The theater, renamed The Vixen, is slated to begin hosting shows as soon as this month and will have a grand opening in May, with an eye on hosting comedy shows and concerts from nationally touring artists.
Located in downtown McHenry on North Green Street, the theater itself has a storied history dating back to the early 20th century, when it originally was a live performance theater, said Mike Sullivan, owning investor and operations manager of the theater.
In recent years it operated as a movie theater, but after a series of struggles over the past decade, culminating with the COVID-19 pandemic, the theater’s owners decided to shift it back to live shows.
The theater will be the first live venue of its kind in the city, said Kelsey Adams, the McHenry Area Chamber of Commerce’s director of marketing and member engagement.
She said the addition of the venue will be an important to the area, and help bring outside people into the community, especially since it and the city are centrally located.
“When it’s all said and done, entertainment is huge, regardless of what type it is,” she said. “It goes along with everything we’re doing for the community, and it’s important to have that option.”
Along with the upgraded restaurants and retail in the area, McHenry Mayor Wayne Jett said he expects live entertainment post-COVID-19 to be a growing part of the downtown’s development.
“If you want your city to move forward, you need to have a vibrant downtown,” he said. “Live entertainment is one of those things that are getting bigger and bigger.”
To begin the transformation, the theater shut its doors in January and began a series of renovations, which now are close to being completed, Sullivan said.
Those renovations included knocking down walls to combine its movie theaters into one large theater, which Sullivan said was done after several agents told them they were too small to host a big-name performer.
Originally, each theater could seat more than 100 people, but with the changes, it can now seat 350 to 400 people with tables and more than 700 standing. Combined with two fully functioning bars, it can fit almost 1,000 people, said Jett, who was a partial owner but has since sold his share of the operation.
Some of the other upgrades include a balcony, an onstage video screen, professional sound and lighting and a green room where talent can stay, Sullivan said. The green room will include a private bathroom, shower, laundry facilities and direct access to the stage.
“I think what will set us apart from others is the fact that we’ve built this for them,” Sullivan said.
A smaller stage in the lounge will allow the theater to host a variety of events, including bingo nights, karaoke and live acoustic performances, Sullivan said.
A rebrand of the theater also is in the works: The new name – The Vixen – stems from an effort to make the name more memorable, Sullivan said. Also a vixen is a female fox, and so Sullivan said he thinks it fits in with the city’s motto, “Heart of the Fox River.”
The theater also was renovated in 2018, as it was in need of digital updates, Sullivan said. Things started out well after it reopened then, with the community being engaged with the new changes, he said, but the pandemic brought several challenges with it.
People stopped attending movie theaters altogether, and so studios stopped releasing films. They began instead – and sometimes in addition – releasing them directly to streaming platforms.
“It really hit us on both ends,” he said.
For a period of time, the theater made a living through promotional events and throwback movies, but the change took the theater only so far, he said.
To keep its doors open, Sullivan said he and Jett had the idea to pivot to live shows, particularly comedy shows and concerts. To do this, they built a stage, spread the audience farther apart and brought in professional comedians, such as Jim Florentine and Kevin Farley.
This started out well, with the theater selling out two shows, Sullivan said. Meanwhile, the movies were not paying the bills, leading to the decision for a full pivot.
“We didn’t see the movie business turning around any time soon,” he said. “This was slapping us in the face as an opportunity.”