Drive-Ins Are Experiencing a Pandemic Boost. Will It Last?

We’re in the midst of a drive-in theater renaissance.

With all indoor theaters closed from March through June, drive-in alternatives like Jefferson’s Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre, where Milwaukeeans have been watching movies from inside the bubble of their cars since 1953, are attracting attention as a safer alternative. They also conjure up a nostalgic brew of glowing neon, unfiltered cigarettes and warm popcorn on a hot summer night in your jalopy. But will the trend endure, or is it just a pandemic-driven fling? Lee Burgess, who has owned Highway 18 the past 21 years, leans toward the latter.

“I think there’s a resurgence of drive-ins because people are getting stir crazy, but I think it’s a short-term phenomenon.”

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Burgess re-opened Highway 18 on June 19th at half-capacity to accommodate safety concerns. With no new movies coming out, he’s currently showing classics, such as Grease, Up in Smoke, The Bad News Bears and The Warriors. “But in the long run, we need first-run product for people to come out to the drive-in,” he says.

He is hanging his hopes on the release of two major studio films this August – Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and the live-action Mulan. Their release, and his ability to attract drive-in crowds, all depends, ironically enough, on whether or not indoor theater chains, with their thousands of screens across the country, can safely bring in enough customers to merit a wide theatrical release.

Either way, Burgess predicts an eventual return to equilibrium for his piece of beloved Americana. “As the country opens up more, I think things will go back to a normal steady state for drive-ins.”

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s June/July issue

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Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.