Column: Drive-in movie night was a throwback at a time we needed it most

My earliest movie-going memory is seeing “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” at the old Rocky Point Drive-In.

I couldn’t tell you much about the experience, but to this day, I can’t drive past the sign for the long-extinct theater without thinking about phoning home.

Movies, they say, are our society’s great escape from reality. They came into their own during the Great Depression and even as drive-ins disappeared and theater admissions have declined in recent years, cinema remains an important part of our cultural conversation.

In my household, movies have brought us together. It’s one way my wife and I first bonded and our love for the motion picture has been passed down to the next generation — especially with my movie-obsessed son.

During the quarantine, our household has used part of our added time together for family movie nights. And on the rare occasion I have any say in what we watch, I’ve picked movies that were important to me when I was around his age. He’s on his second viewing of all nine of the Skywalker saga “Star Wars” films and on a night he told me he didn’t want to go to the essential workers camp he’s been going to while school is out, we streamed “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Wednesday night’s screening of “The Goonies” at Drive-in Movie Night at Strawberry Fields Fairgrounds in Mattituck was a perfect night out for me and the kids.

The film started around 8 p.m. as darkness finally set in. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

I was six years old — same as my son is now — when “The Goonies” was released 35 years ago next week. Afterward, I remember climbing on the swing set in my backyard, pretending it was a pirate ship and I was fighting off the evil Fratellis.

I don’t always see a lot of myself in my son. Yes, he looks like me. Sometimes he even acts like me. But his interests, his overall personality, don’t always align with how I remember myself. But there are these moments after he’s seen a movie, where he wants to dress as the character or play with the toys, that I’m taken back to my youth.

When I first learned that Cedars Golf Club in Cutchogue and Movies in the Moonlight were screening the family classic as a fundraiser for Community Action Southold Town, I jumped at the opportunity. Armed with an arsenal of theater-style candy boxes and popcorn, I loaded my son and daughter into the car and headed to Mattituck Wednesday, giving mom a much-needed night off.

Cedars co-owner Paul Pawlowski said the idea was to find an event people could participate in that was safe to do during this period of social distancing. Extra safety measures were put into place, including the elimination of refreshments and public restrooms. Police and security volunteers patrolled the grounds.

At the start of the film, Movies in the Moonlight founder Frank Zagarino urged people to stay at their cars and not mingle in groups. Many of the movie-goers chose to stay in their vehicles, with some opening up hatchbacks or sitting in pickup beds. A handful of carloads sat in folding chairs next to their automobiles.

From my vantage point, it was a slam dunk event. The only hiccups I heard about was an arrival line that developed on Sound Avenue, but those of us who showed up early were led to a waiting area and soon after led directly to our spots, where we waited for it to get dark enough for the movie to start.

A couple snuggles up in the bed of a pick-up truck. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

The film was shown on a double-sided screen, to bring people closer to the action. The audio was transmitted through our car stereos.

The promotion to donate to CAST was highly visible and easy to do. It was optional, but I sure hope people gave back and it was a success for this important community organization, which helps low-income families meet basic needs like nutrition, learning and more.

One unfortunate situation, Mr. Zagarino was eager to note, was the arrival of a competitor movie business that handed out fliers advertising their services, leaving the impression they were behind the event and not the local businessman who generously donated his staff and equipment as a giveback to his community. His and Mr. Pawlowski’s efforts were appreciated as cars honked in support at the end of the night.

I’ve been to a handful of Movies in the Moonlight screenings over the years and it really is such a cool business, one that could be even more important in these times.

With movie theaters closed, maybe drive-ins will make a comeback? And I don’t think you need the full old-school experience with a snack bar. The idea that people might pair their movie with food from a nearby restaurant that could use the boost right now is appealing. And it could be a good way to continue to get people out of the house and into some of the more underutilized park spaces or even to farms or other business with open spaces. I know several more screenings are in the works at different locations here on the North Fork.

Mr. Pawlowski, right, and Mr. Zagarino raise the screen as cars begin to arrive. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

I feel fortunate during this pandemic that my family hasn’t suffered as much as others these past few months. We have our jobs, our health, there really isn’t much to complain about. I feel a little guilty when I do.

This whole experience has brought us closer, even if my wife and I are working harder than ever right now. There was a moment during Wednesday’s event when I felt as close as ever to my kids.

My 4-year-old daughter, spooked a bit by “The Goonies,” crawled up onto my lap and buried her head into my heart. My son shifted his pillow from up against the passenger door to my right shoulder. I looked down and kissed both their foreheads.

On the ride home, my daughter told me she’s not going to look next time Mikey lifts One-Eyed Jack’s eyepatch to reveal how he got his nickname, but she does want to see the movie again.

“I want to watch Goonies every day forever,” she said.

That’s the power of the movies and it’s fun to see the joy in my own kids. That’s something I could watch … every day forever.