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In Movies & TV

Once-beloved drive-ins now fading fast


Drive-in movie theaters once prospered as cinemas under the stars. No longer. These venues were typically located in the scenic landscapes on the outskirts of bustling metropolitan centers. With the need to escape the urban jungle, many took flight to greener pastures in the 1970s.

Developers claimed the land as prime real estate and once an assessment was made, "for sale" signs followed. Across the country, drive-in theaters and the open spaces around them became extinct like dodo birds of ancient times.

Wisconsin outdoor theaters were not excluded from this endangered species list. Peaking to 73 some 30 years ago, less than a dozen have survived. Even around the Milwaukee area, 13 drive-ins thrived before the last of the Mohicans, the Giant 41-Twin, was torn down as the new millennium loomed.

Today, one has to drive to Kenosha or Jefferson or even the Wisconsin Dells to catch of glimpse of what once stood as an American icon.

Millions of moviegoers loved to watch first-run Hollywood feature films from behind the steering wheel. Drive-ins were a popular family affair. While mom and pop shared the front seat, the kiddies camped out in the back. These outdoor cinemas were part of the leisure fabric of our land.

This was Richard Hollingshead vision. As the father of the drive-in, he opened the first in-your-car convenience drive-in theater in Camden, NJ during the summer of 1933. By the mid-1950s, his single seed sprouted into 3,775 nationwide.

Life seemed simple back then. Drive up to the big screen; pull up to the speaker system; roll down your car window; and hook up the sound box. You never had to leave the privacy of your vehicle unless you wanted refreshments or to visit the john. Heck, some drive-ins offered "talk-back" systems whereby you'd push a button on the side of those bulky speakers to place an order for beverages and snacks just like at the car hop.

On nice summer nights, you could even bring lawn chairs or throw-blankets and cuddle on the hood of your car to watch double and sometimes, triple features.

But by the 1970s, many drive-ins began to close when city-folk fancied the country lifestyle and developers saw dollars signs on property these theaters occupied. Cornfields and drive-ins soon turned into sprawling subdivisions.

Competition also came in the form of strip malls which piggybacked uptown expansion. These lush, clean warehouse facilities took the concept of the great-outdoors and moved it indoors. They quickly became known as multiplex theaters (multiple screens), hyped with large concessions and restrooms, comfy seating and state-of-the-art sound systems. Drive-ins were labeled rural and outdated. And, many of them were. Some owners elected not to re-invest in up-keep. When the speakers and heaters and projectors failed, and giant screens became weathered, moviegoers took the high road, too.

Before the 1990s drew to a close, less than 600 drive-ins dotted the country and realtors turned acres of land into office parks.

Milwaukee's drive-ins suffered a similar fate.

The Bluemound Drive-in was located at 161st and Bluemound road in Brookfield. This was the first drive-in theater in Wisconsin. Originally opened in 1939, its last showing came in 1981. This theater has long since been replaced with shopping malls and restaurants.

The Victory Drive-in was located at 156th (Pilgrim Road) and Lisbon Avenue. The claim of this drive-in theater was that it was the "world's most beautiful drive-in". It was located in a wooded area and had hills on the north and east sides. It was a large drive-in theater when it was in operation. Now, it's a subdivision.

The 57 Outdoor was located just north of Grafton on Highway 57. The projection building stood for the longest time, eventually converted into an animal shelter.

The Franklin 100 was on Hwy. 100 in Franklin and closed more than 20 years ago. The screen used to be visible from the highway. Rumor has it that some episodes of "Happy Days" were filmed there.

The Starlite was in Menomonee Falls overlooking Hwys. 41 and 45. The Starlite was unique for an outdoor theater in Milwaukee because it marquee lit-up like a Las Vegas Casino. It closed in the 1990s and is now part of an elaborate business district.

The 24 Outdoor was on Janesville Road in Muskego. It originally had two screens and until recent housing developments sprung up along the main road of this community, the marquee was a reminder of what once was.

The 15 Outdoor was located at 145th and West National Avenue. And like most, the wide-open spaces and acres of farm land gave way to suburban development. The drive-in was replaced by a medical clinic.

The 16 Outdoor was on the west end of Oconomowoc off Hwy. 16. A city park replaced the old theater in the mid-1970s.

Racine's Mid-City Outdoor on Hwy 32 was replaced by an apartment complex while the Westgate on Hwy 20 is now part of a shopping mall.

The Slinger Outdoor, off Hwys. 60 and 175 gave way to a trucking company in the 1970s.

The 59 Outdoor in Waukesha became a go-kart track before a car wash and storage rental company took over the property. For years after its closing, the marquee stood weathered and decayed. It has since been torn down.

And the 41-Twin Drive-in, on 27th and Ryan Road in Franklin, has been turned into an office park for Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company which will open for business very soon.

What's left?

Thirty miles south of Milwaukee you'll find the Keno Drive-in in Kenosha. Thirty miles west of town, the 18 Outdoor in Jefferson flourishes. And for the adventurous family weekend outing, The Big Sky Drive-in in the Wisconsin Dells is still open for business.

The Keno is on Hwy 32 at 91st street. It operates during the summer months. The screen is unique compared to most skeletal structures. The Keno screen is a stair-stepped modern version.

The 18 Outdoor is located at the corner of Hwys. 18 and 89. The drive-in was recently sold to new owners, who restored it.

The Big Sky, once called the Winnebago Drive-in, has a pair of screens. Located on Hwys. 16 and 127, it's open only during the summer.

Some die-hards trust that drive-ins will make a comeback. Just like landmark movie theaters, many baby boomers long to save to their childhood dreams of what going to the movies was like.

However, is it too late? Much of the countryside has been paved over. Some believe overgrowth will soon result in vacant malls and perhaps, a rebirth of the silver screen under open skies.

Talkbacks

KarenJeffries | July 16, 2010 at 6:43 p.m. (report)

Come to Kenosha, and the KENO FAMILY DRIVE-IN THEATRE, still going strong.

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Poeartemer | June 14, 2008 at 1:34 p.m. (report)

I wish they still had Drive-ins I would go.....nothing better on a hot Summer night! It helps to have good company also!!!

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