MCHENRY, IL — Last summer, the pandemic closed indoor movie theaters. New releases were scarce, with most going straight to streaming. But it was an opportunity for the nearly abandoned form of movie-watching: the drive-in.
The staff at the Golden Age Cinemas in McHenry, Illinois, is hard at work cleaning and preparing for the summer season.
In a few short weeks, the concessions will be open at the outdoor theater that’s been here for the last 70 years.
“This drive has been here forever, and it's gone through recessions, depression, you know, everything, but never a pandemic. So, this was really unprecedented,” said Scott Dehn, owner of Golden Age Cinemas.
They did have to adjust. With no new film releases, the drive-in relied on classic features last summer, as well as a golf cart to deliver hotdogs and popcorn.
“When we started the season, our concession stand couldn't be open. And for a drive-in theater or any theater, the concession stand is where you make the money,” said Dehn.
All of the staff had to wear masks and gloves. Bathrooms were constantly being cleaned and capacity was capped.
“We can comfortably fit 800 cars here on a Friday or Saturday, which is usually when we do meet capacity and we could only do 420,” he explained.
But it seemed to work. Nearly every single show was sold out.
“Everybody owns these movies at home,” said Dehn. “But at the time, nobody could get out. There was nothing to do. We were the only show in town.”
There were just over 4,000 drive-in theaters in the late 1950s. As of last summer, only a few hundred were still in existence. But thanks to the need to socially distance, drive-in theaters are popping up all over the world.
Last summer, Ferman Luna and Megan Haduch saw their first drive-in movie here at the McHenry Outdoor Theater.
“Getting to experience something that was, you know, the norm back in the day, and then, you know, reliving it nowadays is really cool,” said Luna.
“It's nice being in the outdoors and enjoying company this way,” said Haduch. “It's a change of pace a good change of pace.”
Dehn says he believes we could be in the midst of a renaissance.
“After this summer, it was the first year that there were more drive-ins being built than being closed. And I love that news, so that's really good for this industry,” he said.
In preparation for being allowed to go back to full capacity this summer, renovations are afoot, particularly for the nine-story screen.
“This is, it's bigger than I thought it was going to be, but we're basically going to replace all the screen on the left and right side,” said Dehn. “That's all plywood. It's been there since 1965.”
Dehn says he’s not too worried about the competition from indoor multiplexes which are beginning to reopen.
He says the allure of a drive-in includes nostalgia and a chance to watch a movie under the stars.
“We're going to have fun with it. If we're having fun, I hope that the customers will have fun, too," Dehn said.