A Slice of Americana: Friday Night at “The Outdoor”

In much of America, drive-in theaters are abandoned relics of a bygone era. Decrepit old snack bars crumble in overgrown parking lots, still pointing valiantly at the bones of a decaying screen. They are some of the saddest sights on the American landscape, the old speaker posts standing like tombstones marking the graves of youth and innocence.

But just south of Ephraim, one of these benchmarks in the evolution of Americana remains and flourishes to this day. Boys and girls still sneak their first kiss under blankets, teens make out in cars, and young kids swarm the swing sets, slides and see-saws.

Most locals don’t call it the drive-in and even fewer call it by its proper name, The Skyway. Rather, it’s simply “The Outdoor,” one of only nine such Wisconsin venues in operation today. A place where a golden era of the country’s pop culture lives in more than just fading memories and sad decay.

“We get a lot of baby-boomers who come in and say that they haven’t been to a drive-in since they were kids,” said Dale Jacobson, who owns the Skyway with his brother Jeff. “It brings back memories for a lot of people.”

That sense of nostalgia sometimes extends to how they watch the movie. Though sound at the Skyway has been broadcast over the radio for years, Dale said some folks still put the old speakers on their window. “We still have them in the first few rows, and sometimes I’ll see someone use them,” he said. “They break a lot and they don’t sound as good as the radio, but people just like that old-time feel I guess.”

That old-time feel began when Orville and Elton Voeks opened the Skyway July 26th, 1950. Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower was President. The immortal “Curly” Lambeau had just ceded his Green Bay Packers coaching duties to Gene Ronzani, and Al Johnson’s restaurant had yet to open.

Drive-ins originally showcased some of the first films targeted for teenagers, who now had spending money in the post-World War II economy. They flocked to movies featuring fast cars and monsters, with names like Roadracers and Psychorama. Soon, drive-ins began popping up all over the country, numbering over 5,000 by the end of the 1960s.

In the beginning, many drive-ins weren’t the family-friendly destination they are today. Dale and Jeff’s parents, Darrell and Eileen, bought the Skyway from Orville in 1981, and Darrell said the Skyway had its rowdy moments as well. “It used to be a place for movies about fast cars and the fast crowd,” he said. “A place to party. It could be a hard-drinking, rough crowd. Fridays were just wild with people drinking and stuff.”

The prevailing image of the drive-in was so tough that Darrell said he got an incredulous response when he asked his booking agent to get him a new kid-friendly movie called E.T. “He said ‘You don’t want that kind of movie at a drive-in. They don’t want to see that,’” Darrell recalled.

Lo and behold, E.T. would be one of the most popular movies ever shown at the Skyway. But the partying continued, he said, until the early 1990s, when he called in the cops and a few people got busted. “That seemed to put a stop to the partying,” he said. “From then on, it became more of a place for families.”

Jacobson said this transformation, and the theater’s location in a prime tourist destination, enabled the Skyway to stay open while thousands of other drive-in theaters went dark. After reaching the 5,000-screen peak, outdoor theaters would start closing in droves in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, leaving fewer than 400 in operation across the country today.

Another secret to the Skyway’s enduring success is the prices. The Skyway shows a double-feature nightly Memorial Day through Labor Day, and weekends in May and September through Columbus Day weekend. A ticket will cost you just $6.50 for an adult, $3.50 for children 6-11, and kids under five get in free, making the Skyway a bargain for those accustomed to $8-$11 a ticket at most cinemas.

Running a family-friendly, seasonal, outdoor movie theater is much different than your typical cinema. The chief concern is weather, which plays a huge role in attendance for any given night. Dale said, “Rain is the number one thing for us. A lot of seasons we’re not on the same page with the rest of the county. If it’s bad everywhere else, we might be doing great. If they’re doing great, we could be down.”

They don’t often shut down on account of the weather, but not as many people will venture out to watch a film through their windshield wipers. Dale said they’ve closed just a handful of times since he and his brother took over in 1999. “Our success depends a lot on the weather and if you hit on a good movie,” he said.

In 2003 Dale said they hit on their most successful movie ever, Pirates of the Caribbean. It propelled them to their best year ever in terms of tickets sold, and was a movie that played equally well with adults and kids, another paradox of the business. “With a lot of families here, you try to pair a kid-friendly movie with an action/adventure or popcorn flick,” Dale said. “With a double-feature, you don’t want to follow up a G-rated movie with an R.”

Being an independent theater operator brings extra hurdles and considerations as well. Getting a movie on opening day is almost never an option, Dale said. “It’s too expensive to get a movie on the day it breaks,” he explained. “So we try to get them at two weeks, when they usually come cheaper.”

Such a strategy would be disastrous for a cinema in the city, but it works in Door County where many movie deliberations conclude with “I’m going to wait till it’s playing at The Outdoor.” Plenty of movie-goers are willing to be patient for the experience, which can be different things for different people.

Everybody has their own special memories of The Outdoor, but few in Door County over the age of 25 can forget the merry-go-round that used to thrill and scare kids below the big screen. With a wooden deck and tall metal poles to hold on to, it was legendary for how fast it could whirl when powered by a group of teenage boys.

A kid with a good grip could hold on tight and watch his legs be pulled off the deck and into the air, finding him or herself parallel to the ground as the merry-go-round rotated furiously. Dale recalled his prowess on the infamous playground centerpiece. “It was pretty dangerous, but I got pretty good at it,” he remembered. “I was pretty small and could hang on with one hand and just swing up there.”

It was while swinging up there that the fear would come as you felt your grip loosen while the older guys pushing the machine refused to let up – they were perilous moments when you balanced your screams with efforts to locate a soft piece of earth to land on upon letting go and hurtling yourself through the air.

Of course, upon landing safely, you forgot your fear and relished the thrill, and looked for the next opening to jump back on and grab the pole again. It was a dangerous thrill, however, and the merry-go-round was wisely removed in the mid-90s.

On a cloudless August night at the Skyway, the prime parking spots are full by 8:30 pm. Kids swarm the playgrounds and teens stake out portions of the benches up front. A father and son have a catch off to the side, while a group plays football in the back corner of the grounds.

A row ahead of me, a small Honda Civic comes to a stop and six older teenagers spill out instantly. They drove all the way from Algoma, they say, for the second time this summer, even though other cinemas are much closer.

“It’s cheap and it’s fun,” says Jeff P––, a loquacious seventeen year-old. His friends say they like the drive and enjoy the extra bit of freedom offered at The Outdoor, an aspect of drive-in theaters that has drawn teens for five decades.

Opening night, typically around the third Friday in May, is marked on calendars and anticipated in Gibraltar High School’s hallways only slightly less than the last day of school. It’s one of the seminal Door County signs marking the arrival of the carefree days of summer, and kids clamor to arrange a ride in the days leading up to it.

Jeff P– recently took part in another of the time-honored drive-in traditions: sneaking in. “The last time I came here I snuck in,” he recounts with pride, motioning to the north edge of the parking area. “I climbed the fence right over there.” Along with his friends, he seems to second-guess himself for revealing this, though he can likely sleep easy.

“I guess I could probably catch a few people sneaking in if I searched every trunk and watched the walls, but I’m not too worried about it,” Dale Jacobson says.

I leave Jeff P–– and his friends to hit the snack bar, which is swarmed with people getting last-second provisions. The prices don’t quite take you back to the ‘50s, but they come close enough to surprise veterans of today’s cinemas. Dale and Jeff man the stand nightly with a few employees, and tonight they serve me up a foot-long hot dog for $2.50, a large soda for $2.00 and a medium popcorn for $3.00.

Making my way back to the car, I see families huddled together in cars and minivans, adjusting seats and positions so everyone can get the best possible view of the screen. When I settle back into the car, it’s hard not to be awed by the big screen towering over the pines around it, the same awe I felt the very first time I went to a drive-in.

Finally, the movie begins to roll as the last remnants of a classic Door County sunset fade behind it, Mother Nature turning the lights down and starting the show.

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