Libertyville's Liberty theater to join digital age

The new age is catching up with the Liberty 1 & 2 Theater, a mainstay of first-run entertainment in downtown Libertyville since 1937.

The old-school landmark, where many locals saw their first movie and a young Marlon Brando worked as an usher, will soon join the digital world as traditional film is phased out.

“All theaters across the country are forced to convert to digital,” said Scott Dehn, who managed the theater for six years before taking over the business in early 2012.

Dehn said he is awaiting delivery of two digital projectors and two screens, an investment worth about $130,000. A grand reopening, which also will include some interior spruce-up, is planned for mid-February.

“It had to be done. There are no ifs, and or buts,” he said. “In another year, there will be no (first run) films to choose from. I waited as long as I could and prices are coming down.”

While he knew it was just a matter of time, a writing-on-the-wall moment came several weeks ago with the new film “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.”

“As I booked it, they said, 'Just so you know, this is the last 35 mm print Paramount is going to make. Period,'” Dehn said.

Liberty 1 & 2 will join other local venues, such as the Catlow in Barrington and the Cascade Drive-In in West Chicago, to make the transition.

“I was kind of nervous to see what would happen with the Liberty,” said Jim Moran, a village trustee and vice president of the Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society.

“It's such a cool part of our history,” said Moran, who has a program and ticket stub from opening night of what then was the single-screen, 700-seat Liberty Theatre at 708 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Besides claiming Brando as an alumnus, the theater in 1942 was the world-premiere location for the film “Desperate Journey” featuring Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan.

That apparently was a reward for the brisk sale of war bonds in town, spurred two weeks earlier by an appearance by movie star James Cagney at Cook Park.

“I would say it's a very important part of our downtown landscape. I can't imagine it not being there,” Moran said.

As owner of Golden Age Cinemas, which also operates the McHenry Outdoor Theater, 1510 Chapel Hill Road in McHenry, Dehn is making his second go-round with digital conversion.

In the first, a fundraising effort didn't pan out, but a surge of online voters put the McHenry Outdoor among the top five out of 120 entries in the Project Drive-In campaign sponsored by Honda. The prize was a digital projector, which will be operating when the outdoor season opens in spring.

Dehn said the new equipment at Liberty 1 & 2 will provide a better experience for viewers.

“It's really the difference between the VHS and a Blu-ray. It will be a much higher quality and we'll also have 3-D capability,” he said.

He added that business has been good.

“Libertyville kind of reminds me of Bedford Falls from 'It's a Wonderful Life,'” Dehn said. “If it wasn't for people supporting small business and coming to the theater, this would not have happened.”

Twitter: @dhMickZawislak

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  The Liberty 1 & 2 Theater in downtown Libertyville, which has been a mainstay since 1937, soon will embrace the digital age. Steve Lundy/
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