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Race is on to save McHenry drive-in

‘Drive-in Massacre’ MARATHON

McHenry Outdoor Theatre, 1510 N. Chapel Hill Road

Gates open at 6:30 p.m.

“Monster Squad” (1987), at 8:30 p.m.; “Zombie” (1979) at 10:30 p.m.; “Sleepaway Camp” (1983) at 12:30 a.m.; “House of Exorcism” (1973) at 2:15 a.m.

Admission: $10 for adults;$5 for children under 12

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Updated: October 1, 2013 6:16AM

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 wove 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 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 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” fund-raising 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 dollar materialized, per Kickstarter policy.

When the 2013 season opened in May, 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. The campaign to boost traffic into the Chapel Hill Road theater continues through Saturday with the “Drive-In Massacre,” a marathon 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 Friday, balloting at had attracted more than 1.2 million votes. (Votes for McHenry also can be registered by texting Vote111 to 444999.)

While McHenry Outdoor fans wait until balloting ends 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 O’Neill, 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.”

O’Neill’s co-worker, 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.

“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,” Dehn 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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