McHenry Outdoor Theater: A place where the good times live on

McHenry Outdoor Theater memories remain

The sun sets as McHenry Outdoor Theater patrons prepare for their movie.
The sun sets as McHenry Outdoor Theater patrons prepare for their movie.

McHENRY – The site of many a first kiss and family gatherings, practically a character in movies like “Grease” and “Polyester,” and sacred ground to movie-goers who want to experience movies on the true “big screen,” the drive-in, better known as the Outdoor when it comes to McHenry-ites, isn’t just a place to go.

It’s a story, a fond memory, a piece of one’s childhood, a family tradition, a piece of history that has seen recessions, wars, social changes and many threatening weather situations. With fewer than 400 active in the U.S., the drive-in appears to be on the extinction list, but McHenry’s Outdoor continues to be a beacon of nostalgia and hope for movie-goers.

Since the 1940s, the screen of the McHenry Outdoor Theater has been a proud fixture at the corner of North Chapel Hill and Lincoln roads. After dark, during the theater’s open season, cars traveling west on Lincoln Road may meet one of the two features playing that evening as they come up the hill.

Stories of those who live in nearby neighborhoods climbing up on their roofs or sitting in their driveways to watch the nightly show, still are alive and well.

McHenry native Stefanie Dziadula has attended the outdoor for nearly 30 years, remembering the days when she would sit in the back of her parents blue Crown Victoria, nestled between her sisters, yelling at that famous back-flipping animated hotdog that plays prior to the show to “get in the bun!”

Dziadula continued to attend movies with family and friends through high school. The 2001 McHenry West Campus graduate, now an Algonquin resident, since has started a tradition of attending movies with those same high school friends, all of their kids in tow, Dziadula with her son, Kyrie, 8, and daughter, Calliope, 5.

“I like my kids to experience the places I enjoyed as a kid,” Dziadula said. “Plus, there’s not a lot of them around anymore so I want them to be able to enjoy it before they become extinct. I went growing up and in high school. One of my friends lived close enough that we could watch, not hear, but watch the movie when sitting on the roof of his parent’s house. Now, I also go with my old high school friends.

“Our kids are around the same age and are becoming friends, so we’re teaching a whole new generation about all the fun to have at the Outdoor. It’s always a good time reminiscing about all the fun we used to have while the kids play around on the grass before the movie starts.”

Lauren Freye grew up down the street from the Outdoor on Chapel Hill Road. She was Lauren Leber then. The 2002 McHenry East Campus graduate and Volo resident said she has been going to the Outdoor as long as she can remember. Her first clear memory is that of seeing “Jurassic Park” at age 9.

“I remember always seeing the line of cars backing up down Chapel Hill around seven in the evening,” Freye said. “We would constantly beg my poor parents to go. From our house, we could always hear the car horns beeping late at night and we knew it must be intermission at the Outdoor!”

When she turned 15, Freye began working concessions and box office at the Outdoor.

“It was the best first job I could have had,” Freye said. “It fit perfectly with our school schedule and it was like a family reunion every summer because we had such a tight-knit group of workers. Most of us continued to work there throughout our teen years and some of us even as adults. We would often come in to enjoy the shows with friends and family on our evenings off.”

On June 10, 2006, Lauren met her soon-to-be husband, Michael Freye, at the good ‘ol Outdoor. The two go to the Outdoor around their anniversary to celebrate. Her son, Branden Leber, has an August birthday and often chooses to celebrate by sitting in the back of the family vehicle, hatchback open, under the stars and the big screen.

“It’s a completely different experience than an indoor theater,” Freye said. “One of my son’s favorite parts of the evening is arriving early so he can play on the grass in the front with all of the other kids. You can make an entire evening of it, watch a movie under the stars and it’s a double feature for a great price. You’ll need plenty of bug spray, but it’s worth it.”

Freye applauds the efforts of the Outdoor’s Business Owner and Operator Scott Dehn who she said has really fixed it up and developed great programming to ensure its longevity.

The Outdoor is not only a family affair for attendees, operationally, Dehn has enlisted his own family to help run the day-to-day. Dad is on the grill, his niece on concessions and his cousin is lot manager. The Marian Central graduate officially took over the Outdoor in 2012, but said he has been there in some capacity since 2000.

“One of my earliest memories is being at the drive-in with my parents and grandparents. I didn’t think it would be fair if kids didn’t have an opportunity to make their own memories,” Dehn said.

In 2012, the push for drive-ins to “get with the times” and convert from projectors to digital was a big, expensive threat to the McHenry Outdoor’s future. Luckily, Dehn won the much-needed digital projector through Honda’s “Project Drive-In,” the automaker’s plan to save five drive-ins within the U.S. by awarding them the costly digital equipment.

Though technically the Outdoor is very modern and the cars that stream in aren’t of the hot rod or classic variety, unless the theme night calls for it, the look, the feel and the concessions are nods to nostalgia and simpler times.

Families huddled under blankets passing large buckets of popcorn, couples in the back of a pickup sharing a Super Rope, friends with lawn chairs sprawled out sharing a laugh and some food is just another night on the lot, all waiting for the hot dog to hop in the bun, the sun to set and the show to begin.

“They seek us out because there aren’t many left. It’s nostalgic,” Dehn said. “The music playing and the car noises. I walk the fine line of being old and nostalgic. We’re up on the tech, but it’s hidden behind the old-fashioned look. It’s truly a living time capsule.”

The 2019 season is now in its “Fall Throwback Series,” featuring movies on Friday and Saturday nights only through Oct. 26. “Jaws,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “It” are just a few already on the docket.

Some showings are still TBD so check the Outdoor’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/mchenryoutdoor, for the latest schedule. The 2020 season will open the last weekend of April or first weekend of May with showings Friday and Saturday nights until Memorial Day weekend when the showings will move to seven nights a week through the third weekend in August.

The cost is $12 for adults and $6 for children ages 4 to 11, seniors 60 and older and military service members. Children age 3 and younger are free. Ticket cost includes both movies. Gates open at 6:30 p.m. and movies will not begin prior to 7:30 p.m.

For information, schedule and frequently asked questions, visit www.goldenagecinemas.com.

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