Of 355 drive-in movie theaters still in existence from Maine to California, few have the charm and ambiance of the Field of Dreams complex in rural Henry County, near Liberty Center, Ohio.
Built on the same property where the owners live, Field of Dreams borrows from the popular 1989 movie of the same name starring Kevin Costner, whose character, Ray Kinsella, plowed his farm under so he could turn it into a baseball diamond. For the drive-in, Rod and Donna Saunders planted grass instead of crops in 2007 and, after consulting a makeshift handbook offered over the Internet for $20 by a Texas do-it-yourselfer, the couple installed its first movie screen with the help of muscular neighbors.
The idea was to start a business that would involve the whole family and feed the couple’s desire to help preserve the wholesome, nearly extinct drive-in atmosphere they grew up with in nearby Wauseon. Their youngest son, Rockne, 19, who has cerebral palsy, is one of the most popular employees.
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Give yourself extra time if you go. Getting lost is half the fun. By mid-summer, Field of Dreams — tucked away on quiet, two-lane Township Road 6 — can be surrounded by so much corn that you can miss its narrow, dirt-path entrance. It is so far removed from freeways and billboards that Mrs. Saunders posts her cell phone number on the theater’s Web site with instructions to “tell her what road you are on” if you are lost. It’s one of many ways the Saunders show their down-home hospitality.
Where else can you get homemade pizza delivered to your automobile by attaching a flashing car flag to your window? But what really separates this drive-in theater are the stars. Not the movie stars. The skyward ones. There is so little light pollution in that part of northwest Ohio that viewers are known to occasionally let their minds wander and gaze upward.
The Saunders now have two Field of Dreams drive-ins. They are managed by Mr. Saunders, who handles the the original complex. The couple’s oldest son, Denton, 23, of Fremont, manages the sister complex near Tiffin, which the Saunders purchased in 2011. Both Rod and Denton also are schoolteachers.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of drive-in theaters. America once had nearly 5,000 of them. They gave way as cities sprawled into the country, driving up rural land values as more people and businesses moved to suburbia.
Field of Dreams is a throwback, not just to the drive-in movie era. But it also is a testament to the spirit of entrepreneurs. The Saunders are not farmers, but used to lease their land to others who are. They got into the drive-in theater business just before the global financial crisis of 2008 and have grown. Proceeds helped put Denton through college at Bowling Green State University and have helped pay tuition for the couple’s daughter, Callan, 21, now a senior at Eastern Michigan University.
“Literally, our neighbors are farmers who came out and helped us build the screens,” Mrs. Saunders, a self-professed computer geek, said. “It’s amazing the friends you have in life.”
Contact Tom Henry at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6079.