HIGHLAND — For almost a 100 years, the Lory Theater was the site of first dates, nights out and children's Saturday matinees, but more than a year-and-a-half ago the lights went out.
The former owners, AMC Theaters, closed the theater and put it up for sale. The building had fallen into disrepair. The technology lagged. The seats and floor were dirty and sticky.
The nearest movie theater was 12 miles away. And the city wanted to find a buyer for the Lory.
Justin and Hillary McLaughlin moved to town in 2008 because they wanted to live where they could erect a sign for their existing home-based business, McLaughlin's Satellite & Home Theater.
Justin McLaughlin said it was last year when he read a newsletter from Mayor Joe Michaelis that came in the city's utility bill, asking someone to buy the Lory Theater.
McLaughlin, who is a third-generation business owner, went about his day, servicing clients in his satellite and home theater business. But the idea of buying the Lory wouldn't leave his mind.
"I kept thinking about it. 'What if we can do it?'" McLaughlin said. "I understand how to do this. I really thought I could do it."
So, McLaughlin went to talk to his CEO and wife, Hillary. The two made an inquiry to see about the asking price.
Within 24 hours, the McLaughlin's were at City Hall, asking what their vision was for the Lory and if they wanted help developing a business plan and mentoring, Justin McLaughlin said.
The McLaughlins, the parents of a 2-year-old and a 7-year-old, ran their business out of their home -- that was mortgaged. Financing the purchase of the theater and performing needed renovations could be difficult, Justin McLaughlin figured.
But the city implemented a program to help entrepreneurs start businesses in Highland. The McLaughlins were the first business to go through the year-long program, which offers assistance writing a business plan, mentoring with successful business owners and networking opportunities.
The program is free.
"The Highland Entrepreneurship Program helped us to get here. We would not be here without them," McLaughlin said. "I learned stuff from them that I didn't know from running my own business or my father or grandfather."
Kathleen Mulcrone, Highland's business recruitment and retention coordinator, said the program that began last year is designed to help launch small businesses and make them successful.
The mentors are volunteers who select which of the businesses they will advise.
"These are business people who say the love Highland. They have become successful here and now they want to give back," Mulcrone said.
Applicants don't have to have a background in business, Mulcrone said. There's only one requirement: The business has to be based in Highland.
Last year, 12 potential entrepreneurs went through the program. Those businesses added 15 jobs to Highland, so far.
The McLaughlins wrote the business plan, received the financing, then set about rehabilitating the theater that initially opened in 1915.
The seats and floor were steam cleaned. The bathrooms were remodeled. It took four men four days to install a new $10,000 silver screen. There was painting and installing a new drop ceiling in the entry. A new projection and sound system were installed.
During renovations, Justin McLaughlin found a lot of history, including an iron row end cap that was hidden under the floor of the second story.
"I'm grateful to the person who stuck it there," McLaughlin said as he recounted the discovery. "It was a great find."
Other artifacts, such as old movie schedules, are on display throughout the Lory's lobby.
The McLaughlins learned about the theater's history, but they wanted modern movie-goers trip to be unique, special.
"Hillary and I were trying to figure out how we could create a great shtick," said Justin McLaughlin, a former music major at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who still plays drums in the rock band, Belleview. Hillary was a singer who participated in choirs throughout her life.
The answer was music.
They hired singing ushers. At the concession stand, they sell popcorn, candy and soft drinks not from a big corporate soft drink company, but Excel Bottling, a Breese soda manufacturer that produces Ski.
The McLaughlins decided to sell tickets for $6 for general admission, $5 for students and seniors.
At 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Lory showed its first movie in almost 18 months. It was "Parental Guidance" with Billy Crystal, Bette Midler and Marisa Tomei.
"We think it was a success," Justin McLaughlin said Thursday. "... I am grateful for the opportunity to open and be here."
The project cost about $400,000, including the cost of the building, said Hillary McLaughlin.
The McLaughlins kept much of the old theater, including medallions with dancing women that were mounted on the walls. The theater used to host burlesque shows and even boxing matches. During the renovations, McLaughlin saw an article promoting a fight at the theater. One of the boxers name was McLaughlin.
"It didn't say whether he won or not," Justin McLaughlin said. "Let's just pretend he did."
Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at email@example.com or 239-2570.