Making out at the Drive-in

Carol Stuttle in the projection room of the Sky View Theater

Friday, October 9, 1998, Litchfield, Illinois - Carol Stuttle spends her days keeping computers talking with each other. At night she entertains thousands of people as she manages one of the most popular drive-in movie theaters in Illinois, if not the country. The Sky View Drive-in Theater recently completed its fiftieth season with attendance that would make a rock star blush.

June 1949
In the Good Old Summertime,
Judy Garland
Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff

The Sky View showed its first movie in June of 1949, a few years after World War II ended. The economy was booming and America was falling in love with the automobile, the cinema, dining out, and with Route 66. The Sky View married all these into a giant, outdoor event. It was a great place to meet people and to show off new cars, new girlfriends and new boyfriends. It was a great place for a society to gather and mingle. It was, and still is, a great place to fall in love.

Porgy and Bess -
Sidney Portier, Claude Akins, Dorothy Dandridge
Rio Bravo -
John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickenson
Ben Hur -
Charlton Heston
Some Like it Hot -
Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon

Born and raised in this small town on Route 66, about an hour south of Chicago, Stuttle has fond childhood memories of weekly trips to the Sky View during the 1950's. "My folks always had a station wagon, and they would put us in our pajamas," she says. Mom and dad would enjoy the movie, while the kids usually konked out halfway through. "I guess they carried us in to our beds - I never remember waking up."

Where Eagles Dare -
Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton
Paint Your Wagon -
Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, Jean Seberg
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -
Robert Redford, Paul Newman

Stuttle began working at the Sky View in the late 1960's. Still in high school, she filled in when they needed her. During the next twenty-five years, she would spend her days in a career that has taken her to the position of LAN Administrator with the Illinois Department of Revenue, and many of her nights at the Sky View. "This is totally different from what I do for the state, so it's enjoyable," she says.

About five years ago, the manager of the theater became ill and Stuttle filled in for her - permanently. "I told Norman (the owner) I would finish out the season, but he would have to look for someone else," says Stuttle. "Well, they never looked for someone else, and they're so nice to work for, I never asked. So I'm still here!"

It is obvious that Stuttle enjoys her work. Most managers would try to do only that - manage the employees - but Stuttle does all that and works the cashier slot at the concession stand.

"Hi Dan. Hot dog and medium fries. Two-ten. How're the kids?" Ca-ching!

"Karen, haven't seen you in a while! Hamburger and small cheese fries. Two-ninety. Phil - another foot-long!" Ca-ching!

Stuttle knows many of the people in line and always tries to get in a little conversation when she can. This is one of the perks of her job. The Sky View is the place to be on a Friday night around here and Stuttle enjoys talking to people after spending all day talking to computers.

"Hi. Foot-long and large Pepsi. Three-oh-five. Will we be open next week? It all depends on the weather, ma'am, so call first." Ca-ching!

In late October, Stuttle and her crew will clean up and clean out the kitchen and storeroom, put the projection equipment in storage and close up for the winter. Only then, when she starts having weekend evenings off, will she actually get to watch movies. "I never see them when they play here," she says. "I haven't seen a movie all summer."

Apocolypse Now -
Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando
Alien -
Sigorney Weaver
Kramer Vs. Kramer -
Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep
Muppet Movie

Star Trek
William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy

Norman and Del Paul, owners of a competing drive-in theater, became Stuttle's new bosses when they bought the Sky View in the early eighties and closed the competing theater. The Sky View now attracts several hundred people for a show. It is not unusual to have over a thousand people packing the ramps, and the theater has held as many as 1,900 people. That's one quarter of the town's population, according to Stuttle, but the Sky View attracts more than just Litchfieldians

"There are no drive-ins around here, " says Mary Patton, who, with her husband, drove a half-hour from Brighton without much concern for tonight's movie (Ever After, starring Drew Barrymore.) "It's a neat way to spend an evening with your husband. It's nostalgic, even if it rains."

Dan Jenning comes to the Sky View half a dozen times each year, driving over an hour from Buffalo, Illinois. Truck drivers have even been known to use the back ramps for a little shut-eye. "I go back there and wake them up when the movie's over, Stuttle says.

The Pauls also own a bowling alley and two "hardtop" indoor theaters, each with two screens; the Marvel, in Carlinville and the Orpheum in Hillsboro. This situation possibly gives them more leverage in renting films than the average drive-in has. They must be doing something right, as they haven't succumbed to sideline ventures of flea markets, or even demise, as so many drive-in theaters around this country have. They hold very few special events; a few vintage car meets each year and an occasional "Dusk to Dawn" movie marathon.

The Sky View has an interesting formula for success. They have no double features, and they show movies usually thirty days after their national release - just before it hits video. They run seven nights a week in the summer and on weekends in the fall. Also, they only charge a buck to get in. (Thursday night is $3 Carload Night.) They don't have to worry about stowaways and fence jumpers at that price - they don't even have a fence.

After giving the film distributors 35%-65% of this dollar, many theaters would sock their customers with high prices on low quality concessions, but not at the Sky View. "They have the best french fries in town," a Litchfieldian told me. "Better than McDonalds!"

You can empty their largest pail of popcorn all over the front seat of your new Buick for under three bucks, and you can get a burger, fries and soda for under four bucks. Evidence of the stand's popularity is that it is packed for a good hour before and through the start of the show. Stuttle and her crew, working with speed, efficiency and a touch of bedlam, can hardly keep the line from reaching out the door.

Stuttle only shows a movie for one week, so people around here pretty much make the Sky View a weekly ritual. The theater has been open twenty-five weeks this season and has shown twenty-five movies, including Titanic. "You wouldn't believe how upset some people were that I didn't hold that one over," she says.

Batman - Michael Keaton
Indiana Jones -
Harrison Ford, Sean Connery
Lethal Weapon II -
Mel Gibson, Danny Glover

Ann Grundy has been with the Sky View for ten years and she takes in the gate each night. Grundy has less than an hour to collect money from hundreds of cars in two lanes as they pass by her booth, and she finishes each transaction with a well-wish; "enjoy!"

June 1999
Muppets in Space
Tarzan -
Glenn Close, Minnie Driver, Rosie O'Donnell
The Mummy -
Branden Fraser (scheduled)
July - Eyes Wide Shut -
Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman

So, the Sky View Theater is making out pretty well in these times of haywire stock markets and corporate downsizing. "I would really hate to see it close - a lot of them have," says Stuttle. But it seems far from closing. Recently inducted into the Route 66 Hall of Fame, the Sky View Theater appears to be ready for another fifty years.

If these ramps could talk... fifty years of falling in love.

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