Hitting up the drive-in this summer
I am still kind of a loyalist to the 41 Twin. Long live the 41 Twin. Every time I drive past the spot where it was on South 27th Street, I look in awe at the spaceship of architecture that Northwestern Mutual placed on it bones. It’s for the best.
This is not to say that I haven’t enjoyed a drive-in since then. In fact, I have enjoyed quite a few in recent years. Wisconsin has 10 active outdoor drive-in movie theaters operating seasonally, down from the historic 78 that once existed. The open theaters within most reasonable driving distance are the Hwy. 18 Outdoor in Jefferson County and the Keno (now celebrating its 60th anniversary) in Kenosha County. There is a newly-built drive-in called Stardust in Chetek that looks amusing, as well as one in Door County called the Skyway that I’ve been dying to see — though I hear that it’s a bit rundown. But that’s half the charm these days.
The drive-in has been a part of Americana since 1933 when Richard Hollingshead figured out some logistics and the aptly named Drive-In Theatre was born in New Jersey. The love affair and permanent placement of what a drive-in looked like is rooted in the 1950s, when technological improvements and car-based leisure time became synonymous (though it’s unclear who the first baby conceived during a heavy petting session in a steamed-up vehicle may have been).
The ‘family’ experience of bringing the kids to a drive-in movie is still a popular notion. It’s not just some kind of sentimentality for what once was; it’s an economical and summer-y thing to do. A clear-weathered Saturday night in 2009 still finds the venues packed, though it’s a little odd that that much of this year’s slate is full of double-features I don’t care about: this weekend at the Hwy. 18 is Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian with a third feature, Taken, which must start practically at midnight.
There’s a lot of low-culture at the drive in, from slurpees and hot dogs to the bug spray and lawn chairs people often employ. I still prefer sitting in my car, using its stereo to tune in an FM frequency for superior surround sound. But occasionally, you have to get out and stretch or turn the motor over to preserve the battery. Car-mounted speakers are often still available for the old-schoolers.
This is an especially good week for the drive-in, as this Friday, July 10, sees the start of Wisconsin State Fair Park’s series of family-oriented drive-in movie events in the North Parking Lot. Friday is amusing with Shrek and American Graffiti on a double bill, but its Saturday’s E.T. and Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan that’s a double winner. Miller Park was the first to try its hand at showing fifth-run movies at an outdoor setting this past June showing Anchorman and Jaws on one night and Sandlot and Major League the next night. The set-up in the Miller Lot near the Klement’s Sausage Haus returns in August, with the park management leaving what should be shown next up to a poll.
But the alley lane king of set-ups may come in the form of a fish-fry and film series that Discovery World begins this Friday as well. Conveniently called Fish-Fry and a Flick, the drive-in aspect is eschewed in favor of a Lake Michigan-adjacent outdoor screen, and everyone brings their own blankets and chairs. The first movie choice is sublime — the Big Lebowski — followed by the subpar Kingpin.
Future choices as the summer progresses like Animal House and Pulp Fiction may be too easy, but unless it pours — which can happen at the drive-in but at least you have shelter — you will see me there for September 4 matching of Wizard of Oz with the Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. I am allergic to the mercury levels in cod, so I might have to save up for the $18 Lobster dinner being offered instead. It’s the Bartolotta catering and downtown Milwaukee clientele that will make this only a marginal low culture event. It’s like watching Top Chef when they ‘re-interpret’ the PB and J with top shelf ingredients.