2020: year of the drive-in for food, fun

A burger would be on my short list for best last meal on Earth. Not just any meat slinger’s burger, but a perfectly seasoned, chargrilled patty of ground chuck served on a semi-hardroll that is slightly chewy and buttered.

Add thin ribbons of ketchup and tangy brown mustard, thin chips of dill pickles and mildly sweet onion. An order of skinny, salty fries and icy root beer rounds out this simple but heavenly-to-me meal.

What we crave and appreciate in life, for the long run, is more about fond memories and upbringing than edgy food trends. We associate certain flavors and combinations with people or settings we love.

The hamburger that I describe is a longtime hit at Chester’s, a drive-in restaurant in Plymouth (Sheboygan County) which began business as an A&W in 1953. Local butchers and bakers provide the key ingredients.

“Come dressed as you are – get served in your car,” newspaper ads teased as the Plymouth A&W was making itself known.

The A&W concept began with sales of root beer for a nickel one century ago. In the 1970s, our nation reportedly had more A&Ws than McDonalds.

Today, five A&Ws remain in Wisconsin, and only two have carhops, but roughly 20 indie owned drive-in restaurants remain (several of them began as A&Ws).

At least two – Ardy and Ed’s in Oshkosh, Rudy’s in La Crosse – hire roller-skating carhops to deliver orders. At least one – Charlie’s in Hortonville – has an owner known to dress up like Elvis. A few host classic car nights to deepen the novelty or wistfulness for simpler times.

Skittish about venturing beyond your neighborhood because of COVID-19? The nostalgic drive-in restaurant or theater is one way to wander while practicing caution.

At Chester’s, cars are parked in a horseshoe of spaces, surrounding a long awning. Consider it a little windshield theater, for watching interactions in other vehicles or between carhop and customer.

Drive-in theaters add the thrill of an actual movie, shown on a big screen and broadcast over the car radio. At least three new ones in urban Wisconsin opened since our mid-April listing of the state’s eight drive-in theaters that are near small towns.

Two of the newest are in Milwaukee suburbs. Marcus Theatres recently opened a drive-in in the parking lot of Majestic Cinema of Brookfield. Milky Way Drive-In opened at Ballpark Commons in Franklin. marcustheatres.com, milkywaydrivein.com

Madison Mallards turned the minor league baseball team’s field into Duck Pond Drive-In recently. mallardsbaseball.com

Chances are slim that you’ll see new film releases on these and other outdoor screens. Blockbusters from the past are more likely. Theater operators say new movies are either going straight to digital streaming services or have moved theater release to late summer or autumn because of coronavirus uncertainties.

Regardless, this year marks a renaissance for an entertainment outlet teetering toward obsolescence. Charles Bruss of West Allis, a drive-in historian, says we’re a long way from the drive-in theater’s peak performance of nearly 5,000 U.S. outlets in 1958.

If you go to an outdoor theater, make a point to patronize the concession stand – that’s where Bruss says the theater operator makes money. “So many people have no clue about how the movie business works,” he says.

Longtime drive-in owners in rural areas were forced to go out of business or spend at least $50,000 to convert from film to digital projectors in recent years. The film reel is an antiquated part of cinema’s past.

“Our season is so short, roughly Memorial Day to Labor Day,” notes Tim Suick, who owns Moonlight Outdoor Theater, Shawano. The investment to upgrade technology is not a casual decision, especially as communities expand.

A drive-in built on the edge of town decades ago will have gained property value, which means the land owner could make a lot more money by selling instead of staying true to the drive-in vibe.

Here are Wisconsin’s remaining small-town outdoor theaters:

Big Sky Twin Drive-In Theater, Wisconsin Dells, bigskydrivein.com

Chilton Twilight Outdoor Theater, Chilton, getreelcinemas.com

Field of Scenes Outdoor Theater, Freedom, fieldofscenes.biz

Highway 18 Outdoor Theater, Jefferson, highway18.com

Moonlight Outdoor Theater, Shawano, shawanocinema.com

Sky Vu Drive In Movie Theatre, Monroe, goetzskyvu.com

Skyway Drive-In Theater, Fish Creek, doorcountydrivein.com

Starview Drive In Movie Theater, Chetek, stardustdriveinmovie.com

Drive-in restaurants with carhops in Wisconsin include these longstanding businesses:

Annie’s Burgertown, Elkhorn, anniesburgertown.com

Ardy and Ed’s, Oshkosh, ardyandeds.com

Big Star, Kenosha, bigstardrivein.com

Charlie’s, Hortonville, charliesdrivein.com

Chester’s, Plymouth, facebook.com/Chesters-Drive-In

Drive-In Restaurant, Grantsburg, grantsburgdrivein.com

Gilles, Fond du Lac, gillesfrozencustardfdl.com

Gup’s, Augusta, 715-286-2838

Gus’s, East Troy, gussdrivein.com

Hager Heights, Hager City, 715-792-2118

The Kiltie, Oconomowoc, 262-567-2648

Milty Wilty, Wautoma, 920-787-2300 (call to let them know you want a carhop)

Rudy’s, La Crosse and Sparta, rudysdrivein.com

Rumble Seats, Spring Green, rumbleseatsdrive-in.godaddysites.com

The Spot, Kenosha, spotdrivein.com

Wayne’s, Cedarburg, waynesdrivein.com

Am I missing your favorite? Let me know – glad to spread the good word.