Showtime soon at the Cascade Drive-in in West Chicago? Owners, city want movies this year

The Cascade Drive-in left outdoor movie fans with a lifetime of memories.

During those first summer trips to the drive-in, a playground was the place to burn off some energy before the opening credits rolled and you hopped onto the hood of the family car with a carton of popcorn or a foil-wrapped burger.

Many of those kids grew up only to mourn the apparent demise of the Cascade until they were stunned by a plot twist: Last fall, the new owners of the North Avenue landmark teased a return of the shuttered “ozoner.”

The question now is how much longer until showtime?

“There's been a lot of obstacles,” Russ Whitaker, an attorney for the owners, said Tuesday. “I think we've overcome most of them at this point in time, and we look forward to making the project a reality.”

The Cascade hasn't nailed down a date to reopen the gates to the gravel lot, but the city of West Chicago has helped rekindle the tradition.

To encourage the theater's reopening, the city council on Monday night approved an incentive agreement to rebate an amusement tax to the Cascade for the first 10 years of its operation.

The city collects an amusement tax equal to 2% of an establishment's gross receipts. That amounted to about $20,000 or less in previous years when the Cascade was still operating.

West Chicago also will allow the theater to continue using an existing private well as a water source. The property owners had asked the city to waive a requirement that the theater tap into the municipal water system, citing the cost of extending thousands of feet of new pipe to the city-owned water main.

“The city is definitely interested in seeing the theater reopen,” West Chicago Community Development Director Tom Dabareiner said. “And we've done really all that we can so far to see that that happens.”

The Cascade faded to black at the end of the 2018 season. Later that year, the property's previous owner declined to renew the theater's lease.

The Cascade's last curtain call left only one other drive-in still standing in the Chicago area: the McHenry Outdoor Theater.

It's one of the few well-preserved examples of the golden age of drive-ins. The national anthem still plays before big-budget blockbusters light up the screen.

During the glory days, the number of drive-in theaters across the country peaked at more than 4,000 in the late 1950s, according to the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association. Only about 300 were still in business in 2019, their ranks thinned by real estate development and competition from high-tech multiplexes.

But outdoor screenings have made a comeback during the COVID-19 pandemic, giving movie lovers a socially distant night out from the cocoon of their cars.

“The community is over-the-top in favor of the Cascade coming back,” West Chicago Alderman Lori Chassee said in voicing her support for the tax rebate agreement.

After the 2018 season, the 28-acre property was sold to the current ownership and held in a land trust. The owners haven't been identified.

But Whitaker, the attorney, said they're in the process of finalizing construction plans and budgets. They also intend to build a lift station to provide sanitary sewer service to the theater.

The hope is still to revive the Cascade at some point this year to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its 1961 opening.

“We still need some permit approvals from West Chicago in order to authorize the construction of some improvements,” Whitaker said, “and hopefully we'll be under construction in the very near term.”

  The former Cascade Drive-in in West Chicago is making progress on plans to reopen the outdoor theater off North Avenue. Mark Welsh/, October 2020
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