Liberty Theaters' struggles not bringing down suburbs' last drive-in

  • The owner of the 82-year-old Liberty Theaters in downtown Libertyville is seeking to have it demolished, but the cinema's struggles have no impact on the McHenry Outdoor Theater owned by the same family.

    The owner of the 82-year-old Liberty Theaters in downtown Libertyville is seeking to have it demolished, but the cinema's struggles have no impact on the McHenry Outdoor Theater owned by the same family. Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer

  • The Liberty Theatre in Libertyville circa 1938. The village's historic preservation commission soon will take up a proposal to demolish the 82-year-old downtown theater.

    The Liberty Theatre in Libertyville circa 1938. The village's historic preservation commission soon will take up a proposal to demolish the 82-year-old downtown theater. Courtesy of the Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society

  • The McHenry Outdoor Theater, the suburbs' last drive-in theater, is unaffected by plans to demolish the historic Liberty Theaters in Libertyville, its operator says. Both are owned by the same family.

    The McHenry Outdoor Theater, the suburbs' last drive-in theater, is unaffected by plans to demolish the historic Liberty Theaters in Libertyville, its operator says. Both are owned by the same family. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer, May 2019

 
 
Updated 8/14/2019 1:45 PM

Like everyone else, Scott Dehn is waiting to see what happens with a pending demolition request for the 82-year-old landmark Liberty 1 & 2 Theaters in downtown Libertyville.

"If it was up to me, I would run it 30 or 40 more years but that's beyond my control," said Dehn, who leases and operates the theaters.

 

Dehn is more certain about the future of the McHenry Outdoor Theater, which he also operates on behalf of the Rhyan family, owner of both facilities.

"They're two totally separate entities," he said, adding that business at the suburbs' last drive-in theater has been "tremendous," this year.

Being the only game in town may have created a bump for the McHenry Outdoor, Dehn said. But he thinks the closing in March after 57 years of West Chicago's Cascade Drive-In had another effect.

"I think it just put 'drive-in theater' in people's minds again," he said of the nostalgic experience.

Dehn, who has had an option to purchase the McHenry Outdoor, is preparing for the last showing of new films this weekend followed by the "fall throwbacks" to run weekends until Oct. 25-26.

There also is a 2020 season in store, but the same can't be said for the Liberty 1 & 2.

Opened in 1937 as the Liberty Theatre, the movie house has been owned by the Rhyan family for more than 50 years. It was one of five Rhyan-owned theaters managed by Dehn when he started there in 2006,

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But the local movie business has been tough. A few years ago, Dehn invested heavily in digital upgrades to keep pace. Still, business isn't what it used to be.

"The numbers speak for themselves," he said. "I don't know what else there is to do."

Despite reducing the rent three times in recent years there isn't enough revenue for Dehn to "continue positive operations," according to a document filed with the village on behalf of the Rhyan family.

The proposal, which will be heard first by the village's historic preservation commission, is to demolish the building and turn it into green space.

The building and property front busy Milwaukee Avenue and sits across the street from the downtown Metra station. It has been for sale -- at one point for $3 million -- for three years and will continue to be on the market. Two offers were received in the past but neither panned out, according to family representative Tom O'Brien.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The building has been significantly altered over the years and is not considered architecturally significant or a contributing structure to the downtown historic district.

But there is an affection for a venue attended by generations of residents and the location of many a first kiss. While some wants to see the theater saved there has been no real answer to its problems, Mayor Terry Weppler said this week.

About all Dehn can do at this point is urge people to see a movie.

"Support of any kind is helpful -- you never know whose ears you're going to reach," he said.

"I just want everyone to know I'm going to continue to do what I do," he added. "What happens in the future is out of my hands."

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