MARENGO – Michael Williams always dreamed of re-opening the Shady Lane in Marengo, where he first started his restaurant career decades ago.
Growing up a mile from the landmark barn theater and restaurant on Route 20, Williams cooked, bussed tables and parked cars there in the 1970s.
Williams, a Marengo Community High School graduate who now lives in Tucson, Ariz., went on to become an operating partner of P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and opened restaurants all over the nation.
“I think that you come from little communities like Marengo, where there’s a very strong work ethic, and you carry that on,” Williams said. “It creates your whole life. It’s your first experience.”
So, after at least 100 recent e-mails from friends and strangers, Williams was saddened to learn that the long-shuttered playhouse was destroyed by a weekend fire.
“It meant a lot to people,” Williams said. “It’s too bad it couldn’t be recreated and brought back to life.”
Firefighters responded about 11:23 p.m. Saturday to an emergency phone call from neighbors that the theater portion of the property was on fire. Upon arriving to the scene, firefighters found that the two-story structure was fully engulfed.
Marengo Fire Chief Bob Bradbury said the fire was under control about 2:15 a.m. Sunday. About a dozen area departments also assisted.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation. No injuries were reported.
Although damage estimates were not available Monday, Bradbury said, the theater was “completely destroyed.” The restaurant – a separate building – still was intact.
A house about 20 feet away also sustained minor exterior damage.
Bradbury said the current owner, who lives in Florida, had not communicated his plans for the damaged property.
The Shady Lane theater opened in 1941, introducing the East Coast’s summer stock theater to the area.
Nancy Fike, administrator for the McHenry County Historical Society, thumbed through a collection of old comedy playbills Monday afternoon.
Frank Bryan founded what has been known by many names – from Shady Lane Farm to Shady Lane Centre – to build onto the restaurant he established in 1937.
In 1966, Fike added, the summer theater celebrated its 25th year as the oldest one in the Midwest.
“I was there probably in the ‘60s, myself,” Fike said. “It was really a wonderful place to go. It was a nice drive, and you were entertained. It was nothing real serious. It was usually lighthearted.”
The restaurant side was well-known for its fried chicken dinners, which originally were sold for $1. Ham dinners were 75 cents.
The theater was renovated in 1991, with occasional performances through the 1990s.
Popular productions at Shady Lane included “The Philadelphia Story,” plus its last known 1998-99 season of titles such as “1776,” “Oliver!,” “Guys and Dolls,” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Some famous actors who appeared at the playhouse include Jeff Chandler, Celeste Holm, Geraldine Page, and David Hasselhoff. Fike added that comedian Jerry Stiller also lost his first job there – when he was fired after one performance at Shady Lane.
Marengo Mayor Donald Lockhart himself once worked at Shady Lane as a dishwasher when he was 15. His favorite memories included an annual fall performance called “Injun Summer.”
“If you mention Marengo to people, the first thing out of their mouth is, ‘Oh, Shady Lane,’ “ Lockhart said. “This was quite an attraction back in the day. I’m sorry to see it go because it has so much history behind it.”