New projectors could bring end for endangered drive-ins, theaters
Story by By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org Photos by John Konstantaras For Sun-Times Media October 27, 2012 7:02PM
Projectionist Walter Becker, from Lombard, switches to an intermission reel between films at the Cascade Drive-In Theater in West Chicago. | John Konstantaras~For Sun-Times Media
Only 12 drive-ins remain in all of Illinois, and just two, the Cascade near West Chicago and the McHenry, in the whole Chicago area.
Nationwide, the number has shrunk from 4,000 in the late 1950s to just 368 today.
Updated: November 29, 2012 6:09AM
An expensive change in movie-projection technology could become the coup de grace that finally kills off the few remaining drive-in movie theaters and old-style downtown movie houses.
The studios that distribute Hollywood “films” have announced that during 2013, they will stop distributing movies on expensive, heavy plastic film and will send new movies out to theaters only on inexpensive, easy-to-handle computer hard drives or satellite downloads.
For the studios, that will save an estimated $1 billion a year. But for theater owners, it means they must replace their old-style film projectors with digital projectors at a price of $70,000 to $130,000 each.
The big theater chains that own the giant multiplexes aren’t thrilled by this prospect, but they can afford to finance it. The Marcus Elgin Cinema, for example, replaced all its projectors with digital devices last year. Downers Grove-based Tivoli Classic Cinemas re-equipped its Charlestowne 18 Cinema in St. Charles and Cinema 12 in Carpentersville with digital projectors last spring.
“We spent $70,000 to convert each auditorium, over $1 million at Charlestowne alone,” Classic Cinemas Vice President Chris Johnson said. “But if we hadn’t done that, we would have been out of business in 2013.”
In recent decades, movies have been delivered to theaters in cans of film. Projectionists then had to lay these out on a “platter” some 6 feet wide and splice each reel together so the film could be fed into a projector.
Each can of film weighed about 9 pounds and contained about 20 minutes of movie. The film for a movie such as “Titanic” weighed about 100 pounds, required physically splicing together five miles of film, and cost its studio more than $1,000 each to copy.
Now, Charlestowne projection-booth manager Eric Hutchins said, a movie arrives in the form of a computer hard drive about 8 inches long, light enough to hold easily in one hand. And soon, most movies will be delivered to the theater via a satellite download.
But the mom-and-pop operators of drive-ins and old-style downtown theaters face a double whammy. Unable to take advantage of economies of scale and often forced to change their ventilation and electrical systems, too, they must pay $100,000 or more for each new system. Yet they have a smaller income base upon which to draw.
Drive-ins such as the Cascade on Route 64 in West Chicago and the McHenry Outdoor in McHenry can operate for only eight months or so per year. Old-stye movie houses such as the Catlow in downtown Barrington often show older movies at bargain prices, operating as much for the love of what they do as to make a profit.
So in an effort to stay alive in the coming digital age, the Cascade, McHenry and Catlow have turned to an unorthodox new method of finance — asking their fans to donate money toward their digital conversion via a website called KickStarter.com that conducts charity-style fundraising drives for projects in the arts.
Their efforts have met with varying success:
First to try the fundraising route was Barrington’s Catlow, an 85-year-old theater with architecture so unique that it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
When Catlow co-owner Tim O’Connor posted a plea for help on KickStarter.com this summer, he wrote that “the message from the movie companies to small theaters like ours is clear: ‘Go digital or go dark.’ ”
Thanks to the prosperity of people who live in Barrington and the special passion the Catlow inspires, that effort was a shining success. The Catlow’s goal was $100,000 in donations. By the time the deadline for the drive came, 1,394 people had made pledges, for a total of $175,395 — or almost twice as much as the Catlow needed.
O’Connor says the excess will be used to pay for some other needed repairs and upgrades to the historical building.
The Cascade’s fundraising, also aiming to raise $100,000, has been a flop so far. Co-owners Jeff Kohlberg and Poppy Cataldo (a brother and sister in their 60s who grew up in the theater business) started their KickStarter campaign on Oct. 10. With a deadline of Nov. 9, it has attracted only 24 donors who have pledged just $733. But Kohlberg said he and Cataldo should be able to finance the new equipment using other means and he expects the Cascade drive-in to reopen for its 52nd season in spring 2013.
The most endangered theater in this area is the McHenry Outdoor.
“The cost of a digital projector is approximately $77,000,” said owner Scott Dehn. “The renovation needed in the projection booth to accommodate this new projector will cost an additional $60,000. As a seasonal entity, the McHenry Outdoor Theater simply cannot afford to pay for this conversion without the help from the public.”
Like the Cascade, the McHenry Outdoor’s conversion would require not only installing a new projector but adding new air conditioning and ventilation systems to cope with its greater heat output, and rewiring the booth’s electrical system. Since starting its KickStarter fund drive on Sept. 29, with a deadline of Nov. 28, the McHenry has attracted 226 donors with pledges totaling $19,516 — less than a sixth of the way to the goal, with no private source of funding to serve as a backup.
Kohlberg, now 65, grew up in the drive-in business and can remember when it was a big part of most baby boomers’ childhoods.
“At one time, my father owned 45 indoor and outdoor theaters in five states,” he said as he mixed a chocolate milkshake for one of the Cascade’s Sunday night customers.
The drive-in idea began in the 1930s, and the McHenry Outdoor opened in the 1940s. But the movement really hit its heyday with the big post-World War II families in the auto-oriented 1950s and 1960s.
Fox Valley baby boomers can remember budget-minded parents taking them to see Disney movies at the Star-View at Routes 20 and 59 east of Elgin when they were 7. They can remember necking with dates at the Dundale in East Dundee when they were 17. And they can remember watching Russ Meyer’s softcore-porn flick “Vixen” play for something like 28 weeks straight at the Star-View when they were 27.
Drive-ins traditionally appealed to families with restless kids and to teenagers on dates. To that has been added nostalgic baby boomers. With so few such theaters still left, last Sunday’s crowd at the Cascade included people from all over the Chicago area, and even a classic-car club whose members had driven their 1950s collector’s items all the way from Indiana to enjoy meeting in a surrounding that matched their cars’ childhoods.
Terry Ryan of Wheaton said it was her third visit to the Cascade this year. “My kids used to get into the back of my truck with sleeping bags and fall asleep during the show.”
Kohlberg said he now plays the movies’ sound over a low-powered FM radio transmitter. But he wasn’t able to just scrap the old-style gray aluminum speakers hanging on poles at each parking space because so many people now watch the movie from outside of their cars.
Some, such as Sunday’s group of four who included Mike Wrobego from Chicago’s Mount Greenwood neighborhood, set up lawn chairs in front of their parked cars, stock up on hotdogs, hamburgers and french fries from the snack bar, and turn the moviegoing experience into a tailgating party. Others park their SUVs or minivans or pickups with tail to the screen, open the back hatch and lie down in the back.
“You can talk during the movie if you want,” Wrobego said. “And they have double features here for just $9. You can’t beat that. I could remember seeing ‘Jurassic Park’ at a drive-in when I was 6 or 7, and one day I began to wonder if any of these things are still open. I found the Cascade online, and now I come regularly.”
“This was a spur-of-the-moment thing because I found a Groupon offer for the Cascade,” said 28-year-old Lauren Cassidy of Mundelein, who had driven some 20 miles with her date. “I used to go to these all the time in the Arlington Heights area.”
“This was so much cheaper than an indoor theater,” said Bob Brandon, who had driven about 20 miles from his home in Villa Park to see the double feature of “Sinister” and “Lawless” with date Jennifer Rocco. Through Groupon, he said, he was able to get two tickets, a small popcorn and a small drink for $10 — less than the price of one admission at regular theaters in his area. And he would be free to talk with his date through the movie without bothering anybody else.
When the Star-View opened on Oct. 22, 1948, playing an adventure flick named “The Swordsman,” a Courier-News story captured its appeal — “No worries about baby-sitting, parking or dressing up.” But by 1977, indoor multiplexes ruled, and new owner Frank Marsico turned the Star-View into an X-rated sleaze gallery, playing “Debbie Does Dallas” and “Behind the Green Door” on a screen 30 feet high. Sued by upset neighbors, it closed altogether in 1986 and became a housing development.
The Dundale, which opened in the ’60s, was plagued by noise and light pollution from the nearby gravel pits. It closed in the early ’80s and is now part of Rock Road Industrial Park.
The changing world also has claimed the Skylark and the Hi Lite 30 in Aurora, the De-Val in DeKalb and the Crystal Lake Outdoor.
Some of drive-ins’ charm wore off as indoor theaters became air-conditioned and as cars became smaller and less comfortable to sit in for hours.
But Kohlberg said the biggest threat has been land values. When the Star-View and Cascade were built, they were surrounded by cheap, vacant farmland. As Elgin, Bartlett, St. Charles and West Chicago expanded toward them, their huge swaths of property became more valuable for other uses, and taxes zoomed with the property values. He said the Cascade now pays $80,000 a year in property taxes on its 28-acre, 1,200-parking-place site.
“My dad had the 53 Drive-in in Palatine,” Kohlberg recalls. “One day, some men from UPS came in, said that would be a perfect site for a UPS distribution center and asked him how much he would want for the land. Just off the top of his head, he said, ‘$2.5 million.’ And they said, ‘We’ll cut you a check.’ That was the end of the 53 Drive-in.”
Kohlberg and Cataldo bought the Cascade in 1989. Today, their empire has shrunk to just that plus one drive-in near Kenosha, Wis.