaign Urbana News-Gazette 5 November 1985.
A spokeswoman for the National Association of Theater Owners said as of August, 1985, there were 2,179 drive-in screens in the United States, down from 3,504 1980. Merle Wagner had closed his drive-in theater in Clinton four years earlier. He said the loss of more than one-third of the nation’s drive-ins within five years signals the end of an era. “The drive-in industry is just about gone. They served their purpose, but they’re just not economical anymore.” Wagner cited growing competition from other forms of entertainment such as cable, Home Box Office.
The community’s other local drive-in, the Twin City, had been torn down in 1981 after 33 years of showing movies.
The old Widescreen Drive-In property had sat unused until It was purchased by Roeco Enterprises of Rantoul in March 1993. Roeco had no definite plans for the property and were tearing down the projection booth-concession stand. It caught fire when a small, warming fire started by the demolition workers got out of control. There were no injuries.
The property had been annexed to the city of Urbana in 1991 and its zoning was changed from agricultural to industrial at the request of Kerasotes to make it more attractive to potential buyers.