The Bel-Air Drive-In

The Bel-Air Drive-In Theater in Cicero, Illinois (just off the west side of Chicago) dated back to the late 40's. A feature unique to it was its double-sided screen; movies were projected on either face, and every night it was a double feature. In the early days, the two films would be swapped between the projection booths during intermission, so you could stay where you are and watch both movies. Also, when you entered the parking area you would drive through the screen itself in one of two tunnels, depending on which movie you were going to.

There used to be a playground under each side of the screen to keep the kids busy during the film. These were removed in the early 80s (for the same reason everything else fun disappeared in the 80's: lawsuits).

A third screen was added circa 1981, if I remember correctly. This made the capacity 1,000 cars, pretty big for a drive-in.

Because it was a ten-minute drive from our house, and admission was $2.50 for adults and free for kids, I'm sure I saw over 100 movies at the Bel-Air, dating back to before I could remember. Shortly before we got cable television, I saw my first R-rated movie here (The Brood) and went on to see dozens of the sleaziest, trashiest films imaginable with my dad, who'd always bring popcorn and drinks from home to save money at the snack bar and graciously brought along my friends. Without a doubt, I spent more time with my dad at the drive-in than anywhere else outside of home. It's often the first thing that comes to mind when I remember him, which may be why I'm both fond and wistful regarding drive-ins.

At some point the Bel-Air stopped being fun. When I was 16 a guy reached into my friend's car and snatched the jewelry off her neck. The last time I went, in the mid-90's, no one was sitting outside their cars in lawnchairs like when I was a kid, there was no playground, no speakers on steel posts (by this point they'd switched over to FM broadcasts). Nothing but a bunch of cars, a gravel lot and a screen with a cop car parked beneath it, facing the audience. It was a grim scene.

The Bel-Air closed in 1999. The screens stood until 2008, when they were finally torn down to make way for a home depot. Here you see the wrecking ball in the foreground.

There are still a handful of drive-ins around. Find one near you at (appropriately enough) drive-ins.com. And if you find any pictures or links about the bel-air online, let me know.

Relative to the near-demise of the drive-in and the rise of cable television, here's a PSA that used to show during intermission at drive-ins in the mid 70's, trying to put a stop to "pay tv". It didn't work.


curtsy said...

CinemaTreasures gives a specific opening date as March 2, 1956.

Unknown said...

The Bel-Air's last show was on Sept. 17, 2000.