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West Chicago

Cascade Drive-In offers nostalgia, movies under the stars

Jason Sales and his son, Jacob, 5, sit in their SUV waiting for the movie to start at Cascade Drive-In on Friday, June 21.
Jason Sales and his son, Jacob, 5, sit in their SUV waiting for the movie to start at Cascade Drive-In on Friday, June 21.

WEST CHICAGO – Jeffrey Kohlberg grew up in the world of movie theaters and drive-ins.

His father owned a chain of theaters in the Chicago area and beyond, and Kohlberg worked at them as a young child.

“I just loved it,” he said.

In 1989, Kohlberg bought a movie theater of his own: the Cascade Drive-In in West Chicago, which opened in 1961.

The years have brought changes to the movie industry. Kohlberg recently spent $100,000 on digital equipment for his drive-in. The purchase was in response to a push on all drive-ins by movie distributors to convert to new technology, as they no longer would provide movies on 35-millimeter film.

“Luckily, we had a good year last year because we didn’t have any rain,” Kohlberg said.

Although he was able to afford the conversion, Kohlberg said many other drive-ins likely won’t be as lucky and foresees many closures in the future.

This change in technology is one shift Kohlberg has witnessed during his years in the theater business. The types of movies drive-ins show also have changed, he said.

Drive-ins used to show a mix of new releases and specialty movies. For example, sometimes drive-ins would host a scary movie night and show classic horror movies of years gone by.

However, these movies now are readily available to buy or rent, so drive-ins focus instead on first-run movies.

But these theaters still offer a unique way to view the films: under the stars.

“When the weather’s nice, we don’t compete with anybody,” Kohlberg said.

At Cascade, patrons watch two movies for the price of one. They may come for the first movie at 8:30 p.m., but they’re welcome to stay for the second later that night.

In this way, a trip to the drive-in becomes a family movie night, because the first movie is oftentimes geared toward children, and after they fall asleep, adults are able to relax and enjoy the second movie for themselves.

“Every time we’ve come, it’s been a kid movie, and then they fall asleep, and I get to watch something for me,” said Jaime McTighe of Villa Park, who came to the drive-in with her kids and other family members on June 21 to see “Monsters University” and “Man of Steel.”

McTighe has taken her children to the Cascade Drive-In a few times, and each time, they get excited, she said.

For James, it’s the comfort of getting to sit in his mother’s car to watch the movie, which makes him feel like he’s at home. For Madison, it’s sitting on the roof of the car and eating Sour Patch Kids while the movie plays.

Those Sour Patch Kids are part of what sets the Cascade apart from other drive-ins, which typically don’t allow patrons to bring in outside food.

In addition to allowing this and providing grills for visitors to enjoy a cook-out at the theater, Kohlberg said he strives to keep concession prices low.

Part of the theater’s success is due to the way it’s operated, he said, but the theater also is one of the larger ones in the area, with a big screen to match.

Nostalgia may draw some patrons to the drive-in, but Kohlberg said for many, it’s freedom and the social experience of a drive-in that continues to fill his theater with cars every night, and for him, the future looks bright.

“It’s the summertime – people don’t want to sit inside a movie theater,” he said. “They want to get outside. They have their freedom here.”

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