Requiem for a drive-in theater

July 7, 2010


(photo by Lee Bey) 

That the drive-in movie theater has largely gone the way of the rotary phone and 8-track tape player is one of those little oddities of our age. We are a nation obsessed with cars and movies---box office figures are a mainstay of weekend newscasts--yet putting the two together has been a slow poison for the past few decades.‚  There were 4,000 drive-in theaters in the U.S. during its peak in the 1950s. There are about 400 left now.

A number of those still standing are dark, like the old single screen Hill Top Outdoor Theater in Joliet, pictured here. The 1950s-era drive-in has been closed since 2001.

And although the theater is abandoned, people have yet to fully stop going there. Graffiti writers and beer drinkers seem to frequent the theater's open structures. The old building can still draw in the people now and then.

Here is the ticket booth with the giant five-story screen looming in the background:


(photo by Lee Bey) 

Inside the projection booth, a vintage RCA projector acts as a sentry:


(photo by Lee Bey) 

An old pencil sharpener rusts in the projection room:


(photo by Lee Bey) 

An old blank contract for Chicago-based film distributor Essanjay Studios on the floor of the structure containing the drive-in's massive screen:


(photo by Lee Bey) 

The rear side of the screen, facing Maple Road:


(photo by Lee Bey) 

So what's the future for the Hill Top? I called the city of Joliet's economic development department to get more information, but my call wasn't returned. Meanwhile, here is an amateur You Tube video of the theater in operation in 1991: