Starlight Movies in the Park brings outdoor entertainment to Evanston community

Starlight+Concert+in+2016.+Organized+by+the+Department+of+Parks%2C+Recreation+%26+Community+Services%2C+Starlight+Movies+in+the+Park+screens+throughout+different+wards+in+the+city+every+Saturday+at+dusk%2C+with+exceptions+in+August

Daily file photo by David Fishman

Starlight Concert in 2016. Organized by the Department of Parks, Recreation & Community Services, Starlight Movies in the Park screens throughout different wards in the city every Saturday at dusk, with exceptions in August

April Li, Reporter

This summer and fall, Evanston residents flocked to Starlight Movies in the Park, ready for a safe night filled with movies under the stars with their families.

Organized by the Department of Parks, Recreation & Community Services, the Starlight Series screens movies in parks throughout different wards in the city every Saturday at dusk, and more frequently in August. This year, attendees are required to adhere to public health guidelines, including social distancing and wearing face coverings.

Even though the series typically takes place only in August, coordinator Michelle Tompkins said the department extended it this year as an opportunity for people to leave their houses and safely gather amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“(Starlight Movies in the Park) have probably played a more important role than ever before,” Tompkins said. “They have allowed that socialization aspect that everybody is just so wanting.”

Tompkins manages and operates the equipment, in addition to selecting some of the movies. She said she tailors her choices to each location, looking at the demographics of audiences in past years.

In South Evanston’s Baker Park, for example, Tompkins said, she usually picks cartoons and children’s movies because of the younger families she typically sees.

“There’s no rhyme or rhythm to it,” though, Tompkins said. “There’s no algorithm I use, other than just a feeling that I have.”

Along with popular children’s movies and blockbusters, Tompkins has also chosen films that can appeal to older audiences, such as “Just Mercy,” the film adaptation of lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson’s book by the same name, which is this year’s One Book One Northwestern selection.

Tompkins added she hopes the movie choices can encourage college students, couples without children and retired couples to attend as well.

“Movies in the Park is not just for families,” she said. “It’s not just for people who have children. It should be something that brings people out, that allows people of every age and demographic to come out.”

Evanston resident Mike Greenstone attended multiple screenings this year after seeing the event on Facebook, sometimes with his wife and mother. He said the event provides a relaxing outdoor activity.

“It’s always fun to see other people around, even if you don’t know them,” he said.

As a frequent movie-goer, Greenstone said the outdoor showings provide a different experience from movie theaters, especially during the pandemic.

At the theater, he said, it’s harder to social distance and he would have to worry about ventilation. The Starlight Movies in the Park series also gave him an opportunity on Aug. 8 to see “Trolls World Tour,” a movie that had a limited theater release.

“It was fun and something organized I could go do,” he said. “They had a nice big park where there was plenty of room to distance.”

Jaquelyn Lowe, another Evanston resident, has been bringing her children to Starlight Movies for many years. She said the outdoor events provide a treat for her kids because they get to stay up late and watch movies with their friends.

“For my kids, it’s magical,” she said. “It’s a nice excuse for everyone to get together and talk and eat fun food together and do something together in a way that feels like family.”

The next and final Movie in the Park of the year will be “Moana,” which will screen Nov. 7 at Twiggs Park.

Tompkins said the Starlight Series is unique to Evanston, offering high-quality programming for free. She said she enjoys watching families bring their dinners and reconnecting with people at the movie screenings.

“Seeing the joy and just how peaceful people are, for me, that’s the epitome of why I do what I do,” she said. “It can bring people together.”

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