As one of 10 drive-in movie theaters left in the state, Big Sky Drive-In Theatre in Wisconsin Dells opened for its 55th season May 16 and doesn't plan on leaving anytime soon.
as they're making movies," said Mary Bork, projectionist and daughter of owners Don and Dorothy LeGros.
Drive-in theaters hit an all-time high in 1958 with more than 4,000 screens appearing across America. The general public preferred them to indoor screenings, which attracted an elitist group of cinema-goers who dressed up for the occasion and paid a great deal more.
Fifty years later, after increases in land value and increasing entertainment options, America has a paltry 383 active outdoor theaters. Yet, industry experts agree audiences are rediscovering drive-in movie theaters, and they're making a comeback.
"Though drive-in numbers will never be as high as they were in the 1950s, the industry seems to be on an upswing," according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.
Milwaukee resident Charles Bruss, a self-proclaimed nostalgia and history buff in the process of writing a book on Wisconsin's drive-in history, agreed.
"They'll never see the numbers they once had, obviously because land is so expensive nowadays, but drive-ins that have closed for 10 or 20 years and are still in decent shape have reopened," he said, adding that Wisconsin has had a number of new drive-ins built recently including 1999's Sky Vu in Monroe, 2000's Moonlight Outdoor in Shawano and 2008's Stardust in Chetek.
"There's a tendency now for a comeback," said Don LeGros, owner of Big Sky. "The only problem is it's expensive to build."
Despite the industry difficulties, Big Sky Drive-In has survived since its inception on Aug. 14, 1953 as the Winnebago Drive-In. Owned by Don Deakin, the theater screened a newsreel, two cartoons and the feature film "Raiders of the Seven Seas," and gave patrons a souvenir ashtray.
The theater would later come to be known as Dells Drive-In and on June 23, 1977 owners replaced the screen after a windstorm damaged the original. More than 1,000 drive-ins folded in the 80s, according to UDITOA. But new drive-ins and re-openings came in the 90s and the plummeting numbers leveled off. In the past decade drive-ins have seen a slow decline from 447 in 1999 to 383 in 2007.
"When we took it on, it was mostly showing motorcycle pictures and now we've brought it up as a family destination," LeGros said.
The LeGros family took ownership in 1980, reopened in 1981 and changed the name to Big Sky on April 15, 1993. "Later we added a second screen, which did a lot of good," LeGros said. "It almost doubled business." The second screen came on June 2, 1994, with the films "Beverly Hills Cop 3" and "No Escape."
Since then Big Sky has presented four first-run films each night for the price of a single movie at an indoor theater. The season begins in May and ends in September, with films starting between 8:45 and 9:20 p.m. depending on the time of the year.
"There's more freedom," LeGros said of an outdoor theater. "You can bring in pets and smoke if you want to."
Big Sky also doesn't screen advertisements before the feature, as indoor screens do.
"And you're in the privacy of your own vehicle," Bork added. "When weather's good, you can sit outside on blankets or lawn chairs."
Typically audiences hear the movie through the vehicle's radio, but Big Sky's concession stand offers rentable radios so people can watch the movie under the stars. Among its wide variety of food items also available at the stand is the famous Big Mamaburger, made famous by Dorothy "Ma" LeGros.
"It's a unique place in that there's very few people that have been to a drive-in. We get people in their 30s that have never been to one," LeGros said.