BLUE GRASS — Just off Mayne Street, near the western city limits of Blue Grass, it looks like part of a giant cube is emerging from the ground.
Within the next few weeks — a Labor Day weekend opening originally was planned, but it looks more like the first weekend in September — the land on the edge of town will be the home of the Blue Grass Drive-In.
It will have four screens, but two will make their debut yet this summer and fall.
It gives the Quad-City area its first drive-in theater in more than 25 years, when the last of five that once stood in the area closed down.
It's a marriage of nostalgia and high-tech advances that made the difference for Randy Lorenz and his family.
"We all caught the tail end of the drive-ins, when ... they were on their way down," Lorenz, 49, said. "We all remember the Bel-Air, Oasis, the Semri, the Memri, the Corral."
With an army of relatives and friends assisting, Lorenz and his family have been working since March to build the concession stand at the center of the property and the projection booths.
That spirit is what drove Lorenz through the estimated $750,000 project.
"I think it's worth it," he said of the price tag. "I keep telling everybody the whole thing is about family and friends and getting back to that."
Arron Lorenz comes from what he calls a "movie family."
"We were the first house in the neighborhood to have a DVD player and had racks of VHS tapes before that," the 29-year-old said. "We were always into movies, whether it's going to theaters or stocking up at home."
He remembers his father knocking on his bedroom door one night to float the idea of opening a drive-in.
The land where the Blue Grass Drive-In will open is one of the first parcels they investigated. The developer of the property, inside Blue Grass' industrial park, had financial problems that halted the sale.
A plot of land off Davenport's Locust Street, near the American Honda facility, had its tires kicked several times.
The Lorenzes even purchased land off U.S. 61, across from Casey's General Store and not far from Interstate 280. But access from a county road was not available.
"It was just one thing after another," Randy said.
He later returned to the land on West Mayne, where a larger piece of property was available and a proposed street was nixed.
"The property lent itself to a reduced price based on the fact that they didn't have to put a road in at that point," he said.
After easing the concerns of neighbors and the Blue Grass City Council, he was given the approval to proceed.
"It worked out great," he said. "It benefited the bank, it benefited the city and it benefited us. So, it was truly one of those win-win-win situations. I know you hear that all the time, but it truly was.
"This project is obviously not anywhere near what this area was designed for. It was an industrial park. So we had to work past the city to get to that part."
Randy Lorenz went before the council and concerned neighbors to let them know the buck stopped with him.
"Every business has issues," Lorenz said he explained to them. "All I can tell you is that I will try to solve all of those issues as best I can. If you have a problem, please call me. You know where I'm at. We can work together and find a solution."
Arron Lorenz said he has heard mostly positive responses.
"We've had much more support than we've had detractors," he said. "They wanted to make sure their day-to-day lives weren't disrupted too much. Really, it's the perfect place. Dad lives here, he's part of the community."
Piece by piece
Ready to start work in March, the elder Lorenz didn't anticipate the runoff from spring rains would be greeting him when he arrived.
"I had Lake Blue Grass out here for a while," he said.
Once it subsided, land was plowed to create a bowl effect, with ramps for parked cars, and a concession stand was built.
Earlier this month, two 48-foot-long, 27-foot-high screens were hoisted by cranes onto the top of poles surrounding the concession stand.
On Wednesday, the projectors arrived via next-day shipping. The ventilation fans in each projection building had to be installed, and the test pattern filled one screen by the time darkness set in.
"It's hard to get overly excited until you see the fun stuff coming," Arron Lorenz said. "You sort of get a sense of the grandeur and the size. You get a sense of what it will be when it's on paper and drawings, but it's nothing like seeing the real thing."
Early plans were for the theater to be called the Reel-to-Reel Drive In.
But technology changed in the interim, and there's not a movie reel in sight.
"I have two, 35 mm projectors in my garage that are basically paperweights right now," Randy Lorenz said. "They're pretty much worthless."
According to D. Edward Vogel, administrative secretary of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, about 80 percent of the nearly 600 outdoor screens around the nation have digital projection.
"There's a lot to embrace about that digital picture. It's coming full circle," said Vogel, a third-generation drive-in owner from the Baltimore area.
"By going digital now, it allows us to compete, as far as what movies we allow, with the best of them," Arron Lorenz said.
The current white screens will be covered with a PVC vinyl cloth sack screen, made for outdoor theaters by a company in Minnesota.
There are a number of new vendors who provide items specifically for drive-ins.
"They didn't do this five years ago," Arron Lorenz said.
According to Vogel's organization, drive-ins hit their peak in 1958, with 4,063 screens. They faced their steepest decline from 1978 to ’88, he said. Large theater chains gave up on outdoor theaters, saying their customers were getting into home video.
But it's the individual owners who are responsible for keeping drive-ins alive, with anywhere from 600 to 700 screens running in the country since the millennium.
"It's normally somebody who understands what they're getting into," Vogel said. "If it's a person trying to get rich quick, it's not going to work. But you get very devoted people who love this industry."
In a world of chain restaurants and department stores, he said, a drive-in owner stands out.
"The world has become a rubber stamp, and it really is corporate America anymore," he said. "It makes me sad in some ways. But it also makes me stronger to keep my drive-in alive. These owners inspire each other."
Justin West opened the Autovue Drive-In at Galva, Ill., 10 years ago. The still-high price tag of digital projection keeps him showing films.
"We've had a decent year," he said. "We're still 35 mm, and I was pleasantly surprised at the supply of film this season. But clearly the writing's on the wall. The supply of prints is really down, but we were able to skate by with film."
'Fine and dandy'
As drive-ins in the Quad-Cities were coming and going, the 61 Drive-In, south of Maquoketa, Iowa, has been running continuously since August 1950.
Dennis Voy, who has owned the 61 since 1972, says a majority of those patronizing the drive-in are from the Quad-Cities.
But he welcomes the competition.
"That's fine and dandy, as far as I'm concerned. I think there's plenty of room for drive-in activity," he said. "But I don't think it's going to make any difference to me because there's a lot of people who haven't tried the 61 because it's closer to home than Blue Grass."
The 61 can fit up to 300 cars, and Voy said it has been filled to capacity many nights this summer.
"On a Saturday night, when we've had a good weather day and a good show, we can hardly get them all in," he said. "It's really too small sometimes to handle all of the drive-in fans in the area."
The Lorenzes have their visions of how the opening night at Blue Grass will go. Cars will be routed to one of the two screens. They'll tune their radios to an FM radio frequency displayed below each screen. (Those clunky old speakers went out with the R-rated "naughty" stewardess, nurse and cheerleader flicks.)
There will be spaces for 189 vehicles at each screen.
Everyone gets to enjoy a double feature.
But they must stay at the movies for which they've purchased a ticket.
"That has to do with the movie studios," Randy Lorenz said. "They dictate what you do.
"You work a deal out for movies A and B, and if you want to see that movie, you have to see A and B. They send people in to periodically audit, and you don't even know they're here.
"I was told by one gentleman in one of the theaters I contacted that it cost him $25,000 because he didn't follow the rules. For him to stay in business, that's what he had to pay the studios. You do what they tell you and you play by their rules."
There are no predictions of what the first titles might be, but Arron Lorenz said the Blue Grass Drive-In will try to get movies the same day they open nationally.
The items at the concession stand have yet to be determined, he said, but they will try to provide a variety of foods and keep prices more reasonable than at the typical multiplex.
Concessions, owners say, are what makes or breaks a drive-in.
"The lion's share of the gate's gonna go to pay for films," Vogel said. "You need the food sales."
"We don't make the money off the ticket," Arron Lorenz said. "For us to be successful, you've got to come in to the concession stand and buy a soda and buy a popcorn."
Worth the work
Randy Lorenz is the manager of a Walgreens in Moline, a 32-year veteran of the pharmacy chain.
He gets to work at 6:30 a.m. and doesn't get home from the drive-in site until at least 10:30 p.m. The only way his wife, Terri, sees him, he joked, is when she's working there with him.
"It was a lot more time-consuming than I originally anticipated," he said. "We're moving as fast as we can, but things just take a little longer than you anticipate."
He and his son, who works in IT for Quad-City Safety Co., are encouraged by the 5,000-plus fans they've garnered from the drive-in's Facebook page.
"And we're not even open yet," Randy Lorenz said. "I think it's a pretty good shot in the arm so far."
It's hard not to compare the Lorenzes with a fictional Iowa hero, Ray Kinsella from "Field of Dreams."
Like the character played in the movie by Kevin Costner, Randy Lorenz believes that if you build it, an audience will come.
"People look at it and say, 'Why in today's society, with the way you get movies, would you have something so antiquated?' " he said.
"My answer is if you want to watch a movie on DVDs ... or Netflix or streaming, you're still in your house. You're not interacting, you're not with your family.
"This is a way to get away from the things that clutter our lives and get out to where we can sit down and talk.
"It's a way to bring your family together a little bit on a Friday night or a Saturday night and sit down and talk and interact a little bit. This is about family and friends and bringing people together."