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The Last Picture Show: Reeling in the state’s surviving drive-in theaters

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By Frank Sennett

The Skyview in downstate Litchfield is the drive-in of dreams. The screen backs out onto Route 66, where a hand-painted sign proclaims: “$1 per person at all times.” Past the short, winding driveway and small ticket-taker booth, a perfectly manicured gravel lot spreads out in the distance. Its darkest corners butt up against a railroad track, feed silos and the beginning of a business district that includes The Rural King (“For all your farm and home needs”). Red and yellow lights glow atop the speaker posts surrounding the low-slung concession stand, which has offered the basics—soda, candy, corn—along with a friendly greeting since 1949. On hot summer nights, patrons gather on the dozen or so benches arrayed in front of the snackbar loudspeakers; others spread out in the beds of their pickups while the kids run around on an expansive fenced-off lawn that’s overshadowed by the whitewashed, corrugated-metal screen. And when it’s all done, everyone wends out on a driveway devoid of gates and devices that cause “severe tire damage.”

Even factoring in gas money, it was no more expensive to make the 240-mile drive to Litchfield to see “Star Wars” on a recent windswept Friday night than it would have been to catch it at McClurg Court. And while car speakers and squawking metal boxes replace THX surround sound at the drive-in, can there be a better place to watch the Rebel armada approach the Death Star than at a theater which expands the screen to infinite proportions with a backdrop of glittering stars?

Each of the twelve other drive-in theaters currently operating in Illinois holds special charms. The Cascade in West Chicago opens earlier than any of its counterparts and also earns the unique distinction of staying open seven nights a week with first-run movies all season long. Munching on corn dogs, Italian beef sandwiches and burgers from the Cascade’s expanded-menu snackbar, my friends and I enjoyed a double date snuggled under blankets in my convertible as Tommy Lee Jones dodged chunks of molten Los Angeles. By “Eight Heads in a Duffle Bag,” we were as frozen as Joe Pesci’s stiffs, but that’s part of the drive-in adventure, too.

Showing up late at the Midway, some 130 miles into the western Illinois sticks near Dixon, we found no one at the ticket booth, the marquee dark, the snackbar closed and the playground vacant. But the second movie was still showing, and five minutes later we planted ourselves on the side of a country road a quarter-mile south of the theater.  The soundtrack came in on the AM band, and only a lone utility pole obstructed the view of the climax of “Scream.” Catching a glimpse of a prairie drive-in says “summer” in America like sneaking a rooftop peek at the Cubs in Wrigley Field.

But even the most prosaic of drive-in experiences can be transcendent. The Cicero Outdoor Theatre near Matteson, although staffed by friendly folk, is among the worst of its kind. The crater-pocked driveway looks like a scarred survivor of the Tet Offensive, the snackbar selection gives new meaning to the word sparse, there’s a chunk missing from the side of one of the two screens and the sound is radio-only—the empty gallows of the speaker poles now serve only to remind patrons of the good old days. And then the movies started and I was lost in the glow of Tom Cruise and Rene Zellweger inching their way toward love. Movies were simply meant to be seen on a big screen.

No Illinois drive-in trek would be complete without a stop at the 34 in west-suburban Earlville. In a life misspent seeking out drive-ins all over the country, I can say with conviction that the 34 is the best open-air theater in operation anywhere. Owner Ron Magnoni Jr. operates the place with the same love that he puts into keeping his ’75 drop-top Eldorado on the road. It’s a living nostalgia trip for Magnoni, who used to tag along with his roving union projectionist father and started helping the old couple who owned the 34 in 1989. Later that year, the husband died and Magnoni started running the place for the wife. He bought the 34  a few years later for $70,000.

Now he spreads the gospel by inviting viewers into the projection room during the first feature. He’ll show you machinery dating back to the thirties. How does he get such a bright picture? Instead of a bulb, the film is backlit by burning thirty-inch carbon rods which have to be changed every hour. “The only thing brighter is the sun,” Magnoni says. Every Thursday, he’s here watching Must-See TV and running every inch of film through his hands, checking for splices and breaks, in a four-hour marathon that ensures each reel will run to perfection.

The snackbar is a museum piece straight out of the fifties, with vintage placards advertising such continuing faves as Green River soda, shrimp baskets, fried chicken and pork tenderloin sandwiches. While you wait for your meal, you can shoot a game of pool at a table that sits before a floor-to-ceiling window that takes in the corrugated-metal screen.

Arrive early enough Friday through Sunday and you’ll be treated to a cartoon before the double-feature starts. Walk around the plush grounds—yes, the 34 is situated on a grassy field—and listen to the speaker-only soundtrack. Gaze up at the dome of stars, breathe in the crisp country air and smile. Picture perfect.

The projector set
Cascade. About forty-six miles west of downtown Chicago near West Chicago. Head west on I-290 (The Eisenhower) to I-88. Take I-88 west to Route 59. Exit and proceed north for about twelve miles to North Avenue. Turn right and drive about a half-mile east. Drive-in’s on your right. 630.231.3150.

Cicero Outdoor. About thirty-five miles south of downtown Chicago near Matteson. Take I-90/94 (The Dan Ryan) south to I-57. Continue south on I-57 until you reach U.S. 30. Exit and proceed west until you reach Cicero Avenue. Turn right and continue south about two miles. The two-screen drive-in’s on your right. 708.534.6050

Egyptian. About 335 miles south of downtown Chicago near Herrin. Proceed down I-90/94 (The Dan Ryan) south to I-57. Continue south on I-57 until you near the Shawnee National Forest. Take the Herrin exit and cruise into town. The drive-in is on Route 148. 618.988.8116.

Fairview. About 240 miles south of downtown Chicago near Newton. Take I-90/94 (The Dan Ryan) south to I-57. Continue south on I-57 until you near Effingham. Exit at Route 33 and proceed east to Newton. The drive-in is on Rural Route 2. 618.455.3120.

Grayslake Outdoor Theatre. About forty-five miles northwest of downtown Chicago near Grayslake. Take I-90/94 (The Kennedy) north to I-294. Continue north to I-94 (The Tri-State). Proceed north to Belvidere Road (Route 120). Exit and drive west until you reach the Grayslake area. The drive-in’s on Belvidere. 847.223.8155

Harvest Moon. About 140 miles south of downtown Chicago in Gibson City. Take I-90/94 (The Dan Ryan) south to I-57. Continue south on I-57 to Paxton in rural Ford County. Exit on Route 9 and proceed west into Gibson City. The drive-in is located at 1123 South Sangamon Avenue. 217.784.8770.

Hi-Lite 30. About forty-eight miles west of downtown Chicago near Aurora. Head west on I-290 (The Eisenhower) to I-88. Take I-88 west to Route 59. Exit and proceed south about three miles to U.S. 34. Turn southwest and continue to U.S. 30. Drive west about four miles until you reach Montgomery Road—and the drive-in. 630.898.5888.

Hilltop. About forty-five miles southeast of downtown Chicago near Joliet. Take I-55 south to U.S. 30. Exit and proceed southeast into Joliet until you reach Route 171. Turn left and drive north a few blocks until you hit Maple. Turn right and continue east about two miles to the city limits. Drive-in’s on your right at the top of the hill. 815.723.6211.

McHenry Indoor/Outdoor. About fifty-five miles northwest of downtown Chicago near McHenry. Take I-90/94 (The Kennedy) north to I-294. Continue north to I-94 (The Tri-State). Proceed north to Belvidere Road. Exit and drive west about twenty-five miles, staying on Route 120 all the way (the road changes names from Belvidere to Rand to Waukegan), until you reach Chapel Hill Road. Follow the sign to the drive-in. 815.385.0144.

Midway. About 130 miles west of downtown Chicago near Dixon. Head west on I-290 (The Eisenhower) to I-88. Take I-88 west past DeKalb to the exit for Dixon, Hometown of President Ronald Reagan. Hang a right after passing through the exit-ramp toll plaza and proceed north through town until you cross the Rock River. Turn left at the light and continue west on Illinois 2 until you see the sign for Prairieville. Turn right and proceed north about half a mile. Drive-in’s on your right. 815.625.4099.

Skyview. About 240 miles south of downtown Chicago in Litchfield. Take I-55 south past Springfield to Litchfield. Exit at Route 16 and proceed east into town. Within a few blocks, you’ll reach an IGA supermarket. Turn left on old Route 66 and drive north about a half-mile. Drive-in’s on your right. 217.324.4451.

Skyview. About 300 miles south of downtown Chicago near Belleville. Take I-55 south to Collinsville, near the Missouri border. Exit at Route 159 and proceed south toward Belleville until you reach North Belt Road. The drive-in is located at 5700 North Belt West. 618.233.4400.

34. About eighty miles west of downtown Chicago near Earlville. Head west on I-290 (The Eisenhower) to I-88. Take I-88 west to Route 59. Exit and proceed south to U.S. 34. Turn right and take this winding country highway about forty-five miles west, through Oswego, Plano, Sandwich and Somonauk, until you reach Earlville. Drive-in’s on your right. 815.246.9700.

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