Making memories: New film projector breathes life into McHenry icon

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A trip to the McHenry Outdoor Theater isn’t just about the movie.

It’s tossing a ball around, watching the sun go down as the screen lights up. It’s a starry-sky backdrop, friends, family, jammies and blankets. It’s bags of popcorn and sleepy eyes as the credits roll.

It’s a memory.

“One of my earliest memories is going to this theater with my parents and my sister and grandmother,” said Scott Dehn, who became the theater’s owner in 2012. “I just want to be part of being able to keep that alive for future children to experience. I think it’d be a shame if they missed out on that. It’s a cool job. I love that I’m a part of that.”

The season’s opening night this past weekend – drawing generations of families and fans who anticipate the outing annually – almost didn’t happen.

Because of the movie industry’s ongoing switch from 35 mm film to digital – a format cheaper for studios and distributors – home-grown drive-in theaters, similar to the one at 1510 N. Chapel Hill Road in McHenry and others across the country, have faced a dwindling selection of movies produced in the old format.

Many have scrambled to find the money needed to switch to digital projectors or simply have closed, with only about five or six drive-in theaters remaining in Illinois.

Facing a failed $130,000 fundraising campaign, Dehn’s theater was saved at the last minute last season by an online voting campaign hosted by Project Drive-in, Honda’s attempt to help preserve what it calls an “iconic part of American car culture.” The theater was one of the contest’s five winners, earning the digital projector Dehn had sought since taking over the business.

That new projector lit up the screen this past weekend.

“I’m not an emotional guy, but when we played this thing to test it out, I had tears in my eyes,” Dehn said. “I never thought I’d see anything so bright on that screen. It’s the difference from going from VHS to Blu-ray on a big screen.”

Along with the new projector, the theater had raised about $5,000, which is being used for improvements, such as painting, a new marquee, plumbing and other internal work, Dehn said.

“I would say every time a customer comes to visit us this year, they’re going to see an improvement, little or big,” he said.

The season will bring favorites such as the “throwback” weekends featuring movies from the 1980s, classics and horror films.

Dehn’s looking forward to blockbusters, including “Godzilla” (slated for release May 16) and “How to Train Your Dragon 2” (scheduled for June 13).

As it has in the past, the theater once again has partnered with the Volo Auto Museum for promotions, such as a contest in which the winner can drive Bumblebee, the 1977 yellow-and-black Camaro featured in the original 2007 “Transformers” film.

A winner – chosen from among those who enter the number printed on their Auto Museum entry wristbands at – will drive the car, along with a date, from the museum to the opening night of “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” anticipated for June 27.

The winner, announced June 13, also will receive dinner from the concession stand and watch the film from the car.

The promotion adds to what has grown into a grass-roots campaign to promote and save drive-in theaters everywhere.

“I think it’s easy to take them for granted because they’ve been here for so long,” Dehn said. “You don’t hear about any new drive-in theaters. Now that there’s a threat of them leaving, I know there are a lot of Facebook groups and people coming together to keep them alive. ...

“There are some people I almost think they need to have a nameplate put out because they’re in the same spots every weekend.”

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