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Austin Powers wasn’t the only one time traveling last week at the McHenry Outdoor Theatre. Turn into the dusty driveway just north of Route 120, hand a five-dollar bill to the girl in the glass booth, and roll up to a speaker pole in front of the big screen (try to find one that works). Before you can say “Ivana Humpalot,” it’s 1969. Well, 1969 on life support. The plug was pulled on a sister screen in Grayslake before the season opened this spring. It looks like the McHenry, the last outdoor movie theater in the north and northwest suburbs, could follow anytime, though owner Tom Rhyan says there’s “no reason [and no plans] to change it right now.”
Rhyan says business is double what it was last year, with many of the Grayslake customers “moving over,” but on a muggy Tuesday with a threat of rain there were only 25 cars in the lot. Green minivans and little red coupes full of teens ready to party crunched across the gravel and hunkered down, waiting for darkness to fall. The vans parked backward, spilling kids and coolers out of rear doors. Lawn chairs were popped open, blankets spread facing the screen. The snack stand, a white concrete bunker, did a dreary business in popcorn and soda at megaplex prices. At 8:30, when the show started, the sky was still lighter than the screen and Powers was as faint as a vapor trail. When the horizon finally darkened, about the time he met up with Ms. Spits or Swallows, the mosquitoes came out to dine.
The marriage of cars and movies, the two coolest products of the 20th century, is on its last legs. But back when Richard M. Hollingshead Jr. was fooling around with screens and projectors in his driveway, it was an inspired match. Hollingshead invented the drive-in theater–basically a towering screen, a ramped lot, a projector with a big bulb, and a traffic pattern–and got a patent on it in 1933. He rounded up some investors and built the prototype, the Automobile Movie Theater in Camden, New Jersey. On opening night, June 6, 1933, Adolphe Menjou was on the marquee and the price of admission was 25 cents. For the next 17 years, until Hollingshead’s patent expired, his Park-In Theaters, Inc., controlled and licensed the right to build clones across the country.
By the early 50s there were 3,000 of them, generating 20 percent of the money made in the movie industry. The architecture came into its own, with drive-ins that looked like pyramids, ocean liners, and waterfalls offering speakers, heaters, concessions, elaborate playgrounds, and seats for walk-ins. Screens got as big as 53 feet by 72 feet. They were coyly positioned, backs to the road, so folks cruising past got no more than a tantalizing peek at the larger-(and fuzzier)-than-life action.
If you were a teenager, no matter what was showing, the drive-in was a good place to learn about sex. But more than that, drive-ins were about romance–the love affairs Americans had with their Chevys and Oldsmobiles that made them want to experience life from behind the wheel. The theaters’ prognosis in the age of the virtual highway looks grim. Drive-in restaurants have given way to drive-throughs, and if we want a little privacy while we watch movies there’s a VCR in the bedroom. But the biggest factor is rising land values. “They sat out there in cornfields,” says Bill Benedict, an archivist for the Theatre Historical Society of America. “Now they’re engulfed by suburban sprawl.” The hulking carcass of the Grayslake Outdoor, for example, will soon make way for a shopping center. According to Theatre Society records, more than 40 drive-in theaters were built in the greater Chicago area. Only six are still operating: the Hi-Lite in Montgomery, the Cascade in West Chicago, the Bel-Air in Cicero, the Hilltop in Joliet, the Cicero Twin in University Park, and the McHenry.
Wild Wild West is the early feature this weekend at the McHenry Outdoor Theatre, Chapel Hill Road and Lincoln (north of Route 120) in McHenry. The first show starts at about 8:30. Tickets are $5 per person. Call 815-385-0144 for more information. The Theatre Historical Society Movie Palace Museum, 152 N. York Road in Elmhurst, opens a small exhibit on drive-in theaters this Wednesday. Admission is free; call 630-782-1800 for hours. –Deanna Isaacs
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Machnik.