By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jun 22, 2020 at 11:56 AM Photography: Molly Snyder

It's time for me to hand in my movie nerd membership card: Until this month, I’d never been to a drive-in movie theater. 

In my defense, drive-ins have been more like Blockbuster Video than blockbuster successes since I've been alive, disappearing more than they've been thriving. Growing up in Milwaukee, the last standing drive-in theater in town – the 41 Twin Outdoor in Franklin – rolled its end credits in 2001. At that point, I was just 11 years old and was just starting to actually like movies.

I was a late arrival to loving cinema; my first memory of being in a movie theater was having to be removed from "The Empire Strikes Back" because the THX sound effect at the start of the movie scared me. My ensuing trips back were no less traumatic and scarring, from "Jumanji" to "Runaway Brain," a Disney short film in which Mickey Mouse has his brain removed by a mad scientist and replaced with one belonging to a hulking monster, turning Mickey into a violent creature; this actually exists. Even "Free Willy" ruined my childhood nights of sleep to the point that my parents stopped bothering taking me to the movies. 

By the time my obsession with cinema started, the last drive-in in town was dead. The next closest one – the still-open and beloved Highway 18 – was almost an hour away and I was a little snob,  not wanting to go to see a movie with crummy projection and muddled sound (made all the worse since the film had to be viewed through a windshield, in a loud crowd of kids fooling around in cars). The movie was just background noise at drive-ins, I figured. I’d seen "Grease," after all, and that film is basically a documentary, famous for its authenticity and accuracy.

Later on, I worked at the local movie theater, where one of the few benefits was free movies, a privilege that I mercilessly abused. Why would I travel an hour to pay to see an assumably bad presentation of a movie I could see closer, better and for free?

While I’ve had plenty of excuses over the years for not going to the drive-in, things changed three months ago, when movie theaters became a casualty of COVID-19.

With the coronavirus outbreak, all of the city’s big screens shut down. And while Netflix and the rest of the streaming crowd helps pass the time, it's just not the same. It's just so easy to let yourself get distracted at home, and there's none of the collective electricity of seeing a movie in a crowd.

So, to steal a quote from a famous blockbuster, movie-going finds a way. What was once a dying part of cinema quickly became Hollywood’s lifeblood, a business pushed to the fringes of filmdom now central to keeping the communal experience alive, as drive-ins began popping up again across Milwaukee – from The Milky Way Drive-In in Franklin to the Parking Lot Cinema found fittingly at the Marcus Majestic in Brookfield (and soon at the South Shore in Oak Creek).

I no longer worked at the theater, I was no longer terrified of "Runaway Brain" playing before the featured presentation and I no longer had to drive an hour away to the closest outdoor screen. Gone were all my excuses – and after going through movie-going withdrawals, gone was all my patience too. It was finally time to see what I’d been missing at the drive-in. 

I snagged a friend (I’m normally fine going alone to the movies, but sitting alone at a drive-in seemed too tragic, even for me) and bought our tickets for a screening of the Jack Black comedy "School of Rock" earlier this month at The Milky Way – $35 per carload per movie, a little steep but a bargain with a filled vehicle and plus businesses still have to make money during these trying times.

My trip to The Milky Way

After driving through the Ballpark Commons' mild maze of parking lots (no worries; there are lots of signs), we found the drive-in and pulled into our seat – aka our parking spot – with just enough time before show time. At that point, I felt a something, an emotion once-familiar but almost forgotten over the last several months: that energetic collective buzz of a crowd excitedly waiting to watch a movie on the big screen. 

Of course, there was another emotion too, one all too common recently: worry about safety. Thankfully, those coronavirus concerns didn’t last long. Drive-ins are inherently social distanced; after all, with everyone watching comfortably from their cars – whether facing forward through the windshield or flipped around and lounging in the trunk. And at our showing, everyone politely stayed put in those two options, save for maybe some sitting in some lawn chairs close to their car anyways. There wasn’t much venturing further out from there, with the exceptionn of popping in for a bathroom break. 

There is a concessions stand at The Milky Way – found far off inside the Milwaukee Milkmen stadium behind the screen – operating with social distancing enforced; but you don’t have to hoof it over there, if you'd prefer not to. There’s an app that lets you order snacks and soda during the movie, which are delivered via a carhop. There was also a beer cart conveniently and fairly quietly making the rounds throughout the show. Plus, if we’re being honest, during my masked walk over to the concession stand I saw plenty of snacks and drinks in neighboring cars that you couldn’t find on The Milky Way menu (despite the venue’s rules about carry-in items).

Enough of the previews, though. It’s time to talk about the featured presentation: How was watching the actual movie?

First impressions

Well, as a former projectionist who can be rather particular and snobby about how a movie looks or sounds – who can tell when a bulb is on its last legs (aka all too often at modern cinemas) and not only knows what the masking is but knows that most movie theaters don’t bother to change it for different film presentations – I can confidently say that modern drive-ins pass the test.

The screen appeared a little small at first glimpse – though we were fairly far back, so that might’ve been the issue. (The Milky Way uses a 40-foot screen, with Marcus’ only slightly bigger at 42 feet. The Highway 18, on the other hand, stretches more than twice that at 90 feet.) But when the movie started, size wasn’t a problem.

Every single one of Dewey Finn’s wild rocking facial expressions was bright and clear on screen – even more impressive considering the movie started at 7:45 p.m., well before things had gotten particularly dark. Not once was I frustrated by a dimmed picture or glare from the sun muddying the image. I’ve seen far worse at legitimate movie theaters – and this is including the fact that we were watching through the front windshield, which wasn’t a problem. (And if it is … do you not have wipers?)

The same goes for the sound quality. The Milky Way has outdoor speakers playing the movie for those watching from lawn chairs or from an opened trunk, but the best way to hear the film is over FM radio frequency. While it wasn’t Dolby Atmos surround sound, the audio came in almost shockingly crystal clear – so much so that you could easily forget that the sound was coming from your car and not from the movie itself. "Step Off," "School of Rock" and "It’s A Long Way To the Top" all sounded as outstanding as they did when I first heard the kids of Horace Green Prep School play them back in 2003.

Just maybe make sure the car’s battery is well juiced up before rolling up if you’re planning on listening with this method so you don’t get a disappointing post-credits sequence cameo from a tow truck. 

The verdict: "School of Rock" is still a really great movie! But most of all, a drive-in is a totally viable way to see a movie, during these unusual times or just whenever. I went in dubious of how good it could be, writing it off as a kitschy experience; but I left with those misconceptions shattered. In fact, it was an experience so nice, I decided to do it twice. It only took me 29 years and 11 months to see my first drive-in movie, and 29 years, 11 months and one week to see my second.

Indiana Jones in a parking lot

For my encore, I tried out Marcus Theatres’ Parking Lot Cinema for an Indiana Jones double feature of "Temple of Doom" and "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." (Nah, just kidding; they played the two good ones.) 

I’m glad to report that, first of all, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is still a masterpiece – but, more important to the purpose of this article, their drive-in experience is solid as well. The ticketing situation is simple and contact-free, and the concessions system is simple – and even if you get confused, you receive paper instructions when you arrive to help guide you through it. The sound once again was crystal clear through my FM radio, and the picture looked great on the side of the Majestic – though I think it’s impossible for "Raiders of the Lost Ark" to look bad. 

My only complaint on the presentation is that – from my angle – my car’s driver’s side frame blocked some of the screen; but that’s honestly more to blame on my poor parking job than anything. I also admit that, to make sure we got home without falling asleep at the wheel, we bailed before the second movie, which was more the fault of human weakness and an idiotic sleep schedule than the drive-in. Judging by the fair amount of cars joining in a post-"Raiders" evacuation, however, perhaps the double features could start a bit earlier than 9 p.m.

In the end, the only true criticism I have of the drive-ins is I’d love to see more variety and risk in the selections – especially with booking some new releases. Parking Lot Cinema is sticking with retro classics right now with some recent blockbusters ("The Avengers," "Furious 7") on the upcoming slate, while The Milky Way has a larger selection of similarly familiar territory.

Obviously much of this is because Hollywood isn’t releasing much right now, but there are some smaller new films out there – the horror flick "The Wretched" has actually become a small hit thanks to drive-ins across the country – and I’d love to see our drive-ins go out on a limb and show some fresh material. I imagine I might get my wish if and when bigger tentpoles, like "Tenet" and "Mulan," arrive to audiences still wary of indoor theaters. 

Frankly, though, I’m just happy to have crossed this long-awaited item off my cinephile bucket list (I’m coming for you next, Highway 18) and even happier to know that, during a time when seeing a movie inside a building is perhaps too risky or merely strange, the drive-in can safely and satisfyingly provide the quality big screen escapism that I’ve missed so much.

It wasn't just a stopgap; it was truly cinema. They may have returned under auspicious circumstances, but from what I experienced in my first two trips, the drive-in is a rare positive during these times, a part of this new normal that should stay a part of the norm once more. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.