Brian Jacobson
Deep-Fried Romantic

On Mosquitoes and Cinema

By - May 5th, 2010 04:00 am

A few weeks ago, very quietly, the Keno and the Hwy 18 Outdoor opened for the season. For those that may not be aware, there are two great drive-in theaters within a 45-minute drive of Milwaukee that operate at near-full capacities during the summer. Those staying overnight in Door County or Madison might enjoy the Skyway in Fish Creek or the Sky-Vu outside Monroe. Even Milwaukee entrepreneurs got in on the action in 2009 by offering cult and classic movies on rigged outdoor screens outside Discovery World and Miller Park.

There is a sort of remaining nostalgia for the Americana idea of watching B-films under the stars from the comfort of your vehicle — something that started in Wisconsin on Bluemound Road in 1940 and quickly spread. The problem with this notion (locally or otherwise) is that the demographic most likely to remember the good old days can’t stay up late enough to enjoy it. Shows start after dusk, which can be 8:30 or 9 p.m. in July, and the second feature often starts after 10 p.m. Many show the latest, loudest action blockbusters or kiddie fare that don’t appeal much to the senior set.

What remains now is a kind of re-birth, or an act of forgetting the past. The enjoyment of the outdoor theater now comes from the basic pleasures of modern-day moviegoing without too many nods to the past beyond remaining original architecture. The snack bar is filled with packaged ice cream treats instead of fresh scoops, the sound comes from an unused FM band instead of window speakers (although the poles remain) and the price is on par with Marcus, AMC, iPic and Showtime Theaters.

This last fact is perhaps the most disappointing 2010 development but not surprising. The $8 per adult admission covers two movies, but many only stay for the new release and eschew the second-run feature. For example, this weekend the Keno and Hwy 18 features Iron Man 2. The second feature is Shutter Island, which clocks in at 138 minutes. You’ll be on your way at 12:30 a.m., and be home by 1:15 a.m. if you live in the Milwaukee area.

The higher prices that distributors make vendors pay are perhaps to blame. It can’t be upkeep, but perhaps higher property taxes. It’s unlikely higher electricity prices are at fault, since outdoor theaters use less than a regular indoor model.

The indoor venues have done much recently to warrant charging more via redecorating for comfort or high-tech sound and 3-D projectors. They also don’t have to worry about rain, mosquitoes, noisy engines and other pitfalls of the drive-in.

The clever photo that begins this article, by the way, is an ad for the mosquito repellent coil. It plays between films and the ad appears to be from the 1950s, as does the device. It’s a novelty item in this situation as well, since everyone can be seen dousing themselves with their own anti-skeeter spray. The outdoor theaters admonish loudly that outside food and drink are not allowed (but really, no one checks), but you can’t prevent Wisconsinites from bringing their own bug defense to the party.

Even when I was old enough to enjoy the last days of the 41 Twin in Franklin, it was still nostalgia and novelty that was the draw.

The place was falling apart and the service lousy, but it was economical and freeing. I was in mid-gulp of my big, American Cherry Coke when The Sixth Sense gave up the big twist. I made out with a cute girl named Kari during a bad Jean-Claude Van Damme film. I was there when the junction box blew and the lights went out during Face/Off. I got a rain check card that I never cashed — but still carry in vain.

Being single with no kids and under 40 (barely) still allows me the cred and stamina to treat the drive-in theater experience with the same wonder and happiness as the first time. It’s as if I’ve never seen one before in my life.

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