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Drive-in fights to keep big screen from going dark

‘Drive-in Massacre’

Chicago-based Terror in the Aisles productions will co-host a “Drive-in Massacre” horror-movie marathon this weekend (Aug. 30-31) at the McHenry Outdoor Theatre, 1510 N. Chapel Hill Road.

Gates open at 6:30 p.m. and the first of four movies, “Monster Squad” (1987), starts at 8:30 p.m.

The rest of the lineup includes “Zombie” (1979) at 10:30 p.m., “Sleepaway Camp” (1983) at 12:30 a.m. and “House of Exorcism” (1973) at 2:15 a.m. Added attractions include a meet-and-greet with “Monster Squad” director Fred Dekker and a silent auction of horror-movie memorabilia that includes a “Friday the 13th” movie still autographed by Kane “Jason” Hodder.

Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children under 12. For more information, visit or

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Updated: October 28, 2013 2:39AM

The McHenry Outdoor Theatre’s “Drive to Stay Alive” is illustrated in the hour before sunset, when 23-year-old Dan O’Neill deploys a mix of artistry and manual labor that goes into loading a 35mm projector that was manufactured three decades before he was born.

“It takes about 15 minutes,” said O’Neill as he weaved a celluloid ribbon containing “Man of Steel” through a network of metal guides and contact points. “If it was digital, we’d just plug a card right in.”

Whether or not O’Neill and his fellow employees at the Outdoor will be making that transition from loading film to downloading a hard drive — a switch that will be mandated by Hollywood’s switch to digital format — depends on a variety of factors beyond their control.

The biggest obstacle, according to owner Scott Dehn of Golden Age Cinemas, is financial. The McHenry theater currently screens movies using a 1960s-era Century Electric Corp. projector that was on hand when he bought the operation in 2012, and it cannibalizes parts from an RCA Super Cinex model that dates back to at least 1951, when the theater was known as the Skyline Drive-In.

“We need about $80,000 in (digital) equipment and another $30,000 in renovations to the projection room,” he said, an amount that would cover heating, cooling, wiring and “everything that they didn’t think of when they built it.”

The first phase of the “Drive to Stay Alive” fundraising effort actually took place during the 2012 operating season, when Dehn tried a campaign that sought $130,000 in donations. Because the total wasn’t reached by a Nov. 28 deadline, not a single dollar materialized, as per kickstarter policy.

When the 2013 season opened in May with “Iron Man 3” and “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” the renewed effort included collecting season-long raffle tickets for a 1963 Dodge D200 pickup truck used by Kevin Costner in “Man of Steel” and donated to Golden Age by the Volo Auto Museum.

The truck was awarded last weekend to a Crystal Lake resident, and the campaign to boost traffic into the Chapel Hill Road theater continues this weekend (Aug. 30-31) with the “Drive-In Massacre,” a marathon session of four horror movies.

Dehn said he also has his fingers crossed for Project Drive-In, a nationwide project sponsored by Honda that will award digital-projection equipment to five theaters garnering the highest totals in an online vote.

As of Wednesday, Aug. 28, balloting at had attracted 1,162,774 votes, though the numbers for the 110 indidual candidates — including not only McHenry but also the Keno in Kenosha — are not being posted. Votes for McHenry can also be registered by texting Vote111 to 444999.

While McHenry Outdoor fans wait until the close of balloting on Sept. 9 to find out if this option will pan out, they’re left to ponder what would be lost if the 100-foot screen goes dark for good.

“It’s definitely a piece of a community,” said McNeill, a four-year employee and lifelong outdoor moviegoer. “It’s something that I hold dear to myself and I think the community holds dear to itself, because it’s just a damn good time. You come out with your friends and tailgate, you can bring some beer, play bags, whatever you want to do until the movie starts.”

McNeill’s co-worker and fellow McHenry native, 22-year-old Amanda Arient, said “I think our community and especially the surrounding areas will lose something great” if the outdoor experience is a casualty of the digital revolution.

“I remember coming with my parents and they used to do pajama nights — if you came in your pajamas, you’d get half off,” she said. “I remember coming in our big boat of a car, like a (Ford) Crown Vic, and all of us squeezing in the front seat. I love it. I’ve been working here for six years, coming here even longer.”

Playing a game of bags on the lawn in front of the screen on Aug. 23, McHenry native Jeannine Stojonic looked around and said “I grew up here. I brought my kids here, and I’ve been here over my whole lifetime hundreds of times. ... You’re outside just enjoying the summer. I’d be really sad to see it go.”

Whatever the future holds, Dehn — who first came to the theater as a child in 1982 — said the last two summers have demonstrated to him that the McHenry Outdoor “is the home of so many memories.”

“On Facebook, I hear from parents and grandparents who have memories of coming here with their parents and grandparents, and now they’re bringing their own grandchildren and children,” he said. “If we lose it, they’re going to miss out on revisiting those memories, and children today aren’t going to have the opportunity to experience what they experienced.”

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