At 70, Skyview Drive In is a piece of Americana in our own backyard

For 70 years, the Skyview Drive In has been more than a movie theater to its loyal customers.

It’s not just being able to sit under the stars watching a double feature that makes it special, but the entire evening experience. Many patrons arrive early, set up their viewing space, with some preferring to sit in lawn chairs outside rather than be inside their car.

The Skyview has cultivated a family atmosphere over the years, and the kids head for the playground.

“They hang out and socialize with the people parked around them. When people go to an indoor movie theater, they get there 15 minutes before it starts. When they come to the drive-in, they show up two hours ahead of time,” said Steve Bloomer, current owner-operator.

“There’s more to the experience than watching a movie,” he said.

With competition from home entertainment — streaming services, RedBox and big-screen TVs — for people’s time, that is saying something.

Skyview is one of the last-remaining drive-ins in the region, and there are only about 380 left in the United States.

The festive mood at a drive-in is almost like a tailgate party. Bloomer said they favor playing Disney and animated movies, “when we can,” he said.

“We’re catering to a family crowd,” he said. “It’s so much cheaper. Our adult admission might be higher than some, but kids are free.” They offer two free children’s admissions with adults and any other children are charged $3 each.

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Steve Bloomer stands near the old projector that’s now in the concession stand, along with a wall of memorabilia. Lynn Venhaus For the News-Democrat

They show first-run films. The superhero blockbuster “Spider-Man: Far from Home” opened July 2, one of several Marvel movies this year. Disney’s live-action version of “The Lion King” will open July 19.

“It promises to be bigger than ‘Toy Story 4,’” he said.

Bloomer said the Saturday, June 29, crowd for “Toy Story 4” was overflowing, so they set up cars on the parking lot at a reduced rate.

“It was a huge crowd. We had too many vehicles. We don’t want to tell anyone they can’t come in,” he said.

They patrol the grounds and won’t tolerate any trouble, he said. “We ask people to leave and we will call the police,” he said.

Bloomer has been around the movie business his entire life. His grandfather opened Skyview about a year after he was born, and at one point, the Bloomer family operated 17 theaters in the state.

Retirement is not an option, he said. “Nobody else wants to run (it). “I’d miss the place.”

Bloomer worked there through high school and college but went into the insurance business in the 1970s. He had been in various positions in the family business, including a manager at the old Fairview Twin Cinemas and the Ritz. He took over full-time duties at Skyview in August 2010.

Skyview’s 70-year legacy

The Bloomer family opened the Skyview Drive-In on July 8, 1949. They weren’t the first metro-east drive-in, that would be the French Village Drive-In, which opened in Caseyville in 1939.

Skyview’s first movie was “On Our Merry Way,” an anthology comedy starring Paulette Goddard, Burgess Meredith, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Harry James, Dorothy Lamour, Victor Moore and Fred MacMurray. It was the first time Stewart and Fonda were paired together, and they played musicians.

Admission was 60 cents. They could accommodate 840 cars. The kiddie playground featured pony rides, miniature train rides and a small Ferris wheel.

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Skyview’s pink screen from the 1960s and 70s. Provided

As a special treat in honor of the 70th anniversary, Looney Tunes cartoons are played before the features this season — one screen features Bugs Bunny while the other has Road Runner.

Special activities planned for the July 8 anniversary are discount admission prices if you wear the current or a past Skyview T-shirt ($3 and $8 respectively) and live music beginning at 7 p.m. Mayor Mark Eckert will present a proclamation declaring July 8 Skyview Drive-In Day and the Belleville Chamber of Commerce will have a ribbon-cutting.

They hope to gather everyone wearing Skyview T-shirts for a group photo, Bloomer said.

The original projection booth/concession stand still stands — spruced up with fresh coats of paints, now sky blue. But the screen has been replaced twice — a tornado damaged the original screen in February 1956, replaced with a 115-foot screen, considered one of the biggest in the region, and then a windstorm in 1981 tore a big part of it down. It was replaced that year.

In the summer of 1982, a second screen was added, providing another choice. Today, double features are shown on both screens. The first screen can accommodate 440 cars, the second, which has a 70-foot tall screen, is able to hold 190 vehicles.

The iconic rocket ship marquee was installed in 1950, designed by Kim Signs. It no longer flashes and would cost too much to fix.

The business is open from end of March to early October — a special Slashfest of horror films is presented usually during Columbus Day weekend. From Memorial Day weekend to mid-August, the drive-in operates nightly; the rest of the time is only on weekends.

“When the kids go back to school,” Bloomer said.

At one point, the Bloomer family owned five drive-ins, in Alton, Belleville, Cahokia, Centralia, and Sandoval.

“I remember going to stay with my grandfather and helping him at the Centralia Drive-In, when I was around 10,” he said.

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Twilight at the drive-in. Provided

The Bloomer Amusement Company first owned a theatre in Freeburg in 1917, then the Rex Theatre was built on Main Street in 1924. That closed in 1953. Their flagship theaters in Belleville were the Ritz Theatre, and the grand BAC Cinema in 1966, which was next to the drive-in.

The family eventually sold the Ritz and the Quad Cinemas in 1988 to the Kerasotes theatres based in Springfield. The Ritz was converted into a Baptist church and the BAC Cinema’s structure was unsafe to continue and cost-prohibitive to remodel. It has since been razed.

While other drive-ins have closed, the Skyview has held on, offering a slice of nostalgia and American culture. It is the only drive-in still operational in the St. Louis metropolitan area.

Tom Stockman, a writer and editor at www.WeAreMovieGeeks.com, often delivers lectures on the history of drive-ins.

“The Skyview is clean and nicely maintained. It attracts such big crowds on the weekends that if you attended and didn’t know better, you’d assume that drive-ins were a thriving business,” he said. “It’s surprising that of all the St. Louis-area drive-ins, it’s the last one standing since it’s in the middle of a commercial area of Belleville, and not out in a field that would have less real estate value.”

Patrons come from far and wide

Bloomer said on any given weekend, 40 to 75 percent of the vehicle license plates are from Missouri.

“I talked to someone from St. Charles over the weekend, and they come four, five times a year,” he said. “We have people from Wentzville and from Troy, Missouri.”

For some, it’s a trip down memory lane, revisiting part of their childhood. For others, it’s a tradition — a family ritual and now are bringing their children to experience. For others, it’s an affordable evening of entertainment.

Bloomer clarified that they thrive “as long as the weather is good.”

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Tornado-damaged screen at the Skyview. Provided

Drive-ins were at their peak in the 1950s and 1960s, with over 4,000 across America by 1958. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, the economy downturn (and gas crisis) forced drive-ins to sell their grounds for more lucrative businesses. And the home video boom did not help with the advent of the VCR.

Their appeal was always how welcome families were, and often located in rural areas, where entertainment options were sparse. It was also an affordable date night.

Richard Hollingshead, an auto parts salesman, of Camden, N.J., opened the first one in 1933, when he wanted a more comfortable experience for his mother.

A seasonal business, drive-ins are only open six months out of the year, Bloomer said. He continues to be an insurance agent.

What is new is the modern technology — the sound and digital systems.

Instead of car speakers, the movie is broadcast on an FM radio channel that you receive on your car stereo. Some people even prefer bringing a portable car stereo for their audio.

The films went digital in 2013. They also implemented reserved spots about four years ago.

Employees Trenidy Edwards and Charlene Coates on snowcone duty. Lynn Venhaus For the News-Democrat

“There are five spots available on Friday and Saturday nights that cost an additional $10 per vehicle. We also do this for holidays. They send an email to skyviewdrivein@att.net to request one,” he said.

Bloomer said they must state what night you want to come, which movie you want to see, and whether you will be parking at an orange pole (vehicles taller than 5’2”) or a white one (vehicle 5’2” or shorter.)

The drive-in also uses social media to promote its line-up and what’s coming soon, as well as any special offers.

So, what makes him happy this summer?

“Any day that doesn’t rain brings me joy,” he said.

(Since March 23, every weekend but one has had some rain.)

An anniversary special throughout the season takes place on Thursday nights.

“We have open caption movies and Thursday is also bargain night — $11 per car admission,” he said.

For more information, visit www.skyview-drive-in.com or their Facebook page, or call 618-233-4400.