Aurora, Illinois: Outdoor Movies Screened at the Skylark Drive-In Movie Theater in Aurora, Illinois

The Aurora Historical Society has no record of the former Skylark drive-in theater in its files or in old city directories. Searches of archives of the Tribune and suburban newspapers turn up little. But ask any longtime Aurora or Naperville resident about the giant-screen outdoor theater on the north side of East New York Street just west of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway Co. tracks from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s, and their stories unfold like chapters in a book.

John Phillip Chuck visited the drive-in during its early days, when it was called the Tee and See. The clever name matched the theater owners' entrepreneurial creativity. Families came early to play the par 3 golf course while waiting for sunset.

When it finally got dark -- and that it did because there was no other development on the country road -- they headed back to their cars to watch the latest film, listening to audio from individual speakers attached to posts for each parking space. Years later, when use of the golf course dropped off, theater owners closed it and renamed the place the Skylark.

It still was a popular venue for families, who parked in the front so their children could enjoy the swing set under the screen. But it also brought in teenagers like Bob Johnson, who loved the theater so much he didn't mind his high school job of picking up its empty beer bottles, soda cups and popcorn boxes every weekend. Johnson, 56, was at the Skylark the night Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969. He remembers the way theater managers stopped the movie to play live radio coverage over the loudspeakers.

After Neil Armstrong's quote about "one giant leap for mankind," moviegoers burst into an impromptu rendition of "Fly Me to the Moon," he said. "I remember sitting up there and looking at the moon and thinking, My gosh -- there's somebody up there right now!" said Johnson, who now lives in Eau Claire, Wis. Years later, in the mid- to late '70s, Chris Barry and his friends from Geneva would pack a cooler full of Pabst Blue Ribbon long-neck beer bottles and drive a half-hour to the theater in his green 1970 Chevrolet Nova.

Barry and his friends loved the Skylark because it played horror films and action flicks with titles such as "They Call Her One Eye," "Rabid" and "Devil Times Five." Barry, who now lives in Naperville, laughs recalling how he and his friends used to stop the car just down the street from the theater so friends could climb into the trunk. After the driver and passenger had paid for just two tickets, the others would resurface.

"You'd pay for like two people going in and then five guys would pop out of the trunk," said Barry, who added that they did get caught once, and they gladly paid the owners instead of leaving. "The movies were too good to leave." Though the Skylark theater was beloved by its many regulars, interest in it and other drive-ins began to wane as indoor movie theaters evolved into the multiscreen cinemas we know today.

The 20 drive-in theaters around the Chicago area during outdoor movies' prime had shrunk to seven by 1987, according to Tribune archives. The Skylark stopped showing movies in the late 1980s, but owners left up the screen and speakers, which became a popular target for graffiti and vandalism.

Though the property was technically unincorporated Naperville Township and unincorporated DuPage County, passersby frequently complained to Aurora officials about the eyesore. City officials worked with the owners to repaint the screen several times before they eventually sold the land, said Mark Anderson, assistant director of Aurora's Department of Neighborhood Standards.

Years after he had visited the Tee and See as a kid, Chuck returned to the old drive-in property as an attorney at Dommermuth, Brestal, Cobine and West in Naperville. At the request of clients, he oversaw the property's annexation into the City of Aurora. The first buyer paid to remove the theater's paving, fencing and speaker boxes, Anderson said. Around 2002 that buyer sold to a developer, Pulte Homes, which began building townhouses, Chuck said.

Today, the former Skylark property is the Madison Park townhouse development, which has several hundred units and little trace of its cinematic past, Anderson said. No matter. Bob Johnson kept the picture of Skylark so fresh in his head that he and his wife took their own children to drive-in movies when they started their family.

"They had a great time, just like we did," Johnson said. When Barry buys a DVD of a movie at Best Buy, he still thinks of the Skylark and all the great non-mainstream movies he was able to see on the big screen when he was a teen. These days, when he goes to the movies, it's usually with his wife, and they go to the giant Cineplex theaters. And on the way there, she stays in the passenger seat.

Source: "Flashback to drive-in's heyday" by Vikki Ortiz -The Chicago Tribune.

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