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Thanks to the power of social media and some creativity from local schools, the McHenry Outdoor Theater will host more than movies after it opens on Friday.
Theater owner Scott Dehn said the drive-in will host several stay-in-car graduation events for local schools since the COVID-19 pandemic is preventing crowds from gathering together at schools.
Drive-in theaters are among the list of approved spots for graduation ceremonies by the Illinois State Board of Education. Dehn said a post on Facebook provided the spark for the idea.
“If I had a nickel for every time someone sent me something, ‘You should do this’ …,” Dehn said. “This got into the right hands of decision-makers at the schools, and one thing led to another and we got in contact. I’m like, ‘This could work.’ Everyone can stay in their car and stay safe.
“We can record the valedictorian’s speech and put it up there [on the screen] or senior pictures. It’s been fun to be creative, and each school has its own unique flavor of how they want to do things.”
The McHenry Outdoor Theater is located east of McHenry on Chapel Hill Road. Dehn has procedures for movie nights on Fridays and Saturdays that will be used with school ceremonies. While the drive-in typically can seat 750 cars, only 350 will be allowed in at one time. That allows cars to be parked 12 to 15 feet apart, farther than normal.
The video will be played on the screen and can be heard in cars over an FM radio frequency.
Dehn is not charging any of the schools to use the drive-in for their graduations.
“I feel bad. It’s not these kids’ fault that a pandemic happened,” he said. “So it would be terrible for them not to have something to commemorate their graduation. At the very least, I’ll bet they will never forget it.”
McHenry will combine two of its honors nights for both the East and West campuses with a ceremony at the drive-in. McHenry will call it Distinguished Senior Honors Night and will recognize those students in the Distinguished Warrior Program and the Senior Honors Night.
Also on the list for drive-in ceremonies are a group of home-schooled students and eighth grade classes from Landmark Elementary School in McHenry and Big Hollow Middle School in Ingleside.
“We’re in the process of creating this great video to honor all the seniors, and we will show it at the drive-in and invite families,” McHenry East principal Jeff Prickett said. “We wanted to do something at the drive-in and decided to combine these two great senior events and make them one.”
Prickett said the crowd for that night will not exceed the 350-car limit. For those who cannot or do not wish to attend, the video will be shared so they can watch along at home.
“The Distinguished Warrior Program is for those who meet certain criteria for attendance, GPA and community service hours,” Prickett said. “The Senior Honors Night [honorees] are seniors who will be receiving scholarships from various local organizations and receiving other opportunities [for college]. We will honor those kids.
“People saw it on Facebook and said, ‘Hey, who not have it at a drive-in theater?’ McHenry has a drive-in theater, and we thought, ‘Let’s try something there.’ ”
Prickett said McHenry High School District 156 hopes to have in-person graduations some time in June or July. If it cannot be in-person, there will be a digital option.
Big Hollow Middle School principal Scott Whipple said his administration started thinking outside the box about what they could do for students as the stay-at-home order kept being extended.
“This was really a team effort,” Whipple said. “It kind of fell into place. We reached out to Scott [Dehn] at the drive-in, and he was willing to do it for us.”
Whipple and Superintendent Bob Gold will record messages to start their ceremony on May 19. The school worked with Ed Clark Photography, which took photos of all the eighth graders in caps and gowns.
“We will display the kids’ pictures up on the big screen and have their names on there,” Whipple said. “We are encouraging the parents to honk and cheer when their kid’s picture comes up. We will do other acknowledgements and have some music.
“We got great responses from the parents. They were just glad we were able to do something for the kids. That was the main goal. We love our kids, and we wanted to do something so they could have a good experience.”
The drive-in offers an ideal spot where people can remain in their vehicles, yet still see and hear videos.
“This is why it works out so nicely,” Dehn said. “I only show movies currently on Friday and Saturday nights. That gives me all these week days to do these events for high schools and grade schools.”