Drive-in movie theaters rise in popularity during pandemic

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Photo by DON SNIEGOWSKI

The closest drive-in to Marquette is the “Milky Way Drive-In,” which opened within the last year in Franklin, Wisconsin. Photo via Flickr

The rise of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the foreclosure of organizations all around the globe. Restaurants, bars, gyms, boutiques and movie theaters that were once bustling with people now are dark with a “closed” sign pinned on the front windows. But another industry is thriving in the dark during the pandemic: drive-in movie theaters.

Social distancing is in full effect at the Highway-18 Drive-In, just as they have since they opened in 1953. It’s about 50 minutes west from campus in Jefferson, Wisconsin. With a little extra space put in between cars, they remain fully open, and fully fun for anyone who wants to catch a movie. Even though they are getting ready to shut down for the winter, being able to stay open during the summer months can be good for business and for anyone who may want a taste of normalcy.

Nate Campbell, a senior in the College of Communication, said he went to a drive-in theater for the first time over quarantine because so many of them have remained open. He said it was a great first experience altogether with family and friends.

“The novelty of it,” Campbell said. “It offers a much more intimate situation for exactly the people that you’re going with.”

The sort of “pod system” that exists with each group contained in one car prevents interactions with other moviegoers that could increase the spread of the COVID-19. They are also outside, unlike traditional movie theaters, which makes it harder to get infected, according to the Center of Disease Control.

Drive-in theaters have faced their fair share of obstacles since they first became a business in 1933. This isn’t the first hurdle they’ve had to overcome. The wide range of streaming services that are available nowadays have taken a toll on the industry and movie theaters in general. Back in the 1950s there were approximately 4,000 drive-ins located around the country. As of October 2019, that number has dwindled down to just 305, according to the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association (UDITA). But the retro atmosphere that drive-ins provide keeps people coming back and the industry alive.

That’s exactly what Kelly Kennedy, a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences, likes about them: the throwback vibe.

“It gives you the nostalgia feel, and you get to see what people used to do back when they were the only types of theaters open,” Kennedy said. “They’re more fun than regular movie theaters.”

She said she gets the same feel from drive-ins as she does from other old things like roller rinks or diners.

With winter on its way in, the outdoor movie season is coming to a close. But there are two drive-ins in southeastern Wisconsin, one of which is still open.

The closest drive-in to Marquette is the “Milky Way Drive-In,” which opened within the last year in Franklin, Wisconsin. It is one of the 50 best drive-ins across the United States according to Mental Floss, and is about 20 minutes south of Marquette’s campus. They have movies scheduled through November 1, and charge $35 per vehicle for entry admission.

Some upcoming movies include “The Babadook,” “The Conjuring,” “Ghostbusters,” “Casper,” “The Cabin In The Woods,” “Jigsaw” and “The Addams Family.”

The next closest is the Highway 18 Drive-In. Unfortunately, the recent cold weather has forced them to close for the year, but they will reopen next spring. Ticket prices are $10 per person.

In these unprecedented times, going to a drive-in movie can be a way to put a pause on the global pandemic for a little while.

This story was written by Quinn Faeth. He can be reached at quinlan.faeth@marquette.edu.