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Dan Moran: Outdoor theater seeks digital edge

Updated: November 28, 2012 6:09AM

When technology marches on, it does so without mercy or sentiment. Today’s generation feels this sting whenever the smartphone they bought at noon becomes obsolete at 3 p.m.

The pain of progress can be particularly sharp for the cinematic temples that have been around since our parents and grandparents flocked to see Clark Gable. Specifically, Hollywood’s demand that theaters
switch from film to digital projectors can leave older movie houses — some of which are labors of love more than high-finance propositions — scrambling for survival.

“This is a place that I am in love with. I cannot imagine a summer without it,” wrote Scott Dehn, president of Golden Age Cinemas, about The McHenry Outdoor Theater on Route 120, which is one of those 35 mm operations in the looming digital world. “This is a critical time for fans of The McHenry Outdoor Theater. Sometimes, when you love something, you have to make a stand to keep it.”

Dehn, who also owns the Liberty Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue in Libertyville, has launched a “Drive to Stay Alive” for the McHenry Outdoor at, the fund-raising Web site that seeks contributions for projects, but only collects the money if a minimum goal is reached.

In the case of the McHenry Outdoor — which, along with the Keno in Kenosha, is all we’ve got left around here for the great American drive-in movie experience — the Kickstarter goal is $130,000. As of Friday, $19,516 had been pledged from 226 backers, with a deadline of Nov. 28 now about a month away.

“Movie studios are going to stop producing 35 mm film,” Dehn wrote. “The only movie projector in operation at The McHenry Outdoor Theater is a 35 mm unit. All movies currently being made are going to be digitally formatted. In order for this historic and much beloved theater to stay alive, it is imperative that a digital movie projector be purchased and installed.

“The cost of a digital projector is approximately $77,000. The renovation needed in the projection booth to accommodate this new projector will cost an additional $60,000,” he added, detailing the new wiring and ventilation
systems that must be installed. “As a seasonal entity, The McHenry Outdoor Theater simply cannot afford to pay for this conversion without the help from the public.”

There is already at least one success story here in Lake County when it comes to a Kickstarter campaign and the digital revolution: “Rescue the Historic
Catlow Theatre from
Extinction.” That was the title of the effort launched over the summer to raise $100,000 for a new projector at the 85-year-old Catlow on Lake-Cook Road in Barrington.

Regular readers, assuming there are such things, might recall that the Catlow is one of my favorite movie houses. It was the perfect spot to see, for example, “The Artist,” last year’s homage to the silent-film era, which was a current era when the theater opened in 1927. The experience was like something out of H.G. Wells.

The good news for the Catlow is that its campaign not only met but exceeded its goal — $175,395 from 1,394 backers. In a message detailing the work to be done, Catlow co-owner Tim O’Connor pointed out that the upgrades, while inconvenient up front, come with an brighter future.

“Just as ‘talkies’ represented positive change
for movie audiences of
the 1920s,” he wrote, “the switch to a digital presentation is good news for today’s movie lovers. The digital picture and sound will be outstanding! Catlow patrons will never again have to watch damaged
film; no more scratches, pops, splices, missing frames, with warbled or distorted sound.”

True enough, technology can be our friend when it isn’t holding a gun to our heads. To help the
McHenry Outdoor survive into the 21st century, visit and/or search for “The McHenry Outdoor Theatre’s Drive to Stay Alive.”

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