McHenry Outdoor Theater owner looks to expand drive-in
Not long ago, the drive-in seemed destined for obsolescence, with the McHenry Outdoor Theater the last of its kind in the suburbs.
But owner Scott Dehn saw interest in his venue surge after the COVID-19 pandemic forced indoor theaters to close last spring and people sought socially distant entertainment options over the summer. Now, he's looking to expand.
On Wednesday, Dehn finalized the purchase 10 acres east of the drive-in at 1510 N. Chapel Hill Road in McHenry. The land was owned by the Village of Lakemoor. The sale came about when Dehn approached village officials last May after moviegoers unable to get into the sold-out screenings began parking in the field and along the roadway to watch movies.
"We sold out so early, people were parking in the street and the field nearby," which was unfair to paying customers, he said.
When Dehn asked village officials for their help to discourage the practice, they informed him the village owned the land and asked if he'd be interested in purchasing it. Dehn, who declined to reveal the purchase price, quickly agreed.
"I had my eye on that land for one reason and one reason only," he said. "I was so afraid someone was going to develop it."
Fearing a commercial or residential development would be accompanied by lighting that might distort on-screen images, Dehn bought the land for a defensive purpose.
But the success of the past season -- which saw attendance climb more than 30% as suburbanites sought entertainment during the pandemic -- prompted him to consider expanding. Dehn plans to add two more screens, one on the north side and one on the south.
Construction may take several years. When it's complete, McHenry Outdoor Theater will likely feature family-friendly fare on one screen, older films or genre movies on another screen and live entertainment at the site of the third screen.
"This year I had the license to try out new things," he said, adding the bands and comedians who performed at the venue over the summer attracted sizable audiences.
That kind of variety might be the very thing that jump-starts drive-ins, which Dehn insists are not in danger of disappearing, despite their decline.
Only about 325 outdoor movie theaters remain, from the 4,000 or so drive-ins that dotted the country during the mid-20th-century.
"The drive-in will always be an escape," he said. "It's a summer staple. Everyone has memories of being there with their parents or grandparents."
The tradition is so ingrained, Dehn said, that what's playing doesn't really matter.
"The overwhelming nostalgia trumps what's on the screen," he said.