Fishing guide

Guide to Wisconsin drive-in theaters and their history

Wisconsin was a little late for drive-in movie night. But we never completely left.

In fact, half of the state’s still operating drive-ins opened in the 21st century.

Below is a guide to the 10 drive-thru theaters still operating in Wisconsin. Most are open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.

But first, a little history of drive-in theaters in Wisconsin, spurred on by a reader’s question to What the Wisconsin — the place where we answer questions big and small about our state, our communities and the people who inhabit them.

The story of Wisconsin’s drive-in theaters, from boom to bust to brief COVID-era resurgence

This story begins in Brookfield.

The state’s first drive-in cinema, simply called the Drive-In, opened on the site of a former dog run on the south side of Blue Mound Road, west of Moorland Road in what was then the town of Brookfield, June 18th. 1940. Its debut came more than seven years after the nation’s first drive-in opened in Camden, New Jersey.

Later renamed Bluemound Drive-In, Brookfield’s outdoor theater was the Milwaukee area’s only drive-in until 1948, when 41 Twin Outdoor opened in Franklin.

Like the rest of the country, the drive-in really took off in Wisconsin in the 1950s. By 1954, according to reports from the Journal Sentinel archives, the Milwaukee area had as many as 20 drive-in theaters. Across Wisconsin in 1955, there were 54 drive-ins.

In the 1960s, some of them were busy enough to be open year-round—quite a feat, given Wisconsin’s weather. (In their newspaper listings, drive-ins like Bluemound or 59 Outdoor in Waukesha promised “car heaters.”)

But by the 1970s, the rise of the multiplex and expanding commercial development helped make drive-in properties more valuable as real estate sites than movie theaters.

The Bluemound Drive-In, the state’s first, closed in 1981 and was converted into office and commercial space a few years later. The 41 Twin, the last traditional drive-in in the Milwaukee area, closed after the 2001 season.

As of March 2020, the number of drive-ins nationwide had grown from about 4,000 in 1958 to 321, according to the National Association of Theater Owners.

A handful of drive-in theaters in Wisconsin got hooked. And, over the past two decades, a few new ones, including the Chilton Twilight Drive-In Theater and the Highway 18 Outdoor Theater in Jefferson, have started up or revived old drive-in properties.

In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic — with social distancing being a key safety consideration — a few pop-up drive-ins popped up across the state.

Some of these pop-ups were installed in parking lots outside existing theaters, such as at the Majestic Cinema at Marcus Theaters in Brookfield; others were in lots outside of other attractions, such as the Duck Pond Drive-In set up outside the stadium of the Madison Mallards, the college summer baseball team, and the Milky Way Drive-In, built in the parking lot outside the Milwaukee. The Milkmen baseball stadium in Franklin. Most of them closed after 2020; the Milky Way continues with a timeline that extends into October.

Drive-in theaters in southeastern Wisconsin

Drive-in Milky Way

Where: 7035 S. Ballpark Drive, Franklin (in Ballpark Commons)

Open: 2020

What does it show? : Mainly second-run and older films; let’s double on thursdays

How many screens? : 1

When is it open?: When the Milwaukee Milkmen baseball team isn’t playing in the adjacent Franklin Field (the drive-in is set up in the stadium parking lot), with movies airing through October

Information: milkywaydrivein.com

Highway 18 Outdoor Theater

Where: W6423 Highway 18, Jefferson (at Highways 18 and 89)

Open: 1953; reopened in 2000

What does it show? : New releases

How many screens? : 1

When is it open?: wednesday-sunday

Information: highway18.com

Drive-in theaters in northwest Wisconsin

Stardust Drive-in

Where: 995 22nd St., Chetek (about two hours east of Minneapolis)

Open: 2008

What does it show? : New releases

How many screens? : 2

When is it open?: Thursday-Sunday

Information: stardustdriveinmovie.com

Drive-In Cinemas in Northeastern Wisconsin (including Fox Valley and Door County)

Chilton Twilight Drive-In Theater

Where: 1255 E. Chestnut St. (Highway 57), Chilton

Open: 2011

What does it show? : New releases

How many screens? : 1

When is it open?: wednesday-sunday

Information: getreelcinemas.com/chilton-drive-in

Outdoor theater stage field

Where: N3712 Highway 55, Liberty

Open: 2003

What does it show? : New releases

How many screens? : 2

When is it open?: Thursday-Saturday

Information: fieldofscenes.biz

Skyway Drive-in Theater

Where: 3475 Highway 42 Fish Creek

Open: 1950

What does it show? : New releases

How many screens? : 1

When is it open?: Daily

Information: doorcountydrivein.com

Movie theater by moonlight

Where: 1494 E. Green Bay Street, Shawano

Open: 2000

What does it show? : New releases

How many screens? : 1

When is it open?: Open every day

Information: shawanocinema.com/#outdoortheater

Drive-in theaters in southwestern Wisconsin (including Wisconsin Dells)

Theater with Big Sky drive-in

Where: N9199 Winnebago Road, Wisconsin Dells

Open: 1950

What does it show? : New releases

How many screens? : 2

When is it open?: Daily

Information: bigskydrivein.com

Sky-Vu Cine-Park

Where: N1936 Highway 69, Monroe

Open: 1954

What does it show? : New releases

How many screens? : 1

When is it open?: Thursday-Sunday

Information: goetzskyvu.com/SKY-VU/SKY-VU_HOME.html

Starlite 14 Drive-in

Where: US Highway 14 East, Richland Center

Open: 1952

What does it show? : New releases

How many screens? : 1

When is it open?: Friday Saturday

Information: richlandmovies.com

What is Wisconsin?

Is there anything about Milwaukee or Wisconsin that intrigues you? We have experts who know how to find answers to even the smallest (and sometimes most interesting) questions. When we can, we’ll respond with stories. Submit your question below or at bit.ly/whatthewisconsin.

Contact Chris Foran at chris.foran@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @cforan12.

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