McHenry, Illinois: Outdoor Movie Screens Still in McHenry and West Chicago
Looks like the world's first drive-in movie critic, Joe Bob Briggs, called it right, way back in the '70s: "The drive-in will never die!" Despite being on the endangered entertainment species list for four decades, the American drive-in theater lives. The proof?
Last Saturday night at the McHenry Outdoor Theatre, bumper-to-bumper vehicles jammed into two entrance lanes to buy tickets for a Walt Disney double-bill of "Up" and "Earth." More cars came. Then more after those. "We'd better open up the third lane," said Scott Dehn, one of the partners in "C You at the Movies", the company that leases and operates the drive-in. "The police don't like it when cars go into the street."
By showtime just before 9 p.m., the McHenry neared its 800-car capacity. The temperature hovered in the low 70s. The sky cleared up from afternoon storms. Perfect drive-in conditions. This party was on! Kids squealed as they raced on the gravel between rows and rows of cars. Parents parked their family vans with the rear bumpers facing the screen so they could open the back hatches and watch the movies with nothing between the eyes and the images but thin air. In the snack shop at the center of the drive-in, the smell of popcorn permeated the room as hungry filmgoers clamored for grub and drinks.
In the projection booth a few yards away, technician Chris Jackowiak gave several enthusiastic children a quick overview of how a platter system shows movies. Twelve-year-old Kody McMahon heard his name announced on the PA system for being the guest of honor at the drive-in's first sponsored birthday party.
The McMahon family, from Carpentersville, received a prime, roped-off location and lots of balloons as part of their arrangement with "C" You at the Movies. "We're experimenting with birthday packages," Scott said. "We'll see how it goes." The projector kicked on. The magic began. A Passion for Movies The C in "C" You at the Movies belongs to Cindy Kottke, 52, a Barrington High School graduate. Her partner is Scott Dehn, 32, an impeccably dressed graduate of Woodstock's Marian Central Catholic High School, a lifelong McHenry resident and a man who followed his passion.
Together, they run the drive-in and would love to buy the land it sits on - if they could afford it. For now, they just hope the owner won't sell. "I've always been interested in movies. Always," Scott said. "In 2002, while I was recuperating from a car accident, I read in the newspaper about the new owner of the McHenry Theatre.
So, I went down and met her." Cindy remembered it well. "Scott started hanging around, wearing a tie and we couldn't get rid of him. Just couldn't," she said. "Finally, I said, 'just give him a (bad) job and that will get rid of him.' So, we told him to clean the seats. And he came with his whole family and they cleaned the seats! "
I thought, 'Oh, my God! We've got to do something with this guy! He just made himself indispensable. He was just there! And there! And there! He's the Rain Man of movies!" "I had done a lot of jobs that were jobs and it was work," Scott said. "And I just thought, how many times do you have an opportunity to do something, whether you get paid or not, that you love to do? "
And this was it. I had no option other than to make this work. I didn't just want to make this work for me, but to make this work for her. See, if I could make it work for her, then she'd have to say, 'Come with!' That was the plan." The plan worked. In 2006, Cindy surprised Scott by making him a partner in "C" You at the Movies. "He did work for free a lot," Cindy said. "He didn't have any idea that he would become a partner." What did Scott think of her decision? "Smart woman!" he said with a laugh.
"I still wake up and have to pinch myself that something this good has happened. It wasn't something expected and wasn't something I would have demanded. But it was appreciated." Cindy and Scott set a goal for their company: to own 55 screens by the time she reached 55. They have nine screens so far at the two McHenry theaters (indoor and outdoor), the Dunes 1, 2, 3 in Zion, the Antioch Theater, and the Liberty 1 and 2 in Libertyville.
"I don't think we're going to make 55 screens by 55," Cindy said. Scott instantly sought to comfort his partner. "Any kind of goal that we set for ourselves, as laughable as it may seem, pales in comparison to what we've actually done that we didn't expect to do," he said. "We always felt like we Forrest-Gumped our way through a lot of things. Why even assign goals to it?" Scott paused, then offered one goal he did think was important. "The whole point is for the families and these little kids to get the memories that we've had in these theaters," he said.
Twilight for Drive-ins? In 1958, the United States recorded 4,063 "ozoners" at the peak of the drive-in's popularity. Thirty years later, that number dropped to 1,497 as escalating land values and diminished interest in drive-ins took its toll on the business.
At the close of 2008, the National Alliance of Theater Owners, a company that tracks the exhibition industry, reported that only 636 outdoor screens remained, up a whole single screen from 2007. Exactly 76 years ago this month, Richard Milton Hollingshead opened the world's first drive-in theater (or as Joe Bob Briggs points out: "The first drive-in anything!") on a 400-acre lot in Camden, N.J. Hollingshead erected a screen on the top of his machine parts shop, placed speakers next to the screen, set up a 16 mm projector and wrote a page of entertainment history.
After that, it didn't take long before rebellious, hormone-exploding young people realized a trip to the drive-in was a whale-load cheaper than a motel.
So, outdoor theaters earned their reputations as "passion pits," a label that the industry has been trying to downplay for 50 years. Today, windows aren't nearly as foggy as they used to be at the drive-in. Oh, the breathing may be heavy, but now it's just as likely to be coming from a baby in the back seat as young lovers smooching through a double-bill.
Of course, there was the infamous 53 Drive-In in unincorporated Palatine, a wild west town of a theater with three screens that played exploitation fare such as "I Spit on Your Grave" and "Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS." On any given weekend, you could roll down your car windows and get a free high from the cloud of marijuana smoke that hovered over the theater.
The 53 is gone now, replaced by a UPS distribution company and clean air. How long the McHenry Outdoor Theatre, the Cascade Drive-In in West Chicago and the 634 other ozoners last will be determined by two primary things: A) public support and B) the ability of owners to resist selling their drive-ins to become strip malls or housing developments. Already, the owner of the McHenry, Rhyan Holdings Inc., is reported to be considering the sale of the drive-in for a senior home.
Will the drive-in ever really die? Only time, not Joe Bob, will tell.
McHenry Outdoor Theatre
- Location: 1015 N. Chapel Hill Road, McHenry, one-half mile north of Route 120
- Tickets: $7 adults, $4 children
- Open: Seasonally May through September. Shows start at dusk.
- Other information: Go to mchenrydrivein.com or call (815) 385-0144
The Cascade Drive-In Theatre
- Location: 1100 E. North Ave., West Chicago
- Tickets: $8.50 adults, $4.50 children (pets and children under 5 free)
- Open: Seasonally. Shows start at dusk.
- Other information: BBQ grills provided. Go to cascadedrivein.com or call (630) 231-3150.
Keno Drive In
- Location: 9102 Sheridan Road, Pleasant Prairie, Wis.
- Tickets: $7.50 adults, $3.50 children
- Open: Seasonally, shows at dusk, opens 7 p.m.
- Info: kenodrivein.net
By Dann Gire