Last Picture Show Under the Stars: McHenry drive-in makes new memories, including a marriage proposal
"If five or six years ago you'd have told me I'd be the last one standing, I would have laughed."
Even as he said these words, McHenry Outdoor Theater owner Scott Dehn seemed to have trouble accepting the fact that he owns the suburbs' Last Picture Show Under the Stars.
On opening night, cars and trucks jammed the entrance to the McHenry. Moviegoers came to see "Avengers: Endgame" -- and to embrace a piece of the past.
When West Chicago's Cascade Drive-In ended its 57-year run in March, owner Jeffrey Kohlberg -- who has devoted his life to theatrical exhibition -- summed up the communal feelings of loss in a four-word online post: "Our hearts are broken."
The death of the Cascade leaves only one "ozoner" standing in Chicago's Northwest suburbs: The Golden Age Cinemas' McHenry Outdoor Theater.
Hundreds of patrons arrived way, way early last Friday to claim ideal parking spots. Colton Butler, John Pergler and Tyler Fritz, all recent graduates of Prairie Ridge High School in Crystal Lake, staked their spot at 5:30 p.m.
"'Endgame' is going to be the greatest movie ever made, so we wanted to see it on the big screen outdoors," Pergler explained.
Over in the front row, Mary Grace Funke, 22, of Lake Zurich got a surprise: a marriage proposal from her boyfriend Aaron Jones, 21, of Crystal Lake. They had candles and a table decorated with flowers to celebrate.
"She loves the drive-in," Jones said. "It's her favorite place. So, I figured I'd make it special."
(By the way, she said Yes!)
Kris and Jennifer Rasmussen of Wildwood came to the McHenry with Tennesy Rasmussen, 11, and his 4-year-old brother, River.
Jennifer attributed the lure of the drive-in, in part, to its place as "a piece of nostalgia."
"Yeah, nostalgia," Kris added, "but also because you can have some drinks and lie down during the movie."
Before the movie, kids chased each other and played ball on the grass, taking advantage of nice opening-night weather. Families ate dinners they'd packed at home and lined up to get popcorn and other snacks.
So the big question remains: Will the McHenry meet the same fate as the Cascade?
Not a chance, Dehn said. He's been taking measures to ensure the McHenry stays around for next generation of drive-in fans,
"There was a series of hills we had to climb to get to a comfortable place where we knew we would survive long term," Dehn said.
First came the expensive conversion from celluloid film to digital projection, a costly investment that many drive-ins and "hardtop" theaters simply couldn't afford.
Dehn applied for and won a generous Honda Corp. grant that paid for the purchase and installation of digital projection equipment in 2013.
"The second hurdle was 'Will the landowner opt to develop the land?'" Dehn said. "That's a problem many drive-ins face nowadays, like the Cascade. I discussed this with the (McHenry) landowners. We reached an agreement. So, I'm sure the McHenry drive-in will be here long after I'm gone."
Dehn is keenly aware of his responsibility to preserve the Northwest suburbs' last drive-in.
"I was 6 years old and I remember coming here with my sister, my mother, my father and my grandmother," Dehn said. "I saw this big, towering movie screen and I thought, 'That's the world's biggest television set! How do I get one of those?'
"So, I had this drive to acquire the biggest television set I'd ever seen. Fast forward a few decades, and it happened.
"So, dreams do come true."