I’m worried that I gave listeners the wrong impression Sunday morning. I was talking about drive-ins on Road Dog Trucking Radio, SiriusXM Channel 146. The show was Dave Nemo Weekends, hosted by Jimmy Mac. (Thanks, Jimmy!) Towards the end of the segment, he asked me about the future of drive-ins. Last week, I spent some time pruning the Carload drive-in list, and seeing a dozen healthy drive-ins shut down since the start of the pandemic left me a little bummed out. I gave an example or two of drive-ins that were reopening, but the fresh memory of those closures might have made me sound less optimistic than usual.
Now that I’m back to rummaging around for good news, I found an item that’s particularly close to home for me. The Pine Hill Drive-In in Piedmont MO had been in operation since 1953, but it closed in 2015 and was put up for sale soon after. I saw this historic, intact theater and hoped that someone would take over and get it ready for movies again. That finally happened when new owners bought the place in the fall of 2021 and reopened it just a few weeks ago on Memorial Day weekend.
Alva “A.B.” and Maude Jefferis built the Pine Hill in 1953 and lived in a house they also built behind the back fence of the drive in. Maude made the newspapers in 1973 when she photographed a number of odd blinking lights “high above the drive-in movie screen that stands beyond a pond in Mrs. Jefferis’s front yard.” The Pine Hill passed through another couple of owners after that, and I’m happy that it stayed active well into the new millennium. Now that it has fresh owners, I hope the drive-in can stay alive for another 70 years.
I’m a little embarrassed to have overlooked this one for so long. Back in 2017, I was excited to notice the reopening of the old US 2 Drive-In in Manistique in Michigan’s upper peninsula, at least for a few shows. I even paid it a virtual “visit” that year as part of my Drive-In-A-Day Odyssey.
After two years of tentative plans and occasional movies, the drive-in showed signs in the summer of 2019 that the experiment was over. (That’s why I hesitated to add it to the Carload drive-in theater list.) In fact, that’s about when the Upper Peninsula Film Union acquired the place and changed its name to the Highway 2 Community Drive-In Theater. The great news is that the Highway 2 is continuing to show movies, with four more dates set for 2022.
“Community” is much more than just a word in the drive-in’s name. Different sponsors pay the licensing fee for each night’s movies. Different charities run the concession stand and keep the proceeds. Patrons are admitted free, and this fine old ozoner gets a fresh set of faces every month or so.
The original US 2 was built in 1953 by J. L. LeDuc, who owned the indoor theaters in town, and planned to close one of them in the summer when the US-2 was open. Within a few years, the Delft Theater chain took over operations, and the theater was listed as the Highway 2. In 1972, David Vaughan bought the drive-in and renamed it the Cinema Two, not because he added a second screen, but because his new indoor theater in town was called Cinema One. It was the last active drive-in in the upper peninsula when it closed in 2001, and now that’s what it is again. Here’s to another 50+ years of community involvement and fun.
From as far back as the 1950s, there were “inventors” promoting various schemes and systems to allow drive-in theaters to show movies during the day. Some of them, such as reflective screen coatings, added just a few minutes of twilight time, but most of them were just buckets of air.
I thought of that as I surveyed the news about Franklin WI’s Milky Way Drive-In, which doesn’t depend on darkness for its shows. Its secret is a 40-foot LED wall, so it doesn’t even need a projector.
The Milky Way opened on May 22, 2020, another pandemic-fueled return to the natural ventilation and social distancing of our favorite way of watching movies. It’s set up in the parking lot of the stadium of an independent baseball team, the Milwaukee Milkmen, so it uses the stadium’s infrastructure for concessions and rest rooms.
We’ll continue to talk in the weeks ahead about what is a drive-in theater and what isn’t. Although it uses a shared parking lot without ramps, the Milky Way is clearly on the right side of the line. A permanent screen and regularly scheduled showings ensure that it belongs on the Carload drive-in theater list.
Sorry that I had overlooked this one for so long. (Tip of the hat to OnMilwaukee’s Matt Mueller, who listed the Milky Way with all of the state’s active drive-ins except Shawano’s Moonlight Outdoor.) There were so many pop-up drive-ins in 2020 that it was hard to pick out the deserving ozoners. A drive-in without darkness is still a drive-in, a type that exhibitors have wanted for over 70 years.