Last screen standing: McHenry drive-in hangs on as competitor closes

McHenry Outdoor Theater hangs on as competitor closes

  • Scott Dehn, owner of McHenry Outdoor Theater, says he's sad to see the West Chicago Cascade Drive-In close and expects to see more people when his theater opens April 26.

      Scott Dehn, owner of McHenry Outdoor Theater, says he's sad to see the West Chicago Cascade Drive-In close and expects to see more people when his theater opens April 26. John Starks | Staff Photographer, 2013

  • A sound speaker at the McHenry Outdoor Theater, the last remaining suburban drive-in movie theater.

    A sound speaker at the McHenry Outdoor Theater, the last remaining suburban drive-in movie theater. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • The McHenry Outdoor Theater is the last remaining suburban drive-in movie theater with the closure of West Chicago's Cascade Drive-In.

    The McHenry Outdoor Theater is the last remaining suburban drive-in movie theater with the closure of West Chicago's Cascade Drive-In. John Starks | Staff Photographer, 2013

 
 

While the curtain falls on West Chicago's Cascade Drive-In, its only suburban competitor -- the McHenry Outdoor Theater -- hangs on as a nostalgic remnant of a bygone era.

It's the last vestige of suburban drive-in movie theaters, among less than a dozen still operational in Illinois and more than 300 nationwide. At its peak in 1958, there were 4,063 drive-ins nationwide, according to the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association.

"It's sad, but we're still going strong," said Scott Dehn, 42, of McHenry, McHenry Outdoor Theater's owner since 2012.

"I feel horrible for those people, Dehn said about Cascade's owners. "It's been kind of a brotherhood."

Dehn, who has been working in movie theaters for 20 years, also owns the Liberty Theaters in Libertyville and is a partner in the McHenry Downtown Indoor Theater, which opened a year ago.

With Cascade's closure, Dehn is expecting a boost in attendance when the McHenry drive-in reopens April 26 with the Marvel Cinematic Universe's much-anticipated franchise finale, "Avengers: Endgame."

Attendance at his theater has been steadily increasing since the Kenosha drive-in closed in 2015, he said.

Two things have kept the McHenry Outdoor Theater alive: its conversion to digital nearly five years ago, and Dehn's purchase of the property to ensure it won't be developed.

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Dehn said it would have been difficult for any business to afford the $150,000 cost for digital equipment.

Luckily, the McHenry theater was among the top five vote-getters in the country to receive donated equipment from Honda's Project Drive-in.

The theater's seven-story-tall screen tower -- originally built in the 1940s -- was updated to allow digital movies to be shown.

"They were trying to save as many drive-in theaters as they could by purchasing and giving them the digital cameras and equipment," Dehn said. "The community really rallied around us. If it wasn't for the community ... we would have been out of business years ago."

A seasonal business, the McHenry drive-in at 1510 N. Chapel Hill Road still draws big crowds for blockbuster releases. Last April's "Avengers: Infinity War" release was sold out the entire weekend, Dehn said.

"We can usually pack 700 to 900 cars on a Saturday," he said. "As long as it's not raining, I think people show."

Upgrades to the concession stand, parking lot and sound speakers also have helped keep customers satisfied, he said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Aside from traditional speaker poles near cars, the theater rents out portable radios for moviegoers to enhance the sound experience. Speakers around the concession area project the sound throughout the 9-acre lot, Dehn said.

"There's a fine line between something that's old and something that's nostalgic," Dehn said. "We try to stay on the nostalgic side. Just like a time machine, when you pull in you feel like you are in the '50s again."

After the April 26 showing, the theater will be open Fridays and Saturdays through Memorial Day weekend when its season really begins. It will end the last weekend in October.

"We usually do some pretty cool things starting Memorial Day weekend -- promotions and giveaways," Dehn said. "As long as you keep it a clean, family-friendly, kind of a nostalgic place to visit ... if you have that going for you, you are in pretty good shape."

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