McHenry Outdoor Theater still aiming for May 1, but only if restrictions are eased
The McHenry Outdoor Theater is the Chicago area's last remaining movie drive-in. Could it also be the only suburban cinema to reopen if theater closures tied to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic go on and on?
Scott Dehn, president of Golden Age Cinemas, which operates the McHenry Outdoor Theater, isn't sure. The venue's targeted opening date for the season is Friday, May 1. Theaters are considered nonessential businesses, but he's prepping for the summer in case anything changes by then.
"My crew and I are getting everything ready at the theater -- obviously one person at a time so we can keep the social distancing in effect," Dehn said.
"I'd hate it if May 1 was an availability and possible, only to be unprepared."
Dehn has heard arguments that the McHenry Outdoor Theatre could potentially reopen if audiences were to stay in their vehicles listening to the audio via FM radio during screenings. He has a golf cart ready to sell concessions car to car if it comes to that.
But Dehn has no plans to speed up the theater's opening timetable. He will defer to all guidelines put in place by the Illinois Department of Public Health, which has not addressed whether outdoor theaters or other outdoor businesses ever could be exempted. On Thursday, Illinois health officials again pleaded with people to stay in isolation as new COVID-19 cases increased sharply and Chicago closed outdoor sites including playgrounds, the Riverwalk and the 606 Trail.
"We're considered a nonessential business," Dehn said. "If that's lifted, I can go to the health department and show what we're planning on doing."
Major Hollywood studios are also presenting another likely problem. The release dates for many potential summer blockbusters including "Wonder Woman 1984" and the musical "In the Heights" have been delayed or pushed back.
"I think I have a pretty good solution. Every year in the fall, we play older, classic movies," said Dehn, contemplating the idea of pushing those up to spring and taking audience suggestions via the theater's Facebook page.
"We've done a Hitchcock weekend, and last year we did a 'Sharknado' weekend where we showed 'Twister' one night and 'Jaws' the next," Dehn said. "The response to those has been huge."
Dehn would like the McHenry Outdoor Theater to take on the feeling of being a big block party on top of a place to watch first-run films. But at the moment, there's just too much uncertainty amid a global pandemic.
"The main goal, obviously, is to keep the customers and my staff safe," Dehn said. "If we can get to the place where that is realistic, we hope to be good to go."