McHenry Outdoor Theater
Best Outdoor Movie Theater
Nostalgia prompted Scott Dehn to buy the McHenry Outdoor Theater at 1510 Chapel Hill Road in McHenry. He purchased it in 2012 and has been making continuous improvements to the drive-in experience ever since, compelled by his desire to share the warm innocence of outdoor theater with today’s families.
According to Statista, the number of drive-ins in the United States has dwindled to just 321 in 2020. Still, certain features are constants: families cozying up in their cars, enjoying a great movie, snacking on concession stand treats, and, for the children, the pajama-clad delicious sensation of snuggling down in the back seat and being lulled into a deep, comforting sleep, oblivious to the drive home.
“My earliest memories are of being at the drive-in with my mom, dad, sister and grandparents,” Dehn says.
Dehn’s own nostalgic memories guide his movie choices. He always offers a family-friendly feature first, followed by a second movie that skews a little older, with perhaps a PG-13 rating.
As dusk nears, cars line up to enter the outdoor theater, pulling into one of 800 spots from which to watch the movie. The speaker boxes still exist for people “who really dig that old tinny sound,” Dehn says. Other options are to listen on the car radio, or on a radio that the drive-in rents out.
The concession stand offers plenty of choices beyond popcorn, from ice cream to cheeseburgers to multiple flavors of soda. Dehn has made it a point to keep the time spent in the concession line snappy.
“We’ve perfected ways to get people in and out quickly,” he says.
And while nostalgia is part of the attraction, Dehn knows that his patrons also appreciate a safe and tidy movie-watching environment.
“I maintain it very well so it doesn’t look old,” Dehn says.
He had spent 21 years in the theater industry, beginning as a doorman, before deciding to give owning his own business a shot. He purchased a business that opened in 1946. Occasionally, Dehn and his staff unearth evidence on the property giving credence to the rumor that the spot was once a gambling den. Over the years, the drive-in changed little, although the screen was widened in 1965.
Under Dehn, the McHenry Outdoor Theater has become a popular destination for residents of the county and beyond. He solidified the drive-in’s future by winning a contest to replace its 35 mm projector with digital technology. He also eventually purchased the property on which the drive-in sits.
Dehn has broadened the outdoor theater’s appeal by booking comedians and well-known musical acts and hosting Skyline Cruise Nights on Mondays. The classic car shows include music, crafts, food and games for adults and children.
With an eye to the future, Dehn recently purchased a neighboring 10 acres. He hopes to add two more movie screens and to build a central concession stand with projection on either side. He envisions showing new movies on one screen, classics on another and using the third for live entertainment.
“We hopefully can enjoy the theater for a few more generations at least,” Dehn says.
Location: 1510 Chapel Hill Rd, McHenry, IL
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Photos by Dan Wiegel