For drive-in devotees, there's nothing like movies under the stars
Jane Burns

Jan and Dean blast through speakers, cars with tailfins dot the parking lot and hot dogs dance across the screen.

Add the unmistakable smell of popcorn wafting across a field, and there's only one place on Earth this could be -- a drive-in movie theater.

So what if Jan and Dean's music is actually on compact disc, the tailfinned cars belong to collectors and the dancing hot dog footage was found on eBay. It's a perfect Saturday night. Try telling any one of the happy crowd at Jefferson's Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre that this form of entertainment is a relic from the past.

"We have TiVo, we have our HDTV at home, but this is a life experience," said Bob Elias of Hartland. "The TV will all be there tomorrow."

Increasingly and unexpectedly, it looks as if drive-in theaters will be, too.

Seventy-five years after the first drive-in theater opened in Camden, N.J., drive-ins are finding a niche with new generations. It's a stretch to say they're making a comeback, but the era of the continually disappearing drive-ins has been replaced with a plateau in which old drive-ins are being reclaimed and a few new ones being built.

That's even true in Wisconsin. On Memorial Day weekend, the Stardust Drive-In at Chetek, in northern Wisconsin, opened for business.

"The nostalgia stuff is kicking in now," said Charles Bruss, who maintains an extensive Web site, www.drive-inthruwisconsin.com, on Wisconsin drive-ins and is working on a book on the topic. "Families want to reconnect a bit and are saying, 'You know what? We always had a good time at the drive-in.' "

'People thank me for being open'

While drive-ins are nowhere near the peak of 4,063 they hit in 1958, they have leveled off and held steady at several hundred theaters in the United States. The new theater opening in up north brings the total in the state to 10.

"It's become a niche business," said Lee Burgess, who has owned the Highway 18 since 2000. "I can't tell you how many times people have come up to me and said, 'I've never been to a drive-in in my life.'

"Having said that, there are people who love the drive-in movie theater. It's the only business I've had where people thank me for being open. That's unusual for any business."

Moviegoers in the Madison area are fortunate in that they have options, if they're willing to hit the road. There's the Highway 18 in Jefferson, a half-hour east of Madison; the Sky-Vu in Monroe, 40 minutes south; and the Big Sky in Wisconsin Dells, 45 minutes northeast.

Yet there are those, still, who mourn for the drive-ins that the city once had.

Madison native Don Dzikowski, who now lives in Kearny, N.J., remembers the Big Sky marquee as being the western border of Madison. The west side theater, technically in the town of Middleton, opened in 1954 and closed in 1985. The Badger, on the east side, opened in 1948, expanded to a four-plex in 1979 and closed in 1989. For a year, even Blue Mounds had a drive-in when one opened as part of the Pleasure Valley resort in 1950, but it closed a year later.

"The drive-ins used to have such great atmosphere," said Dzikowski, 47. "At the multiplex, it's just not the same. There is something exciting about being able to watch a movie outdoors, below the stars and the moon, in the fresh night air."

Dzikowski has collected old newspaper advertisements from the city's drive-ins and is trying to compile a list of all the movies that ever played at the Big Sky.

Bruss also has an extensive collection of memorabilia, some of it pertaining to the Madison area drive-ins. The ads and the promotions clearly beckon a time gone by.

Passion pits

The first drive-in theater opened on June 6, 1933, the brainchild of auto parts salesman Richard Hollingshead. Hollingshead had patented the idea, so while the drive-in was popular, growth was slow because few wanted to bother with the legalities of opening their own place.

World War II put a damper on construction and the car culture, but after the war ended and Hollingshead's patent was ruled invalid, the drive-in boom was on.

"When they were springing up everywhere, the baby boomers were springing up everywhere and all the families wanted somewhere to go," Bruss said. "You could bring the kids, you didn't have to dress up, you could smoke."

Those kids grew up and went to the drive-ins with their dates, creating the theaters' reputations as "passion pits."

Bruss' memorabilia recalls the drive-ins' popularity and the lengths they would go to distinguish themselves from other theaters and each other.

When the Big Sky opened in 1954, part of the promotion was "free Hawaiian orchids for the first 500 ladies" to see the films "I Love Melvin" and "Ride Vaquero."

In the 1950s, the Big Sky featured a clown and pony rides. A 1960 advertisement touts the drive-ins' trampolines ("It's bouncing fun!").

In 1955, a young Charlton Heston made a promotional appearance at the Badger, plugging his film "The Private War of Major Benson."

"I can only imagine what it was like at the Badger when Charlton Heston was there," Bruss said.

In 1964, the Badger had a promotional stunt in which a man was buried alive without food or water for three days. Moviegoers could look at him through a viewing tube, as they did at other theaters on his tour. The man lived.

"It's one of those things that made drive-ins what they were: different from an indoor theater."

In the early 1970s at the Badger, anyone going to see a horror triple feature had to sign a "Certificate of Assurance" that they were of sound mind and good health to see "The Corpse Grinders," "The Undertaker and His Pals," and "The Embalmer."

Over the decades, the drive-ins' reputation as a wholesome place to go was replaced by a rowdier image: that of teenagers causing trouble. The image only got worse when in the 1970s, many drive-ins began showing X-rated movies.

"As bad as that was, a lot of drive-in movie theaters stayed open because of it," Bruss said.

The biggest problem was that due to sprawl, those theaters that were once out in the country were now in suburban neighborhoods.

Bruss said that was a particular problem for the 16 Outdoor in Oconomowoc.

"At night, some families couldn't let their kids out to play because you've got a 50-foot naked woman standing there," he said. "A windstorm came and knocked that screen down, and I was talking to someone who said it was like the hand of God came crashing down. They never rebuilt it."

Even without the threat of divine wrath, drive-ins had other challenges to deal with, such as multiplexes, cable TV and rising real estate prices. The Big Sky and the Badger were both swallowed up by real estate development. The Point Cinemas 16-plex sits near the Big Sky's old site; in fact, the address for the multiplex is 7825 Big Sky Drive. An office park on North Stoughton Road near the airport and Madison Area Technical College sits where the Badger once did.

The late 1970s and '80s were particularly harsh on drive-ins. From 1978 to 1988, more than 1,000 drive-ins shut down, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. Many owners sold out in the real estate boom. Some just left their unprofitable businesses to rot.

On with the show!

Since the end of the '90s, however, the drive-in business has settled into a plateau of around 400 theaters. With dedicated independent owners and the ability to show first-run films, a new generation is discovering the drive-in.

That's what makes the Highway 18 a popular spot on a nice summer night. Some patrons arrive two or more hours in advance to get their spot and then play Scrabble or cards, or toss a ball back and forth to pass the time.

Matt and Cindy Haas of Waterloo bring their three children to the drive-in, continuing a family tradition.

"When my husband and I dated, a few of our dates were here," she said. "Then we got married and bring our kids, too."

Drive-ins now emphasize a family atmosphere. With studios taking most of the box office, drive-ins now rely on their concession stands to make money. At the Highway 18, Burgess doesn't allow carry-in food or drink. No alcohol is allowed, but he does have a "satellite concession stand" that is a bar that closes just before the main feature starts. The bar includes retro games, such as Electro Dart, a rifle game called Arctic Gun, a shuffleboard bowling game and bubble hockey.

"I have some pretty strict policies, but I've ended up with some really nice crowds," Burgess said. "Every year the crowds just get nicer and nicer."

Even with the family emphasis, that old drive-in reputation lingers.

"At work, when I said we were coming here, I was told not to get pregnant tonight," said Lynn Pavilonis, 55, who was at the Highway 18 with her husband, Bob Elias.

Burgess tips his hat to the old-time drive-ins. He shows old commercials during intermission and has occasional special appearances from Dr. Ivan Cryptosis, the horror movie host from the Wisconsin Historical Society's annual October horror fest. A Memorial Day weekend triple feature had a new independent film, "Cave Women on Mars," that was a tribute to the kind of '50s sci-fi movies that drive-ins would show in their heyday.

That brought Dzikowski out to Jefferson on a visit back to Wisconsin, and he also takes his family out there, too.

"Some drive-ins are just a board in a field, but the Highway 18 is how it should be," Dzikowski said.