Outdoor theater welcomes new generation under the stars

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, July 12, 2014

JEFFERSON—Five-year-old Jakob Hartman clutched a plastic dinosaur as he eagerly watched for the box office to open.

The child sat between his parents, Brenda and Steve Hartman of Janesville, while they parked in line to buy tickets for a double feature.

On a warm evening in June, the family came to see “How to Train Your Dragon 2” and “Rio 2” at one of Wisconsin's few remaining outdoor theaters.

Once inside, they unpacked chairs and blankets to get comfortable in front of a giant screen under the stars.

Forget the multiplex, where they pack you in like Tootsie Rolls in the concession stand. This is Jefferson's Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre. You can sit on a lawn chair in front of your car and lap up the legroom. Or you can wear pajamas and stretch out in the privacy of your car.

Brenda, 43, remembers the Highway 51 Outdoor Theater between Janesville and Beloit, where she saw many films as a child. Now, she and her husband are nurturing a new generation to the ways of watching movies outside after dark.

Thanks to Lee and Hollis Burgess of Chicago, the classic theater offers a retro experience seven nights a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Normally, two first-run shows are featured. But on Sunday night of Labor Day weekend, the drive-in will play films from dusk to dawn. Anyone who stays for all five or six movies will get breakfast.

“There aren't many theaters left like this one,” Brenda said.

Scenes from a drive-in (0:56)

As she talks, the 1957 doo-wop classic “At the Hop” plays from speakers in the cinder-block concession stand. Following the foot-tapping song is the Latin-flavored favorite “Tequila.” Both are from a recording of a classic 1950s radio show that takes movie fans back in time.


Opened in 1953, the Highway 18 drive-in ran continuously until 1995. A few years later, the Burgesses bought the business, complete with the original neon signs. They opened in 2000 after remodeling but did not alter the 1950s-era atmosphere. Lee even rewired more than 200 classic car speakers so viewers can slip them inside vehicle windows, just like in the old days. Movie goers also have the option of tuning in the sound on their car radios.

Today, Lee boasts the biggest outdoor screen—90 feet wide and 45 feet tall—in the state, where about 10 outdoor theaters remain.

You won't find any classic or art films here.

“That's not the drive-in crowd,” Lee explained.

Instead, you will find family-friendly kitschy films like “Attack of the Crab Monsters.”

“I try to pick the biggest movies of the summer,” Lee says. “Our best crowds seem to be families, so I choose as many family films as I can.”

Occasionally, he also offers adult films, rated PG-13 or R, such as the current “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”

Some people travel up to two hours to the theater, where a record 650 cars crowded into the lot on Fourth of July weekend 2013.

“It's a social thing,” Lee said. “People like to be entertained with other people around.”

Lee has always liked movie theaters. He worked in one during high school and thought it would be fun to work in one again after retirement.

The former Navy officer spent 25 years in the management-consulting business. When he turned 50, he wanted to spend more time with family and friends. That's when he and his wife bought the outdoor theater and took a leap of faith.

“I didn't think it would be feasible to operate an indoor theater,” Lee said.

But he saw potential in a drive-in, where you can see two movies for less than the price of one at many indoor theaters. Ever since, the Burgesses have re-created a time when going to the movies means taking a pillow.


Drive-in theaters are legendary in the United States.

Richard Hollingshead opened the first one in June 1933. They peaked in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1970s and 1980s, cable television and VCRs gave them fierce competition. At the same time, many new indoor theaters were built.

Today, only a fraction of the original drive-ins remains, but they have a faithful following.

Most of Lee's business comes on weekends, when he and his wife work alongside high school- and college-age students. Lee usually sells tickets at the box office, where he can greet customers as they arrive.

“It's a lot of work,” Lee said. “But at 65, it's nice to keep active.”

Until recently, he showed movies the old-fashioned way with a 35 mm projector. Now, he runs films with an expensive digital projector.

“It's a much higher quality presentation,” Lee explained.

Between movies, an old intermission clip from the 1950s invites people to buy refreshments. The Burgesses do not allow bring-in food. Instead, they offer a long list of concession items, including popular pulled-pork sandwiches and ground-chuck hamburgers.

Patrons who arrive early can enjoy beers or cocktails in the annex next to the theater site, but no alcohol is allowed on the grounds.

Lee recently joined drive-ins across the country to live stream a Jimmy Buffet concert via satellite.

“I hope to do more concerts like this and maybe some sporting events,” he said.

As he talked, daylight faded. He prepared to welcome movie-goers and to announce the evening's features.

“You don't make a lot of money,” Lee said. “But we are keeping tradition alive.”

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