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Drive-in owner is on a quest for perfection
By Rupa Shenoy | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 9/16/2007 6:05 AM

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It was opening night of one of this summer's biggest movies.

But it still felt a little bit like 1961 at West Chicago's Cascade Drive-in.

Homer's distinctive yellow glow illuminated the giant screen as laughter escaped past the muffled dialog coming from speakers tucked in car windows.

"The Simpsons" might be the drive-in's most popular movie in about 20 years.

Yet the contrast of modern movie double-features lighting up in the old-fashioned setting isn't unusual. In fact, it happens all summer at the landmark theater at North Avenue and Prince Crossing Road.

And every night is a labor of love for owner Jeffrey Kohlberg, who learned the drive-in way of life from his father.

"I just love the business," said Kohlberg, who worked the ticket booth and concession stand -- as he has most of his life -- that night.

"It's the only thing I know. You do what you've been brought up to do."

Drive-ins like the cascade are almost extinct. The only other drive-in in the Chicago area is in McHenry.

That is one reason why Kohlberg says he is dedicated to keeping it the way it was when it opened in the 1960s, so "people can go back in time to what I see as a better time."

In his quest to do so, Kohlberg has had to fight against the thing that moved his father out of the business.

After moving to Illinois, Kohlberg's father, a Nebraska native named Stanford Kohlberg, worked his way up from a theater manager to the owner of Kohlberg Theaters.

His first drive-in was in Oak Lawn. It spawned nearly 70 others throughout the Midwest.

As a child, Jeffrey Kohlberg and his six sisters rotated through all the jobs that need to be done at the drive-in. Those jobs multiplied as Stanford Kohlberg added ponies, gas stations, arcades and outdoor concerts to his drive-ins.

A few years before Stanford Kohlberg retired in 1987, Jeffrey Kohlberg leased one of his theaters and managed it successfully.

But, instead of handing the business down to Jeffrey, Stanford sold the chain to developers, who tore down the theaters.

That phenomenon, repeated throughout the country, is one the primary reasons why drive-ins have been driven to near-extinction, Jeffrey Kohlberg said.

Still, Jeffery Kohlberg went on to buy two drive-ins of his own -- one in West Chicago, built in 1961, and another in Wisconsin that's even older.

Cascade is one of the few existing drive-ins nation-wide where the costly in-car speakers are available, Kohlberg said.

In his drive to perfect the experience, Kohlberg remains in a longstanding dispute with his neighbors.

He has remained in a stand-off with the owner of Scooby's Red Hots for six years.

Kohlberg said Scooby's lights disrupt the experience for his patrons. The problem could be easily fixed with fixtures that better direct light onto Scooby's signs, he said.

In response, Kohlberg bans patrons from bringing in Scooby's food.

"People should know that if you're going to patronize him, you don't patronize us," Kohlberg said.

Scooby's owner, Joe Scooby, however, says he has been told by patrons that the lights don't affect the quality of the movie.

"He said our lights glare his movie," he said. But that's not true, "according to the people I've talked to," Scooby said.

As tension simmers between neighboring businesses, packed audiences continue to watch movies, oblivious to anything but the drama on the screen.

Kohlberg wants it to go on like that as long as he's living.

"I don't think of anything past that," he said.