After the COVID-19 pandemic halted the 57th year of Ham on Regal at Ferris High School, the “baker’s dozen” of involved parents, as they call themselves, wanted to stay connected.
What they did at first looked like many other groups of families and friends: game nights over video chat, picking up groceries for one another and coordinating no-contact supplies drop-offs through the Internet.
Then a discussion about grouping cars together for a movie night led to a novel idea.
Bryan Rhodes decided he could create a miniature drive-in theater behind his home near Moran Prairie Elementary.
The Rhodes family already had a video projector it used for camping and a large tarp for a screen. With his background in general contracting, Bryan Rhodes fashioned a frame out of two-by-fours for the screen to hang from the eves of his shop.
The last piece of the puzzle was an FM transmitter for each car to play the movie audio over the radio. The eBay purchase arrived in the mail just in time for the Rhodes’ first showing on March 27.
The Ham on Regal parents, with their affinity for singing and dancing, picked “The Greatest Showman” as the first film, naturally.
Moviegoers sang along so loudly that people in the next car over could hear, said Nicole Malubay, whose son is a freshman at Ferris.
“It lets you know you’re not alone,” Malubay said.
“I think it’s fun to have something to look forward to and get out of their own houses and still follow the rules,” said Lisa Rhodes, Bryan’s wife, who is working from home for Bank of America. “You’re in your car isolated, but still you’re a part of a group.”
The Rhodes have shown about four or five movies each week for several cars at a time since then. The film depends largely on who is coming.
The Ham on Regal parents chose “Top Gun” for their second movie on Saturday night. But the selections for the Rhodes’ family members and their daughters’ friends have varied widely.
“What amazed us was how excited people get,” Bryan Rhodes said. “Even after the second or third time they’ve been here.”
Now the Rhodes are trying to share the experience with more people they know.
On Thursday, a family friend planned to use the Rhodes’ drive-in theater as an 18th birthday celebration. The Rhodes also offered to host a friend who has been working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic as a doctor.
“It’s just the ability to brighten someone’s day,” Lisa Rhodes said. “It was just a crazy idea that Bryan brought to life for people to hang out together.”
Jeremy Kish, a parent of a Ferris senior who met the Rhodes through Ham on Regal, said the drive-in has been a getaway from his work as a local firefighter, as well as for his wife working from home.
Kish’s youngest daughter, the Ferris senior, will miss out on things like graduation and prom due to prolonged school closures.
His middle daughter had her study abroad experience in Italy cut short this semester.
But the movie nights have afforded new opportunities, said Kish, such as strengthening friendships formed during the Ham on Regal production and sharing with his daughters the drive-in movie experience he had as a kid.
“Even though we have our windows up and are all watching a movie,” Kish said, “it’s still nice to be there with all the people you care about.”
Malubay said the movie nights have been a chance for her to still have a date night with her husband. She said her son has enjoyed the chance to get some space from his parents while stuck at home.
“They definitely continue to give us sanity,” Malubay said.
“We literally go in our PJs and we pop popcorn. We make it like we’re at home watching a movie.”
Malubay said the move nights are also a reminder for people to use their imaginations to connect with others.
“I think most people are thinking about what they can’t do and not what they can,” said Malubay, whose work as a Realtor has slowed down.
“Just going through this together made us closer than what we would have been.”
Editor’s note: The headline of this story was updated to reflect that Ham on Regal organizers put on three shows before the production was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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