McHenry Outside Theater Retains the Communal Moviegoing Expertise Alive and Protected Throughout COVID-19

McHenry Outdoor Theater Keeps the Communal Moviegoing Experience Alive and Safe During COVID-19

Within the northeast nook of Illinois, on the outskirts of unincorporated McHenry, resides an impressive moviegoing venue the place numerous formative experiences have taken place. I used to be solely a yr outdated throughout my first journey to the McHenry Outside Theater, the place my dad and mom spent the whole thing of 1987’s spoof “Dragnet” lulling me to sleep. As quickly because the movie ended, I used to be promptly woken up by the sound of automobiles honking in approval, the vehicular equal of applause. By the point I reached the age of eight, I used to be capable of absolutely admire the theater’s immersive magic, as I watched Scar leap by means of the flames at Simba in the course of the climax of Disney’s authentic and unmatched 1994 model of “The Lion King.” The shortage of main ambient lighting within the surrounding space makes the visuals of any given movie pop all of the extra when they’re projected upon the towering out of doors display screen, which may be glimpsed for miles throughout a late evening drive by means of the countryside. 

Because the coronavirus pandemic resulted in theaters being shut down this previous March, the McHenry Outside’s projector gentle has emerged as a shining beacon attracting cinephiles from across the nation who’re desirous to share within the communal expertise of cinema from the consolation of their automobiles. Although the venue was deemed a nonessential enterprise in late April, a ruling from authorities officers that prohibited the theater’s deliberate reopening, issues modified as soon as State Consultant Tom Weber received a subcategory added in Governor Pritzker’s Govt Order 2020-32. It enabled drive-in theaters to as soon as once more provide important escapism, supplied they observe the required social distancing pointers. Since 2012, Scott Dehn has owned the McHenry Outside Theater as CEO of Golden Age Cinemas, and he has all the time prioritized the well-being of his employees and clients over all else.

“Motion pictures are nice, however they’re not price risking your well being or your security,” harassed Dehn throughout our latest chat on the telephone. “My workers are my household and I really like my clients. As unhealthy as I’d need to be open, I wasn’t going to do it except I used to be 100 p.c positive that everybody was going to be protected. I’ve household working there too, and I wouldn’t put them on the frontlines of one thing that will be unhealthy for them. Proper now, we’re not capable of promote at capability, and that’s okay. I put all of the precautionary measures in place as directed by the Illinois Division of Commerce and Financial Alternative, and I additionally added just a few extra directives which might be admittedly a bit overkill in some areas. However relating to combating this virus, airing on the facet of warning just isn’t a nasty factor to do.”

The present social distancing laws require just one automobile to be parked between two units of speaker poles, a lot of that are nonetheless operational, although passengers are inspired to tune their automobile radio to the station offering the movie’s soundtrack. Viewers members should put on masks and keep a six-foot distance from one another when outdoors of their automobile or on the concession stand, whereas the restrooms onsite are disinfected by workers after each utilization. None of those measures deterred movie buffs from flocking to the McHenry Outside Theater when it reopened on the weekend of Might eighth with a prehistoric double invoice of 1994’s kid-friendly lark, “The Flintstones,” and Spielberg’s 1993 thrill experience, “Jurassic Park.” The screenings shortly bought out, whereas quite a few different automobiles lined up alongside a close-by highway to catch a glimpse of the nostalgic spectacle. This prompted Dehn to recall what it felt like for him to view the drive-in display screen for the primary time. 

A rainbow preceded final weekend’s screening of Victor Fleming’s “The Wizard of Oz” on the McHenry Outside Theater. Images by Collin Souter and Matt Fagerholm.

“As a baby, it’s greater than life,” stated Dehn. “Amongst my earliest reminiscences is the primary time I went to the drive-in with my household. My sister, my grandma, my mother, my dad and I all piled into our station wagon for a double invoice of ‘Star Trek III: The Seek for Spock’ and ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.’ After we pulled into our spot, I regarded on the display screen and thought, ‘That’s the most important tv I’ve ever seen!’ Whilst an grownup, that thrill by no means will get outdated. When ‘Grease’ performs, I might mute the sound and the viewers wouldn’t miss a factor as a result of all people is singing alongside. They don’t even know one another, however they’re singing collectively. It’s a real communal expertise. In Might, all people will get reacquainted, after which by June, it’s a block get together.”

2020 marks Dehn’s twentieth yr of working on the McHenry Outside, the place he initially had the safety job of “trunk-checker,” rooting out clients who snuck in to keep away from the affordable value of admission. It’s attribute of Dehn’s genial nature that he would refuse to kick them out—“I’ve been there,” he explains—whereas nonetheless insisting that they pay. As a teen, I had the good pleasure of working for Dehn at his McHenry Downtown Theater, which was throughout the road from my highschool. We instantly bonded over our shared love of cinema, which one can sense in each aspect of how Dehn presents his movies on the drive-in, from the basic trailers previous every characteristic to the classic intermission reel relationship again to 1963 that options dancing sweet. 

Dehn lately bought the McHenry Drive-In to forestall it from being torn down, which isn’t the primary time he’s come to its rescue. Ever for the reason that venue first opened, which Dehn believes was in 1947 in response to his analysis, movies had been projected there by means of the usage of a 35mm platter system. When theaters had been pressured to modify to digital expertise in 2014, Dehn entered into Honda’s Challenge Drive-In content material, wherein the highest 5 vote-getters would obtain their obligatory and enormously costly digital projector without cost. 

“I really entered it every week late,” recalled Dehn. “Three theaters had been named as winners, and there have been going to be two left. I regarded on the map and there have been theaters in rivalry that had been situated in locations like San Francisco and Orlando—a lot greater cities than McHenry. So I used to be actually down on myself. I used to be speculated to do an interview on the drive-in with a information group of some sort on a Saturday at 10 within the morning. I had labored on the drive-in the evening earlier than, so I used to be drained and ended up arriving 45 minutes late. I defined the entire scenario to them about our have to go digital, after which the interviewer asks me, ‘What’s it wish to have digital gear now?’ They ripped this sticker off their van to disclose that they had been really from the competition and that I had received. The feelings got here out after that. It saved the theater, it saved historical past, it saved reminiscences.”

The gear that Dehn acquired from Honda remains to be being utilized by the venue at this time to challenge movies despatched by studios by way of arduous drives. Disney being onboard to share its archive with drive-ins had beforehand been unprecedented till the coronavirus altered everybody’s plans. The studio’s buy of the “Star Wars” franchise has made it doable for the McHenry Outside Theater to e-book 1980’s sci-fi masterpiece “The Empire Strikes Again” for later this summer season. “It took a pandemic, however we received it,” Dehn quipped. Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips lately praised Dehn for veering away from the anticipated drive-in titles by deciding on “extra shocking and attractive fare,” akin to this month’s darkly comedian double invoice of Joe Dante’s 1989 cult gem “The 'Burbs” and the Coen Brothers’ uproarious 1998 crowd-pleaser, “The Large Lebowski.” Having audiences desirous to see just about any film on his display screen has prompted Dehn to embrace his platform very similar to Roger Ebert did with Ebertfest, the annual pageant held at his alma mater in Champaign, Illinois, the place the revered critic launched moviegoers to cinematic marvels they could not have in any other case sought out.

“Individuals are displaying up it doesn’t matter what as a result of they need to be outdoors, so now I really feel like a instructor,” laughed Dehn. “I’m like, ‘Okay, guys, tonight we’re going to look at ‘The ‘Burbs. You’ve in all probability by no means seen it, however you’re going to take pleasure in it.’ It’s cool as a result of it’s nearly such as you’re educating them by selecting these motion pictures that you realize they’ll like and they may not have seen. There’s beginning to be this bizarre and funky belief issue occurring, and I’m completely loving the chance to play motion pictures that I by no means thought I’d have the ability to present. I really like ‘The ‘Burbs,’ but it surely’s not precisely a movie that everybody is speeding out to Wal-Mart to purchase in order that they’ll have it of their assortment. I additionally reached out to workers and clients for suggestions, so I can’t take all of the credit score for what we’ve chosen to display screen.”

The occasions Dehn has lately booked should not restricted solely to motion pictures. The McHenry Outside Theater has hosted varied commencement ceremonies for college students caught at house, and on Saturday, June 27th, it’ll display screen a Garth Brooks live performance that has been recorded completely for drive-in theaters. Previous to the pandemic, I all the time most well-liked attending the McHenry Drive-In throughout its fall flashback collection, because it provided much less bugs, cooler temperatures and such attractive rarities as a triple invoice of the Common horror landmarks “Dracula,” “The Wolf Man” and “The Mummy.” I’ll always remember catching a Hitchcockian double invoice there of “The Birds” and “Psycho” the place it started drizzling in the course of the latter movie’s notorious bathe scene. 

The unpredictable fantastic thing about nature turns into an intrinsic a part of the present, and final weekend’s wonderful screening of “The Wizard of Oz” was no exception. It was preceded by a rainbowwhich my cherished RogerEbert.com colleague Collin Souter captured together with his telephoneafter which a radiant sundown that burst by means of the sepia-toned clouds in all its technicolor splendor. The primary screening I caught on the venue this yr occurred to be my favourite Spielberg movie, 1982’s “E.T. The Additional-Terrestrial,” and it proved to be an much more emotional expertise, contemplating its masterful cinematographer, Allen Daviau, is likely one of the many souls we’ve got misplaced to COVID-19. His indelible photos proceed to carry us house in periods of isolation, and getting the prospect to expertise them with an appreciative crowd—even at a six-foot distance—is a profound reward. 

“There’s a magic to simply being in a theater with like-minded film followers who need to be entertained and who need to be challenged,” stated Dehn. “That’s a evident omission in life proper now, and it has been since March. The shopper base right here is like nothing I’ve had at another theater, and what it does for me is it will increase my accountability to maintain the place good. The workers and clients take possession of the venue, so I’ve to maintain bettering upon it. That’s the handshake deal that I’ve with my viewers. You retain displaying up, and I’ll preserve making it higher. It’s easy, but it surely works.”

The McHenry Outside Theater is situated at 1510 Chapel Hill Highway in McHenry, Illinois, and tickets are bought on the field workplace on a primary come, first serve foundation. Subsequent up on the venue is a pleasingly offbeat Schwarzenegger double invoice of “Kindergarten Cop” and “Twins” kicking off tonight, June 26th. For showtimes and different data, go to the theater’s official web site and Fb web page.