Nostalgic drive-ins must go digital, too
At the Cascade Drive-In movie theater in West Chicago, nostalgia abounds.
As cars filter in just after 7 p.m., music from the 1950s and 1960s fills the night air, pouring out from some 1,000 portable speakers throughout the 28-acre site.
Just before the nightly double-feature begins, a message from the jovial dancing popcorn and hot dogs appears on the 80- by 120-foot screen, reminding moviegoers that the concession stand isn't far away.
And there sits Rush Luangsuwan and his wife, Jennifer Mawdsley, in his restored 1957 Chevrolet, who have gone to the drive-in every week for the past four years.
"This is like a dying breed," said Luangsuwan, 41, of Woodridge, who grew up going to the Twin Drive-In in Wheeling.
For a moment in time, the Cascade recreates an era when the drive-in was king.
But as one of the few remaining drive-ins, it's also finding new ways to adapt. And it likely has to, if it wants to survive.
Cascade owner Jeff Kohlberg decided the 51-year-old theater will convert this fall from showing movies on old 35 mm film to new digital equipment. Without it, the theater, at 1100 E. North Ave., would have to close, he said.
It's an issue that all theaters nationwide will have to confront -- if they haven't already -- when Hollywood decides to fully distribute movies digitally.
All theaters -- whether indoor or outdoor -- are affected by the digital conversion, but perhaps it's more pronounced for drive-ins, of which there are only 368 remaining nationwide, according to the most recent estimate from the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.
That's from a height of more than 4,000 in the late 1950s.
Cascade is one of two remaining drive-ins in the Chicago area -- along with the McHenry Outdoor Theater, which is now beginning a fundraising effort to pay for digital equipment.
The price to go digital is anywhere between $75,000 and $100,000.
"The film companies kind of gave us an ultimatum," said Jon Morgan, one of Cascade's projectionists. "The mom and pops were holding out, but I think the handwriting's on the wall.
"Some people are still nostalgic for film, but the economy and cost are getting everybody away from it."
Cascade plans to install the new digital equipment this fall, and movies will be shown on it by November, Kohlberg said.
But until the Cascade officially goes digital, projectionists will do it the way it's always been done.
Films run on two projectors that have been in place since the theater's opening in 1961. Initially, some movies came on as many as eight reels -- creating a constant battle for the projectionist to rethread film from one machine to the next, every time one of the reels ran out.
Probably the latest, greatest innovation to date at the Cascade came in the 1980s, when the theater got three large rotating "platters," with enough film space capable of running a double-feature.
Morgan says the Cascade will probably still use one of its projectors to run trailers or previews, but otherwise, movies will be transmitted via hard-drive or satellite.
"When digital comes in, it'll be as simple as turning on a computer and pushing play," Morgan said as he slipped 35 mm film through one of the projectors. "Threading this will become a lost art."
Despite the popularity of mega-movieplexes and more convenient, on-demand movie viewing at home, Cascade is still a draw in 2012. On some weekend summer nights, cars line up on North Avenue for some 500 feet waiting to get in.
Not only is the theater adapting to new technology, it's doing the same in its promotional efforts. Moviegoers can check show times on Cascade's website, Facebook and Twitter pages, and recently, the theater began offering an admission price deal on Groupon.
The theater is open seven days a week in the summer, and on weekends through December. It reopens in April.
July is usually the busiest month, with families filling the lot, bringing in tables and chairs and food. Kids run around, not constrained to theater chairs.
"(Our) boys can be a little louder because they're not in the theater," said Don Kleumper of Aurora, attending a recent movie with his wife and two children.
Kohlberg says people enjoy the "freedom" of an outdoor theater, especially when the weather is good.
"It's different watching a movie outside," he said. "And some nights it's so nice to sit outside."
But what's also kept Cascade going may be its location.
While real estate development has touched many areas near Cascade -- the theater itself is still in a "no man's land," Kohlberg said.
He says he hasn't received any significant offers to buy his property since he purchased the theater from original owner Spiro Charuhas in 1989.
John Vincent Jr., president of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, said the popularity of drive-ins -- or lack thereof -- has never been the issue, but land values have.
"When you basically take a parking lot, only use it at night and only in good weather -- it's not that the concept is bad -- but it's the cost, where the land could be worth more doing something else," said Vincent, a drive-in theater owner in Cape Cod, Mass.
Having only a couple of outdoor theaters remaining in an area the size of Chicago and its suburbs is typical, he says, while rural areas in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania have many more.
"The drive-ins that are left are performing quite well," he said.
Kohlberg says the Cascade's conversion to digital will keep the theater going for the foreseeable future.
That's welcome news to nostalgia lovers who frequent the Cascade.
"I encourage my friends to come here as much as possible because you don't know when it might close," Luangsuwan said.
"I just wish there were more (drive-ins) around to come out and watch the movies."