McHenry Outdoor Theater ready for summer season with ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ release

Drive-in movie theater opened for season this month, will kick off seven-day-a-week schedule Memorial Day weekend

Katlin Shaw of Waukegan, right, takes a selfie with Natalie Balbuena of Round Lake, left, as they await the season opening night with showings of "The Flintstones" and "Jurassic Park" at the Golden Age Cinemas McHenry Outdoor Theater on Friday, May 8, 2020, in McHenry.

This movie season is on track to give audiences what they have been waiting for, said Scott Dehn, the McHenry Outdoor Theater’s owner.

Moviegoers will see more new releases than the past two years offered. A lot more, he said.

“Where we are at today is as close to normal or what the industry calls normal since before Covid in 2019,” Dehn said.

What is normal for Dehn and the drive-in movie theater? A summer schedule full of blockbuster action movies and family-friendly films.

The theater opened for the season in May with weekend-only showtimes. Memorial Day weekend kicks off its seven-day-a-week summer schedule.

Dehn’s excitement for 2022 includes the Memorial Day weekend release of “Top Gun: Maverick.” Filmed in 2019, its release was delayed as star Tom Cruise insisted the film get a theatrical release only, not streaming.

Andrew Pierce, of McHenry, from left, Bonnie Spriester, of Mundelein, and Melanie Manahan of Crystal Lake snuggle with their dog Leo who was at his first movie at McHenry Outdoor Theater when it reopened Friday April 30, 2021, in McHenry.

Movies are Dehn’s passion, he said, and he appreciated Cruise’s stance to hold off until theaters were fully reopened. “There is nothing like the theatrical experience,” Dehn said.

The experience at the McHenry Outdoor Theater will be better for customers with a rebuilt screen new this year.

“We completely renovated the screen tower with a brand-new screen,” Dehn said. It was the first complete renovation of the screen tower since 1974.

He spent $40,000 this spring to refurbish the six-story-high, 100-foot-wide screen. Another $10,000 went into new lighting and lenses for the digital projector.

“The picture is just beautiful and sharp and crisp. It is just stunning and it looks great,” Dehn said.

The concession stand also received a facelift, and Dehn added branded merchandise for fans to buy. Soft serve ice cream is now on the menu. Soon, liquor could be too.

Nick Passafiume of Lake Zurich and Amber Wells of McHenry were all bundled up at McHenry Outdoor Theater when it reopened Friday April 30, 2021, as they settled into the bed of their truck waiting for the sun to drop to watch the double feature. Both said the last film they saw together at the drive-in was "The Breakfast Club" last year.

The drive-in held a bring-your-own-beverage license knowing that visitors brought in their own alcohol. A license to serve on site gives Dehn more control of what is consumed on site, he said.

Once the liquor license is approved by the village, Dehn plans to add a bar and gaming area for adults only.

As cars enter the drive-in, drivers will get a hand stamp. The stamp tells his staff who they cannot serve liquor to. Sales will end at intermission between the two films.

He has more plans, including wrapping the screen tower base with life-size images of beloved movie characters. Children (or adults) can take pictures with the characters as part of the overall drive-in experience.

Based on crowds over the past two years, Dehn advises guests to arrive and find a parking spot early.

Sound is broadcast on FM radio, so Dehn suggests guests bring a portable radios to listen on if they are worried about the car battery.

Other additions are possible in coming years. He purchased an adjacent lot from the village of Lakemoor when people began parking there when the site ran out of parking.

“We are the drive-in that thrived, not just survived,” during COVID-19 and the general shut-down of Hollywood films, he said.

“If your goal is the thrive and succeed, you have to always find ways to make things work. Those are the locations that seemed to make it through,” Dehn said.