Nostalgia, low ticket prices keep few remaining suburban drive-ins alive
My most memorable outdoor movie theater experience took place at a 1979 "dusk-to-dawn" horror film marathon at the legendary 53 Drive-In just outside of Palatine.
Cars, trucks and vans crowded around three towering screens. Kids ran gleefully through the massive parking lot. Between shows, patrons tested their bladders while waiting in long, long lines to the restrooms.
Ah, those were the nights.
The 53 Drive-In exists no more. UPS purchased the land from owner and exhibition pioneer Stanford Kohlberg.
Palatine's beloved "ozoner" joined most of America's drive-ins on the slow road to extinction. Drive-ins peaked in 1958 at 4,063. Since then, they've been on the endangered entertainment species list, dropping to around 320.
At last report, Illinois has 11 operational drive-ins with three in the immediate area:
• The Cascade Drive-In, 1100 North Ave., West Chicago
• The McHenry Drive-In, 1510 N. Chapel Hill Road, McHenry
• The Midway Drive-In, 91 Palmyra Road, Sterling
(Granted, the Midway is quite a trek, but longtime Buffalo Grove residents Mike and Mia Kerz purchased the vintage 1950 theater in 2007 and refurbished it for a digital age.)
The McHenry and Midway seem secure for the moment. But Cascade operator Jeffrey Kohlberg said that the 1961 theater property has been up for sale, although village officials said no formal purchase offers have been received.
Kohlberg ran Kenosha's Keno Drive-In for nine years before the owner demolished it. A grassy lot fills the space today.
In 1986, Kohlberg's father Stanford Kohlberg, who originally owned the McHenry Drive-In, abruptly closed and demolished the 53 Drive-In without telling his son or daughter, Poppy Cataldo, who both operated the theater.
But the younger Kohlberg remains optimistic about drive-in theaters.
"If we get the weather, we'll get the business," he said.
"Actually, drive-ins have been resurging," he added. "Business is very good, in June, July and August especially."
Part of that, he said, stems from the bargain ticket prices: two first-run movies for a lower price than people would pay at a "hardtop" theater.
"It's a unique experience and people love it," he said.
Mike Kerz concurred.
"Forget Disneyland being the happiest place on earth," Kerz said. "That's the drive-ins."
He identified two reasons:
1. The nostalgia factor. "It's an experience that transports you back to an earlier time when families loaded into the car and headed off to see the movies," he said. "People will drive one or even two hours to get to a drive-in."
2. It's a great way to see a movie. "Everybody remembers those old speakers on the posts fondly," he said. "But they had terrible sound. Today with FM radio broadcasts, you control the sound quality through your car stereo."
Plus, with digital projection, theaters can project a much brighter image on the screen using a 6,500-watt bulb instead of the old bulbs, which could not exceed 4,000 watts or they might set the celluloid film stock ablaze.
The McHenry Drive-In still uses the vintage external speakers, in addition to the FM radio broadcast.
"Of course we have the speakers, we always will," said McHenry owner Scott Dehn, "and this season, they all work!"
Likewise, the Cascade offers the nostalgic perk of the old car window-mounted speakers, plus the FM broadcast.
Kohlberg said he works with a company that sells and repairs the vintage speakers, and that enables the Cascade to use them.
Pat McGinn, Kohlberg's son-in-law, has operated the Cascade since 2008. He said drive-ins hold a special place in patrons' hearts.
"A lot of people seem to enjoy the drive-in experience more than the movie itself," he said. "My favorite part of the day is to go around and talk to all sorts of people."
Dehn said the McHenry "is here to stay" thanks to tremendous public support, plus a generous Honda Corporation grant that paid for the purchase and installation of digital projection equipment in 2013.
"That saved the theater," Dehn said.
For the Kerzes, who now live in Niles, investing money and time into the Midway means more than turning a profit. It's about preserving a piece of cultural history.
Mia quit a job as an insurance company vice-president to take up concession stand and box office duties.
"Yes, it takes some hard work to keep it up," she said. "The great part is that people recognize the effort you put into it. They notice."
For their efforts, the Midway was named "The Coolest Drive-In Illinois" by Aceable.com, a training company for drivers and real estate agents.
For Dehn, keeping the drive-in alive is personal.
"My earliest memories are going to this drive-in with my grandparents and parents and sister," he said. "When it looked like the drive-in would close, I said someone's got to step up and do something! Why not me?
"I want to provide the same memories I had to as many kids and their parents and grandparents that I can. That's the driving force that gets me out of bed every day."
The McHenry, Cascade and Midway theaters have come a long way from when Richard Milton Hollingshead opened the world's first drive-in experience on a 400-acre lot in Camden, New Jersey, in 1933. He erected a screen on top of his machine parts shop, placed speakers next to it, set up a 16 mm projector and wrote a page of entertainment history.
How long his creation will continue remains an open question.
Kohlberg is keenly aware of the vagaries of an 85-year-old entertainment delivery system in an age of digital downloads and virtual reality experiences.
"It would be a sad day, I can tell you, for all of us, if the drive-ins go dark."