Last year, people from McHenry County and beyond flocked to the McHenry Outdoor Theater as a safe, fun way to reconnect with pre-pandemic life while outbreaks and capacity limits endured through the summer and fall months.
The drive-in theater business always has been about nostalgia and unearthing childhood memories, but providing that kind of comforting experience has taken on a whole new meaning in the past year, McHenry Outdoor Theater owner Scott Dehn said Monday.
“Some people bring their sons and daughters who have never even seen movies like ‘Jaws,’ and they say this is how we’re going to experience it, we’re going to see it on the big screen,” Dehn said. Going to the drive-in “is a unique event. Once everyone’s parked, it’s like a big block party.”
As spaces for community to come together dwindled in the age of social distancing, the McHenry Outdoor Theater was one of the few remaining. People lined up down Chapel Hill Road as early as 11 a.m. last May for the chance to line their trunks or truck beds with blankets and snuggle up for a movie under the stars.
This year, Dehn said, he and his staff plan to offer the same comfort to more people, as the theater no longer is restricted to half-capacity and can fill all 800 spaces in its lot. Moviegoers still will be asked to maintain social distancing and to wear masks while inside the theater’s concession stand, he said.
The 2021 season will kick off April 30 and May 1 with a double feature of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” and the 1996 film “Twister” in an event that Dehn is calling “Sharknado Weekend.”
“A lot of people look at the opening of the drive-in as ‘Summer’s coming, summer’s here!’ ” Dehn said. “So I tried to pick two really good, seasonal movies.”
The back-to-back flicks will be shown on a brand-new projector screen that Dehn said will make for a “crisper, brighter, cleaner image,” allowing folks at the back of the lot to see the movie better. The new screen is just one of a number of improvements Dehn has planned over the next few years after purchasing the lot adjacent to the theater in December.
The theater announced its season opener in a Facebook post earlier this month that quickly garnered more than 1,200 likes and was shared by more than 400 people. Dehn said he expects opening weekend to be especially busy and suggested that people come early to make sure they get a spot.
Dehn still is putting together the pieces for the rest of the season’s schedule but hopes to offer a mix of new movies and tried-and-true favorites, he said. Showings likely will be released on a week-to-week basis for now.
After experimenting with comedians and concerts in 2020, Dehn said he will continue offering a variety of entertainment options beyond strictly films, hinting that he has “big plans.”
Already on the books is a performance by popular country singer Kip Moore this fall, he said.
As was the case last year, the theater also will offer up its space to local schools for outdoor graduation ceremonies, Dehn said. Schools that will hold their ceremonies at the theater include Landmark Elementary School in McHenry, Grant Intermediate School in Marengo, Gavin Central Elementary School in Ingleside and Big Hollow School District 38, also in Ingleside.
Last spring, Dehn said he was struck by the emotion he saw on kids’ faces as they were able to celebrate their graduation with their friends after not seeing them for months. He said he and his staff knew right away they wanted to continue offering up their space for graduations as long as it was needed.
Dehn’s dedication to serving his community last year earned him a nomination for the Chicago Indie Critics’ 2020 Impact Award, which is given to “a person whose work has had a positive impact on society,” according to the association’s website.
“This community has been very good to me, and any way that I can give back, I do,” Dehn said. “I think it’s my responsibility as a business owner.”
All this comes as Dehn’s industry has suffered. Only 305 drive-ins remained across the entire country as of October 2019, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owner Association.
The McHenry Outdoor Theater is the only drive-in still standing in the Chicago suburbs, the Daily Herald reported last year.
But Dehn said he isn’t interested in trying to compete with all the streaming content people have at home. Instead, he offers newly released movies whenever possible and, more than that, he offers the collective wonder of watching a movie with your neighbors: hearing the screams and laughs of people in other cars and sharing fresh, buttery popcorn as spring turns to summer.
Dehn said he is hopeful that the past year’s excitement about drive-in theaters will support an industry comeback.
“Last year, for the first time in forever, there were more drive-ins being built than being destroyed, which is good news,” he said. “So that makes me optimistic. ... I think things could turn around.”