Ben Harroun and his family are hard workers. Harroun manages Harvest Moon Twin Drive-in Theatre (located in nearby Gibson City) with the help of his brother, Will, and his father, Mike, who took over the theatre in 1989.
Ben Harroun says he is at the theatre every day, along with 6–7 nights a week, from April–August. It takes a heavy toll on his family’s social lives, sleep habits, and normal work schedules (they also have regular 8–5, Monday–Friday jobs). All in all, he says he averages a 90–hour workweek (May–August). He doesn’t do it for the money—every- one in the family is salaried and thus, makes a set wage—but for the love of it all.
What Harroun and his family have accomplished over the years is really nothing short of a miracle. In 1989, the owner and founder of Harvest Moon, Clifford Orr, even did his best to convince Mike Harroun that it wasn’t going to be worthwhile to try and reopen it. But the Harrouns are an optimistic bunch, and Ben Harroun’s approach, to just take it one day at a time, has helped them sustain their passion.
Bonfire: Can you tell me what you remember from 1989, when your family took over the drive-in?
Ben Harroun: It was basically like starting from scratch. The land was basically an overgrown prairie with some poles and decrepit buildings. The screen was still stand- ing, but needed a lot of work; the roof was gone on the snack bar, which, in turn, had caused the original projectors to rust and become useless; the ticket booth was falling apart; there was no fence, trees, or bushes anywhere. It needed everything!
At the time, my dad was working a full-time job driving a mail route for the Postal Service and working to establish his own business in our hometown of Onarga. Work- ing crazy hours was an understatement. He got a group of friends together, somehow convinced my grandfather to give him a small loan, and borrowed parts, machines, and equipment from a bunch of friends across the country to rebuild and open the Harvest Moon in 1989. Having operated several indoor theatres, my dad had a lot of experience bringing old buildings back to life and saw potential in the Harvest Moon when no one else did.
Bonfire: Do you have an inherent love of drive-ins that you learned from your experi- ences growing up?
Harroun: Both my brother (Will) and I were basically raised at movie theatres. They were our playgrounds and where we learned a work ethic that is unrivaled in many people we know. Originally, we came out to watch the movies, play on the grounds, and have fun like all of the kids we run the theatre for today. Once we were old enough, we were put to the task of picking up litter, and then on to the smaller tasks, such as making popcorn, drinks, etc. to help move the lines in the snack bar. On the nights we didn’t have to work, we would walk the lot with our friends and meet new people, mak- ing friends with people all over the state. It was a great experience, and one we didn’t even realize was different from most people’s. We thought everyone had a drive-in to go to where they could have fun and make new friends.
Bonfire: How would you describe the way you manage? What inspires you?
Harroun: I try to please everyone. It often backfires, as we know that is impossible, but we work exceptionally hard to put a smile on our patrons’ faces… I’ll be honest, I actually decided to stay working at the drive-in after college, to help bring it back to life after the recession took a huge chunk out of the drive-in business. We lost a lot
of money from 2007–2010, and during that period we spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on my campaign to rejuvenate the buildings, grounds, and movie experience. I remembered how we started at nothing, and how much work my father put into the place to keep it running and open for future generations, and used that as motivation to keep working on the drive-in as more and more began to close. We were determined to keep open and bring the theatre back to the heyday we experienced in the early 2000s.
Bonfire: How did you endure that hardship and go about influencing change?
Harroun: It was rough. For years, we had been running four to five different businesses that had often piggybacked off of each other to keep the cash flow working. Some years, the drive-in would support the other businesses (like 2002–2006); other years, the other businesses would have to pick up the slack. In 2007, we felt the recession hard: business dropped; fuel prices escalated; and we thought OK, it’s not great, but we can keep going.
In ‘08 it was worse: bad weather, not so great movies, and we were losing hundreds of dollars a night to keep our movies on the screen. We knew we had two options at that point: close the business that we had worked so hard to keep open all these years, or find what we could do to remake our image and bring out new customers that have never had the drive-in experience. That is also when I stepped in to start making a lot of big changes and renovations. At the time, we didn’t have the funds to do much of anything with all of our businesses hit by the recession, so we worked on the smaller projects we could and tried to connect to a more modern audience.
Bonfire: Did you ever feel like giving up?
Harroun: Our family is a bunch of optimists. We usually see the side of success past the field of work required for it. Yes, there were many times we thought, ‘Why bother anymore?’…We had to seriously look into the possibility of giving up hope in 2011–2012. That’s when we first learned of the impending digital conversion taking hold and the enormous expense of the conversion. Looking at $350,000+ to convert over, we had a conversation where we knew we would be forced to close if it came down to it. It really did look bleak. But then the summer of 2012 happened. We asked for help from the thousands of Harvest Moon fans, and they came in to help support us. That support, the stories of how they were fund-raising and spreading awareness for us, and all of the support they showed just by showing up when we traditionally didn’t have anyone, shown some light at the end of the tunnel. We knew at the end of 2012 that we had to keep the theatre open. If we failed, we would be letting down thousands of people that loved the drive-in, and that’s a burden none of us wanted to bear.
Bonfire: What are your thoughts on the film industry and the transition?
Harroun: Overall, I think it is a positive one with the quality improvements. The first time I saw a digital drive-in, I knew it was the route we wanted to go. Working with equipment manufactured in the 1950s, we were often scouring the country for parts when things broke and trying to get our quality to a higher level. Digital offered all of the improvements we wanted, but at a high price.
It is bad how the film industry basically renounces independent theatres and drive-ins in the way they structured their Virtual Print Fee financing structure, however. They basically told everyone like us, “You don’t bring in the big dollars, so you don’t get the same deal as the huge theatre chains.” It was a punch in the gut, but we know if you are determined enough, you can really make a reality out of something most see was impossible.
Bonfire: How did you manage to raise enough to stay open, despite the odds?
Harroun: We began asking for direct donations both online and by accepting cash/ change donations in our snack bar. We started to get a little saved, but it definitely wasn’t enough. We thought back to some of the radio contests that were fund-raisers in the past, and decided it might be worth a try that way. We had a 1967 Mustang that had just been refurbished, and decided it would be worth a shot to raffle that off rather than sell it outright. That gamble actually paid off, bringing in two times what we would have sold the car for, and helped get us to the ten percent bracket of what we were try- ing to raise.
But we noticed that the best fund-raiser was the Kickstarter project. Even though we failed to meet the funding and lost the money people had pledged, we thought that
if we recreated the same donations and rewards theme, we would get closer to our goal in the short period of time we had to make the decision. That project, the “Save the Drive-In” fund-raiser, was very successful, bringing in many donations from all over the world and getting some of our local businesses to support us. Altogether, we raised about $65,000 toward our conversion expenses, prior to the cost of sending out the rewards. We had talked to our bank about financing the projectors and they had basically told us that they would finance to a set level, which was about two-thirds of the cost to convert. We were also required to mortgage our office location, the home of our other two businesses, to secure the financing. So, with the help of all of our great and loyal friends and patrons, and the bank, we were able to go ahead and get our new equipment ordered to stay open.
Bonfire: I was at the drive-in recently on a Thursday night, and you were like the Wizard of Oz: at the gate, then behind the scenes, granting wishes, etc… Can you walk me through one of your typical nights?
Harroun: It’s a more than full-time, crazy experience. I’ll give you a rundown from Saturday, July 6, when we set a new record for attendance. We live half an hour from the theatre, so we had to drive home after cleaning up on Friday night, getting home around 4:30 a.m.
With the record crowd on Friday night, we were out of most of our inventory. So, bright and early at 8 a.m., with less than three hours of sleep, my brother and I hopped in the truck and headed for Chicago Heights to pick up more supplies. Afterwards, we drove straight back to make it to the bank to get the extra change for the night’s show. Then we headed to the drive-in, where we unloaded the supplies, picked up the lot from all of the garbage the night before, and headed home to grab a quick shower. While on the road, we worked on contacting employees to show up early and orchestrated volunteers to help us out, as we were missing three from our staff that night, and knew a large crowd was coming in. We made it home just in enough time to shower and jump back in the car to head back to the theatre.
There, we met a large crowd, already in line. As our staff set up the food stands and pre- pared the food, I set up the pre-show music and playlists for the night’s movies. At that time, I heard the dreaded, ‘They’re on the road; we have to get out front,’ and headed out to start allowing people in at 5:30 p.m. This all happened so fast, I only had enough time to grab a drink and get notes to our other projectionist to start the film at 8:35.
We opened both sides of our ticket booth and kept moving cars non-stop until 9:15 p.m., when we had reached capacity and had to start turning people away. I stayed out front tell people we had only walk-ins available, and then headed inside to get moving on the intermissions. I had enough time to restock some food in the snack bar, and try to cleanup the restrooms the best I could, then had to run to the projection booths to stop the films for the intermission announcements and [the] following digital fireworks display I had put together earlier in the week, in another up-’til-4 a.m. night.
After the films were stopped, I bounced from the snack bar to the burger bar to the Tiki hut restocking food items, taking orders, and checking my watch so I could restart the films to get everyone home at a reasonable time. During this period, our restroom and food lines never stopped and were the longest I’ve ever seen since I’ve been here. We worked nonstop to keep the food stocked and going out with our customers. We had an electrical issue the night before that had taken out our ice machine, credit card lines, and half of our snack bar, so we had to keep a watchful eye on all of those items that were repaired earlier in the day and on Friday.
Then, the first set of movies started to end. Since it was a double feature night, I had to run out to the booths again, this time to make some quick announcements and turn on the screen lights so people leaving could find the exit safely. After the second movies were started, the lines finally began to recede and the end looked near. About half an hour into the second movie, we began to shut down the food machines, and cleanup en- sued. Everyone worked to get the place back to its pre-show state. I kept bouncing from cleanup, to taking out trash, to doing the bookkeeping, then had to get the lights on the screens and the final announcements as the second features ended. Finally, around 3 a.m., I was able to sit down with some nachos and a drink for dinner. We then took out all of the garbage, cleaned the restrooms, and made lists for more supplies the next day, including numbers to call to clean our Porta-potties and restock our propane tank and fountain soda products. At 4:30 a.m., we managed to get home and headed to sleep for another short period of time so we could wake and repeat it all over again. Five nights in a row of three hours of sleep were definitely taking their toll at this point.
I also manage our website, newsletter, media relations, Facebook page, Twitter, film booking, food offerings, grounds maintenance, and facility repairs during the daytime with my brother helping out. When we get done with the needed work, we try to spend the little time left on continuing our remodeling projects, one day at a time.
If it weren’t for the smile on faces of the kids out here, and the compliments we get occasionally, we wouldn’t be able to keep doing it.
Harvest Moon has become a large, extended family to the Harrouns and it shows. I saw Twister during a thunderstorm on a Retro Cinema night earlier this year, which offered natural, free special effects. It may have been easy to get discouraged by the weather, but I couldn’t help but get wrapped up in the magic, nostalgic paradise that it is.
On July 5, 2013, Harvest Moon celebrated their first sold-out show since 2006. If the Harrouns were ever accused of being quixotic, they’ve either decided to embrace it or ignore it and be a success.
Photos by Celine Broussard.
This story was originally published in Bonfire, the print companion to Smile Politely. The Autumn/Winter 2013 edition was published and distributed around Champaign-Urbana at the end of August 2013. Over the next several months, we will publish the stories featured in Bonfire on Smile Politely.