In Downstate Illinois there are so many people who make the region what it is. We are talking about local business owners, volunteers, and community leaders who pour their heart and soul into making southern Illinois great. In our ‘Meet a Local’ series, we are focusing on the amazing cast of characters that call Downstate Illinois home.
In the city of Highland, there exists a vibrant and rich community that would do anything to support local businesses. One of those businesses has been a staple in the community for decades and holds a special place in the hearts of hundreds of local movie goers. “The Lory Theater has always been a very sentimental place for a lot of people,” explains Hillary McLaughlin, co-owner of the Lory. “Most people have their first dates and their first movies and things like that if they live around here.”
When Hillary and Justin McLaughlin bought the Lory several years ago, it had been closed for a year at that point and there was a lot of work that needed to be done to it. The McLaughlin’s wanted to transform it into a place that would give folks a magical movie experience, but unfortunately, they ran out of funds during the construction process. “Because it’s a 100-year-old building and the process didn’t go well,” says Justin McLaughlin. “We ran out of money and were unable to finish the second screen, so without the revenue of the two screens, the business would not have survived. The math didn’t work, the numbers didn’t compute – we had to have a second screen,” he adds. But the community stepped up in a BIG way, setting up a crowd-sourcing campaign that raised enough money to buy the second projector. “That was literally the community willing the Lory Theater into existence, and we are always going to be respectful of that – and that was eight years ago.”
After years of bonding with the community, the Coronavirus suddenly hit. Suddenly, the crowds the McLaughlin’s were used to entertaining each week, weren’t there. In an establishment like the Lory Theater, one could only doubt the future success of a business that is pretty much all about bringing people together. After being closed for a while, the McLaughlin’s knew they had to do something else in order to survive. “We already had an auction purchase that we were saving and storing for another business that we had planned, and so we were like – what if we just tried to hook those up,” Hillary says. What she is referring to would be frozen custard machines. That’s right, they turned the Lory Theater into a frozen custard and gourmet popcorn stand in order to make ends meet. The community took notice and came out in full force.
“The community willed us into survival of COVID. We did our part by giving them something to purchase and buy and support, but they came through for us,” Justin McLaughlin said. At a time when almost all hope had been lost, it came back in full force! The folks of Highland made sure that the McLaughlin’s and their beloved Lory Theater survived – and the McLaughlin’s will never forget that. “Some people think that we’re in the movie and maybe movie and popcorn business, but really we’re in the business of creating memories and having that sense of community,” Hillary says with a smile. “And the feeling that you get when you come into this space and have that collective experience of going ooh, and ahh, and cry, and gasp, and scream and all of those things together – there’s really absolutely nothing else like it.”
The movie theater is now just a movie theater again, but the custard and gourmet popcorn still exist. The McLaughlin’s have now opened up Mac’s Family Fun Time where folks can enjoy those goodies as well as a bounce house, an arcade, party rooms and more. Because the community has done such a wonderful job of supporting the McLaughlin’s, it’s their goal to give Highland some unique experiences. “We definitely have some tricks up our sleeve. A few years down the line potentially we’re going to be expanding into mini golf and go karts, and we have some really fun stuff about the go karts that’s going to be unique – especially for the whole region,” Hillary says. “It’s gameified go karts, there are targets that you can run over that either slow you down, or give you points, or speed you up,” she explains. “We’re going to be the only ones in this region that I’m aware of that has that,” Justin adds. “It’s going to be awesome. The golf course is going to have lots of interactive parts to it, it’s going to be wheelchair accessible, it’s going to be just awesome – we’re really excited about that also. So just great family activities,” he says.
It's amazing just how far the McLaughlin’s have come. Just over a year ago, all doubts were on the table thanks to the pandemic. Luckily for the Lory Theater and the McLaughlin’s, Highland’s fearless, theater-loving community had its back.
*To watch the story of how the McLaughlin’s pivoted the Lory Theater into an ice cream business, click HERE to watch our YouTube video.
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