One of the Chicago area’s best old-school film exhibitors has seen his last picture show. Ron Magnoni, Jr., long-time owner of the Route 34 Drive-in in west exurban Earlville, died at the end of February. “The family has committed to continue the legacy of the drive-in with plans to operate normally once opened this 2023 season,” they announced on Facebook.

I met Ron in 1997 when I wrote a story on the state’s last remaining drive-ins for Newcity. I wrote about the theater again for Time Out Chicago more than a decade later. Ron said he got his love of showing movies from his father, who was an itinerant projectionist.

When we first met, Ron showed me his 1930s projector in action. Instead of a bulb, it flooded the screen with light from a burning 30-inch carbon rod. “The only thing brighter is the sun,” he told me. The snack bar was a time capsule from the 1950s and the food was good.

Ron and the 34 provided the ideal drive-in experience. Though it finally upgraded to digital projection, it still has a grassy lot that backs up to a corn field. I made the trek out at least once most summers, and the place was typically packed.

Ron was always there in the ticket booth, and then later you’d see him in the projection room, running a cartoon, previews and then the main feature. Before the second feature, they used to run an epic Be Like Mike Gatorade ad. It was perfection.

Ron’s obituary captures his spirit well:

“He spent almost all of his childhood and adult life in the movie theater business. From driving to Streator as a young child to help his dad run the projector for the drive-in, to owning and operating the Rt. 34 Drive-In in Earlville for 32+ years. Ron loved the movies, and he was a one-man show in the early years, from running the ticket booth, to operating the projectors, ordering food, mowing the yard to fixing the equipment – he could do it all. In later years, Ron relied on great friends to assist in operating the drive-in. What gave Ron most joy was bringing in first-run family movies like Batman and Jurassic Park. Families would drive for miles to watch and enjoy under the stars.”

I don’t know when or whether the family will reopen the 34. I hope they will. Regardless, I wanted to share this tribute to a guy who really knew how to do film exhibition right. Fare thee well, Ron.

Here is my full write-up from 1997:

“No Illinois drive-in trek would be complete without a stop at the 34 in west-suburban Earlville. In a life misspent seeking out drive-ins all over the country, I can say with conviction that the 34 is the best open-air theater in operation anywhere. Owner Ron Magnoni Jr. operates the place with the same love that he puts into keeping his ’75 drop-top Eldorado on the road. It’s a living nostalgia trip for Magnoni, who used to tag along with his roving union projectionist father and started helping the old couple who owned the 34 in 1989. Later that year, the husband died and Magnoni started running the place for the wife. He bought the 34  a few years later for $70,000.

“Now he spreads the gospel by inviting viewers into the projection room during the first feature. He’ll show you machinery dating back to the thirties. How does he get such a bright picture? Instead of a bulb, the film is backlit by burning thirty-inch carbon rods which have to be changed every hour. “The only thing brighter is the sun,” Magnoni says. Every Thursday, he’s here watching Must-See TV and running every inch of film through his hands, checking for splices and breaks, in a four-hour marathon that ensures each reel will run to perfection.

“The snackbar is a museum piece straight out of the fifties, with vintage placards advertising such continuing faves as Green River soda, shrimp baskets, fried chicken and pork tenderloin sandwiches. While you wait for your meal, you can shoot a game of pool at a table that sits before a floor-to-ceiling window that takes in the corrugated-metal screen.

“Arrive early enough Friday through Sunday and you’ll be treated to a cartoon before the double-feature starts. Walk around the plush grounds—yes, the 34 is situated on a grassy field—and listen to the speaker-only soundtrack. Gaze up at the dome of stars, breathe in the crisp country air and smile. Picture perfect.”

Photo by Frank Sennett