Lost Oak Lawn: A Night at the Starlite
Remembering the night at 95th Street and Ridgeland.
In 1993, the Chicago Tribune noted the passing of an elderly Northbrook resident. While the name of Stanford S. Kohlberg may have been overlooked on the obituaries page, the Nebraska native and entrepreneur spent much of his life bringing joy and entertainment to the Chicago area. As one of the first local businessmen to understand the rising popularity of movies during the 1950s, he founded one of Oak Lawn’s most cherished landmarks: the Starlite Drive-In.
When returning servicemen started buying homes and cars in suburbia, new fathers looked for weekend destinations to entertain their growing families. Capitalizing on this new trend, Kohlberg and similar businessmen across the country began constructing open-air movie theaters by the hundreds. Catering to veterans, Kohlberg, a successful manager of a Chicago nightclub, opened the Starlite at the busy intersection of 95th Street and Ridgeland Avenue.
With a two-story-tall screen that towered over cars, advertisements quickly bragged that the theater had become “America’s most famous drive-in." Featuring a lot that could accommodate up to 400 cars at once, the Starlite joined to ranks of Green Oaks Kiddieland and the Coral Theatre as one of Oak Lawn’s most popular entertainment destinations.
Facing stiff competition,managers invested heavily in state-of-the-art sound equipment and even went so far as to purchase portable electrical heaters that allowed customers to stay warm during winter screenings. While the thought of a drive-in operating in the middle of December seems odd, the bitter cold of Midwest winter attracted even more business. Popular double features even featured snowmobile rides for children and teenagers as they waited in line for concessions.
As the drive-in expanded throughout the 1950s, Kohlberg added countless amusements to the grounds, turning the Starlite into a one-stop destination for weekend fun. A large playground with a giant fiberglass slide sat off to the side of the screen, while ice cream carts and food vendors ringed the perimeter of the parking lot. Maximizing the space available, a large go-kart track was added, ensuring that every inch of ground was filled by profitable attractions.
Even with dozens of amusements to encourage visitors to spend money, theater management awarded prizes to every child less than 12 years that walked through the main entrance. When young patrons purchased their tickets, they also received a “happiness book," a brochure filled with pages of coupons. From discounted concessions, to half-off admissions on weekdays, teenagers were identified as equally important customers as adults.
During the destructive tornado of 1967, the Starlite suffered major damage as the cataclysmic storm ripped through town. Winds exceeding 500 miles per hour tore down the drive-in’s massive speakers and wrecked electrical equipment. The theater’s prominent screen, although relatively unscathed, needed its support beams bent back into shape after violent winds warped the steel columns.
Similar to the fates of local attractions like Kiddieland and the Coral, the changing commercial environment of Oak Lawn turned decidedly against the Starlite. As the town grew, the drive-in’s location along 95th Street was aggressively sought out by realtors. Despite pleas from residents, the Starlite was torn down in late 1979, to be replaced by a retail mall several weeks later.
For more information on the Starlite Drive-In and other places from Oak Lawn’s past, visit the Local History Room of the Oak Lawn Public Library.