An end-of-the-summer rite might also signal the end of an era in Gibson City
Outside my window, I can hear the radio,
And I know that motor wagon's gettin' ready to fly,
'cause it's almost Saturday night.
— John Fogerty
Lining up well before the sun goes down, cars — mostly SUVs and minivans, with kids waving out of many of the windows — snake around a gravel road to a ticket booth with a green and a red stoplight.
It's $6 a person, young children free, and a family can get dinner and a movie at the Harvest Moon Drive In for about $25. For now.
The crowd in Gibson City is about 450, a good size, maybe because it's Sept. 29, the last Saturday night of the season.
Of course, it may be the last Saturday night ever for the Harvest Moon. And it's definitely the last Saturday night where real, flexible, you-can-hold-it-in-your-hands film is projected.
Billed as the first wind-powered theater in the world, this blast from the past was moving rapidly into the 21st century — until it hit a wall. If there can be digital walls.
The problem is, the 35-millimeter film runs on 1950s projectors. But studios are doing away with film next year, replacing it with the 1s and 0s of digital information. Nobody will be shipping film when the theater reopens, if it can, next April.
"I plan to be open," owner Mike Harroun says.
He's just not sure how.
"Say a prayer," he adds.
The family business, which also includes sons Will and Ben, needs $120,000 to purchase two digital projectors — a lot of money for a theater that's only open a couple nights a week in warm months. Ticket prices are likely to go up $1 if the theater stays in operation.
A Kickstarter Internet fundraising campaign for the Harvest Moon reached about $50,000 — but when the deadline passed and a goal wasn't reached, money was returned to donors and the tally is back down to $25,000.
"We're really looking forward to the change to digital," projectionist Will Harroun says, "if we can afford it."
It's an expensive business to be in. A new bulb costs $2,500.
Outside, the full moon is rising. The Harvest Moon is a kid's dream world, from a different time when bright colored lights were like sugar to children who rarely were out much after dark.
The kids are out of their SUVS — there are more Chevy Suburbans here than you'll see at a crime scene. Blankets are on the ground, or on top of the vehicles.
Something's going to happen tonight. People are going to meet. Something might be the broadcast of a marriage proposal — a film student once created one in 35 millimeter.
Eric Ferrebee, a University of Illinois student from Bourbonnais, asked Rebecca Williams to go to the prom here. Now they're engaged.
"This place is part of our life story," she said.
The colored lights grow brighter as the sun sets. Girls line up for the free carousel — a 1940s creation Mike Harroun got from a friend he calls "Captain Chicken" — in the glow of the bright lights, the constant admonitions to eat a dill pickle.
The drive-in is dog-friendly. They sniff around as unusual, deep-fried scents waft in the cooling evening.
By 7 the moon is up, a full one, right next to the east screen. The temperature is 68 degrees. The funnel cakes are digesting.
At dusk, the shows — both animation, "Brave" and "Madagascar 3" — are supposed to start.
"This is a family place," the owner says. "It's for the kids. We used to catch teenagers sneaking in, in the trunks. Now it's more of a whole family experience."
The movies are going to start closer to 8 than to 7, largely because the food lines are so long. Will Harroun is letting the customers have time to buy their snacks which is where the real money is at a movie theater.
Through the window where "Madagascar 3" will be shown, a spider's web almost fills the aperture.
It's been there maybe two weeks, and nobody's knocking it down — the projector focuses on the screen, and the web isn't causing any interference.
A laptop connected to an old tube sound system plays songs from the 1960s, the era of John Fogerty's Creedence Clearwater Revival.
The projector room is also the popcorn room, and Will Harroun is busy with both tasks. He also has several day jobs in the family business, which includes car repair and construction.
The drive-in goes through 50 pounds of popcorn a night, all made on an ancient popper fueled by a Hicksgas tank outside.
"The electric (popper) couldn't keep up with the demand," says Mike Harroun.
The Harvest Moon, of course, has much more than popcorn: Corn dogs. Cheeseburgers, grilled. Elephant ears. Funnel cakes. Hand-dipped chocolate bananas.
ENJOY A CHILLY DILLY, a sign says. ICE COLD DILL PICKLE.
Are there a lot of pregnant women in the audience? There are certainly plenty of children. Kids 3 and under get in free, and the carousel is always free.
Raven Estes, 9, is heading for the carousel, face lit up by the lights. She's with a caravan of Esteses and Pfisters from Pontiac.
The customers have come from at least as far south as Tuscola and as far north as Chicago.
At least one is from the Netherlands. University of Illinois graduate student Richard Klink says he wants to "explore all the stereotypes of America."
Drive-ins belong to a different time when motels and drive-through restaurants were new.
Todd Brown of Urbana, who has compiled a scrapbook of the drive-in's history, sits at a park bench with wife Kelly. He estimates they've seen 50 shows there.
The theater has been here since 1954 and has survived at least one tornado, in 1965, Brown says. Former owner Clifford Orr put up a sign that read "GONE WITH THE WIND."
The people have been fed, and the shows begin. The combined sounds from dozens of FM radios turned to the same station makes "Brave" loud enough for people who didn't bring radios themselves.
"This is the perfect way to experience a kids' show," says Mary Earle of Chicago, who has brought five youngsters with her, some borrowed from other people. It's her first and maybe last time at the Harvest Moon.
Intermission brings another food rush, and the projector room is once again the popcorn room.
With a plate of elephant ears in hand, Cara Day of Mahomet says she's there to see a historic event.
Mike Harroun nods.
"What could be more American than this?" he asks.