You may remember the last shot of “Field of Dreams," a movie which, for sheer poetic justice, should probably end up on the schedule this summer at the McHenry Outdoor Theater.
It’s the shot of all the cars at dusk, lined up, waiting to get a taste of a great American tradition. Remember it?
That’s how it was Friday night along North Chapel Hill Road and along Lincoln Road in McHenry, about an hour northwest of Chicago. Hundreds of cars, trying to get into the drive-in. After successfully negotiating his business’s status upward, from “non-essential” to “essential," theater owner Scott M. Dehn got the go-ahead to reopen his drive-in.
He built his case and the people came.
Judging from Friday night — chilly temperatures, in the low 30s, but warm in other ways — drive-ins operating within Illinois’ reopening regulations just might help us get through this pandemic, a few hundred cars at a time.
The first two cars, Dehn told me Friday night before showtime, arrived at 10:30 a.m. Friday, eight hours before the box office was supposed to open. (The lines along the access roads were causing some traffic issues, so they opened earlier than scheduled Friday.)
"I thought they had car trouble or something!” Dehn said about the earliest arrivals. Wearing our face masks, we walked and talked down one row of socially-distanced cars, 12-to-16 feet apart, about halfway back from the outdoor screen a couple of hours before showtime. I got there shortly after 6 p.m., just as the 350-car capacity had been reached. (In non-pandemic circumstances the drive-in accommodates 750 vehicles.)
Everybody got in free Friday. Earlier this week Dehn heard from Ray Scarpelli, Jr., of Ray Chevrolet and Ray Chrysler Dodge Jeep and Ram in Fox Lake.
“So Ray, the owner, calls me,” Dehn said, “and he says: ‘We’re really excited about the theater opening. We’d love to be a part of it. What if we bought everybody’s admission on Friday?' What a good guy.”
Nobody I talked to Friday was there for the movies — that is, for the specific movies being shown. Dehn booked a Universal Studios “stone age” double feature: “The Flintstones” (1994) followed by “Jurassic Park” (1993).
“People were just dying to get out,” said Annabelle Izaguirre of Antioch, accompanied by her daughters, four-year-old Ava and two-year-old Stella. “I love it! People finally come out for something? It’s nice. We were ready."
Out the back of their hatchback, Stella’s right shoe plopped onto the ground. Ava provided the play-by-play. “My sister keeps throwing stuff down there, and then she has to go get it, but really I have to go get it for her, and I want to stay in the truck! But she wants me to go get it!” Grinning, the girls seemed happy to be somewhere than home.
One row down and six cars over, Richard Gregor and Erica Butz of Rockford waited for the first feature. “I’ve been to a drive-in before, but this is the first time we’ve been to one together," Gregor told me.
“Just to get out of the house,” Butz said. “I’ve never been to one before.”
Bill Smith of Bolingbrook, a few cars down, is no newbie. He and his family visit drive-ins all over the place, though this is Bill’s first time at the McHenry.
His car’s fully loaded: There’s a crock pot set up by the hood, along with a pizza maker. An American flag hangs from the car grille.
“It didn’t matter what was playing,” Smith said, regarding Friday’s double bill. “As long as it was kid-friendly.” His first taste of a drive-in, he said, came in 1971: “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” at the I-80 Outdoor Theatre in Tinley Park, a month after it opened for business. (It’s been gone since 1987.)
“I think if everyone uses good judgment,” Smith says, “like they’re doing here tonight, it’s great. We’re keeping our space, keeping to ourselves, washing our hands. We’re not all bunched up together. We need to get out and start being Americans again. And I can’t think of anything more American than the drive-in."
A golf cart glided by, carrying buckets of plastic-wrapped popcorn, hot dogs and drinks. Reopening under COVID-19-related regulations, Dehn told me, required closing the concession stand, stripping the menu to the essentials and converting to delivery service, so that the customers stay in their vehicles.
One roving outdoor employee, Caleb Kwasigroch (“like 'Quasimodo, but it’s Kwah-zee-grow”) worked the lot, handing out free disposable masks.
"Some people forget their masks in the car when they go to the restroom,” he said, “and I’m like: ‘Take one of these! They’re free!’ I’m making sure everyone’s within the guidelines, staying safe. One guy said he was ‘too strong’ to wear a mask. But I just told him, ‘My guy, these are the guidelines.’ And he complied. It’s great people are generally willing to follow these rules. The rules are not too difficult.”
By 8:30 p.m. the stars twinkled on cue. Car radios tuned to 89.9 FM played oldies via the theater’s transmission: “Help!" and “Last Kiss" and “Where Did Our Love Go.” Then came the throwback movie trailers on the screen: “Forrest Gump,” “The Sandlot,” “Dumb and Dumber.” Dehn’s voice popped onto the radio, thanking everyone for turning out.
“It’s been a difficult couple of months for everybody," he said. "But it’s really nice to see some smiling faces. Well. Smiling faces behind the masks.”
“The Flintstones” started at 8:51 p.m.