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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 33.0° F  Overcast
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Wisconsin drive-ins are threatened by the conversion to digital projection
See 'em while you can
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Jefferson's Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre has been lovingly restored to its 1953 glory. For more photos, click gallery, above.
Credit:Sharon Vanorny

If you've never been to a real, all-American drive-in movie theater, you better go now. In a year, all but the strongest will be dead, thanks to a radical change in film projection.

Wisconsin once boasted 79 drive-ins. Now there are 10. Four remain within easy driving distance of Madison, offering a rare glimpse of theater thrills from summers past.

Today, many are content to watch blockbusters on handheld screens the size of fists. But once, we preferred to put pajama-clad kids in the backs of our station wagons to see the latest epic on a big, big screen: as much as 140 feet across (nearly twice the size of a standard Imax). Comfortable in our cars or lazing on a blanket, with stars overhead and crickets at hand, perhaps with our first love, we participated in a communal cinema event.

Also, we saved a bundle. A double feature for the whole family? Maybe with pony rides before and fireworks after?

The bargains remain, but the surviving venues are threatened. Hollywood demands expensive conversion to digital projection. One year from this month, there will simply be no new 35-millimeter releases to project.

Both indoor and outdoor theaters are threatened. The National Association of Theatre Owners estimates that the country will lose 20% of its cinemas - around 10,000 screens. Hardest hit will be drive-ins, who face a 50% up-charge for special outdoor equipment.

The cost for conversion per screen starts at $75,000. In an industry where profits lie primarily in concessions, that's a whole lot of popcorn.

"Yeah. And we're making it as fast as we can," says Bill Muth, who owns Richland Center's threatened Starlite 14 with his wife, Lisa.

"That's the thing I worry about for drive-ins. They can't afford it," says Charles Bruss, a West Allis resident who oversees the encyclopedic drive-inthruwisconsin.com. He's also working on a parallel book about Wisconsin drive-ins past and present. Bruss notes that profit margins for all theaters are small.

"I think people forget that when Avengers opened up with $200 million for the weekend - which is crazy - the studio is getting about 90% of every dollar during the first week," he says.

Madison once had two drive-ins, the Big Sky, today the site of Marcus Point Cinema, and the Badger Outdoor, on Highway 51, opposite what today is Madison College. But this is not a story about nostalgia. It's about highly recommended summer outings.

So here are the four drive-ins within easy driving range of Madison, all of them family-owned.

Starlite 14
U.S. 14 East, Richland Center

This lovely 300-car drive-in set in a rural valley evokes Field of Dreams imagery. People come from as far away as Milwaukee and Minnesota for the experience. Some others come, too.

"We've had as many as 23 or 24 dogs in there on any one night, and believe it or not, all the dogs know the other dogs are there but they don't cause a fuss," says Bill Muth. "I had someone come in with two baby 'coons one night. Everybody had to go look at 'em, you know."

The Starlite opened in 1952. It operates Fridays through Sundays, and Muth personally runs the box office. Despite its pastoral charm, the Starlite is severely threatened by digital conversion.

The Muths also own the town's indoor Center Cinema Twins. "If we lose one, we lose them all," says Muth. That's because they rely on package booking for all three of their screens. Like other theaters across the country, the family has started a fundraising campaign.

"We've got an awful lot of people out here that really want to help out," says Muth. "We are kind of a low-income area, but when it comes to the drive-in it doesn't seem to stop anybody from going, when they realize the value they get.

"I can tell you that most of the people coming here have all told me to do whatever I can not to close it, because they think it's the greatest thing in the world. They love to bring their kids here. We've got a big front lawn in front of the screen where kids can run and burn off energy. Families, they come in with lawn chairs and blankets, get 'em out on the ground in front of the cars on a nice summer's night, looking up at the big screen - there's just no comparison."

For information on show times and the fundraising campaign, visit www.richlandmovies.com or phone 608-647-3669.

Big Sky Twin Drive-In Theatre
N9199 Winnebago Rd., Wisconsin Dells

The main feature of this 1953 drive-in is its two screens of nightly double features.

It's run by Mary Bork, whose late parents, Dorothy and Donald "Red" LeGros, bought it in 1980. Her husband is a farmer.

"I like it," Bork says. "It doesn't seem like a lot of hours, but it is, because I do all the painting and repair myself. Cleaning - everything."

The specialty of the house is the Mamaburger, a third-pound of ground chuck steak, invented by Bork's mother. Her dad was an old theater hand from Arcadia, Wis.

The Big Sky's primary audience is Dells tourists. "It's a pretty reasonable night out for a family," Bork notes.

The drive-in has yet to go digital. It can accommodate around 225 to 245 vehicles.

Bork says the restrooms are wheelchair accessible. For show times, visit www.bigskydrivein.com or phone 608-254-8025.

Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre
W6315 U.S. 18, Jefferson

Lovingly restored to its 1953 glory, this became the first Wisconsin drive-in to go digital, last year. Lee Burgess owns it, and runs it with his wife, Hollis.

"My music teacher was a projectionist at a local theater, so I used take my music lessons up in the booth," recalls the Chicago native.

After serving in the U.S. Navy and enjoying a successful career as a management consultant, Burgess was in semi-retirement in 1999 when he noticed Jefferson's drive-in. It had had been left "dormant and rotting" for four or five years following bankruptcy.

"It was pretty much on a whim that I bought it," he recalls. "Then I spent about a year restoring it. Everything's pretty much the same as it was when it was built. I've got the old-fashioned [car window] speakers on the first six rows, I've got a very neat retro road sign that a lot of people take pictures of."

Drive-in buffs universally praise Highway 18's menu, which includes vegetarian entrees.

"We have a supper club that I own, behind the screen, which I converted into a satellite concession stand and bar," he says. "We open on the weekends for the drive-in crowd. In one of my previous lives I was a trained brewmaster, so we have some micro-brewed beers here on tap.

The Highway 18 fits around 550 vehicles comfortably. The lot is all grass, and features a playground. The drive-in shows double and triple features.

"There's also an independent film guy up in Minnesota who once a year makes a kind of drive-in style monster movie, so we always premiere that over here," says Burgess.

"The other thing we do, which drive-ins used to do all the time, is the dusk-to-dawn show. You hardly see that at all anymore. We do that every year, the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. Anybody who stays 'til dawn gets a free breakfast."

The Highway 18 is open nightly. It's at the corner of Highways 18 and 89, two miles west of town. For information on show times, visit www.highway18.com or phone 920-674-6700.

Sky-Vu Drive-In
1936 Wisconsin 69, Monroe

It opened in 1954, but for the family that runs it, the Sky-Vu is a newcomer.

"My family has been in the theater business back since the 1920s," says Duke Goetz. "My great-uncle started it up and then my grandfather joined him. They went out showing movies in auditoriums in Wisconsin and Minnesota." In 1931 they opened the first of three Goetz Theatre screens in downtown Monroe.

The Sky-Vu went digital this spring. Among its features is a large grassy area for recreation before shows. Then there is the concession menu, which includes Nathan's Famous quarter-pound hot dogs and the Sky-Vu pizza, made with a blend of four cheeses, including a Green County variety that was recently awarded the world championship.

"I really don't give out what that cheese is," notes Goetz. "I've actually had people come - they stay at bed-and-breakfasts in Monroe - and they come to the drive-in for our pizza."

The Sky-Vu pulls audience members of every description from Iowa and Illinois. "We've had people come in motorcycles," says Goetz. "I've had the highest-quality Mercedes-Benz and Lexus roll in there. I've had other cars that should have been part of the cash-for-clunkers program. I've had the semi tractor-trailer guys come in. It's everybody."

Having taken part in many changes to cinema since the silent era, the Sky-Vu converted to digital relatively quickly, and Goetz couldn't be more pleased.

"After I saw the picture - it's unbelievable," he says. "I think it's better than the indoors - the clarity and color, the brightness, sharpness. I just drove down there the other night, and probably a good half-mile away that screen is just nice and bright."

It's all a lot of work, says Goetz, and the seasonal nature of northern states' drive-ins is unfortunate. "I wish we could be open longer, because the number of people we get is just phenomenal, and everyone seems to have a good time."

Another recent improvement: wheelchair-accessible restrooms.

The Sky-Vu can accommodate more than 400 vehicles. It's open nightly. For information on show times, visit www.goetzskyvu.com or phone 608-325-4545.

Finally, from way up north, in Chetek, comes some hopeful if late news for outdoor cinema fans everywhere. While drive-ins across the country are vanishing, the town boldly launched the Stardust drive-in five years ago. Today it has two screens, and it's doing well.

The irony is rich. The first screen for this brand-new entertainment throwback was - really - built by the Amish.

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