KY’s Franklin announces closure

Classic cars lined up at the Franklin Drive-In Theater
2013 photo from the Franklin Drive-In Facebook page

Trivia that was accurate as of last week: Of the (about) 311 active US drive-ins, four of them are located by the city or town of Franklin in four different states. The first three are the Milky Way Drive-In in Wisconsin, Warner’s Drive-In in West Virginia, and Canary Creek Cinemas in Indiana.

Today, those are the only three. On Monday, the owners of the Franklin Drive-In in Kentucky announced that they had sold the place, and that it would no longer operate as a drive-in theater. There were several local news organizations reporting the story, but I don’t think any of them had any more to work with than the Franklin’s original Facebook post. WBKO, Bowling Green’s News Leader, posted a video anyway of mostly file footage, which is better than nothing.

Of course, I virtually visited the Franklin in 2017 during my 2017 Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. As I wrote then, the drive-in was a literal stone’s throw from Tennessee and less than 40 miles away from Nashville. The Franklin was family owned and operated since 1969, most recently by the Prices and their families. It began its life as the 31W or 31 West Drive-In, since that’s the highway that it’s on, and changed its name to the Franklin some time after the demise of the original Franklin Drive-In, which operated on Russellville Road from 1960 until some time around 1980.

The closure announcement noted that the Franklin “has been in our family for 33 years and we bought it from the original family who built it.” The owners blamed traffic (huh?), light pollution, and the rise of streaming services for their decision. I always thought that traffic was a good thing, with more motorists seeing your marquee, but light is definitely an issue in a lot of places. Since the dawn of television, it’s always been the main opponent for theaters in general; the solution is to provide an experience you can’t get at home.

But it’s always possible that the Franklin’s owners just got a nice retirement-funding purchase offer and took it. It’s just a shame that they couldn’t find someone else ready to keep the movie nights going.

Milky Way provides another kind of drive-in

photo of the Milky Way Drive-In screen at twilight
Photo from the Milky Way Drive-In Facebook page

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.

Video: Starlite 14 May Close Permanently

WMTV, Madison WI’s News Leader, reported some sad news last night. The Starlite 14 Drive In in Richland Center may showing movies for just a couple more weeks, according to an announcement by its owners, Lisa and Bill Muth.

In a post on the drive-in’s Facebook page, Bill Muth wrote, “We have decided to retire from the theater business. … The Starlite 14 Drive-In will close permanently after the completion of the 2019 season on September 1, 2019.” He added that he would soon attempt to sell the Starlite and his indoor Center Cinema.

Muth’s description of the situation in the WMTV video sounded just a bit more positive. “If nobody buys the theater, and they don’t buy it and reopen it next year, it will be permanently closed, and it will be gone.”

Personally, I see a lot of room for optimism. The Starlite 14 has digital projection (already paid off, Muth wrote), and it’s still mostly surrounded by farm land. While it’s true that it won’t reopen if no one ever buys it, the site doesn’t look attractive for warehouses or apartments, so I’d say its best use is still as a drive-in theater. Here’s hoping some buyer agrees with me some time this off-season.