Drive-Ins Are Making a Comeback – For Graduations
Gibraltar High School, Fish Creek, is among the schools with an interest in holding a graduation event at Skyway Drive-In Theater, Door County. The drive-in was built in 1950 and is one of only eight still in business in Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy of Destination Door County)

Known as places to get really close, they’re also the right size for social distancing an entire high school class

Hundreds will watch Freedom High School’s 121 graduating seniors walk across the school stage to get their diplomas this month. But they won’t be in the school themselves and they won’t be watching it live. Instead, the friends and relatives of the Class of 2020 will cheer the images on a drive-in movie screen of graduation events that took place sometime earlier.

Principal Kurt Erickson and others are at work to turn the rite of passage into a lifelong memory that simultaneously meets “safer-at-home” directives during this most unusual year.

In the Outagamie County community, population 6,200, is Field of Scenes, a two-screen, drive-in movie theater where graduates become the featured attraction as the sun sets May 31. There, as car doors stay safely closed on the 11.5 acres, a DVD will replay the students’ in-school experiences.

Each senior is assigned a 12-minute slot to show up at school in cap and gown to walk across the lecture hall stage – alone – as three cameras document the movement.

Each student receives personal protective equipment and uses a specific entrance. Each decides how to cross the stage to a table with their diploma. A strut, dance, ramble, straightforward stride – whatever – are all possibilities.

So is showing off a decorated graduation cap (“the first time we’ve allowed it,” Erickson said), moving the tassel from left to right, throwing the mortarboard upward.

Before leaving, each grad gets a sanitized bag for cleaning out their school locker. Erickson said the last eight graduates – those with a grade point average of 4.0 and above – will then go to the fieldhouse to present farewell addresses.

A videographer will turn all these snippets into a graduation ceremony DVD which will play as part of an evening double feature –a staple of drive-ins– right after the traditional photo slide show of seniors.

In pre-pandemic times, a typical Freedom Irish graduation fills the school gymnasium. For this one at the drive-in, each senior gets up to four vehicle passes. Field of Scenes has room for 550 cars.

Drivers will honk as each member of the Class of 2020 fills the movie screen and figuratively crosses into a new world.

“They will never forget this,” the principal predicted.

“The biggest challenge was that some wanted to push this off until August, but these won’t be the same people as they are on May 31. (The graduates) will have gotten on with their lives – moving into their own apartment, meeting their college roommates, working full time.”

The energy wouldn’t be the same, Erickson believes, and the possibility of another coronavirus wave would further complicate an already-delayed graduation ceremony.

“If everything is good in August, I promise them that we’ll do something else,” he said. “Maybe I could cook.”

Theaters Considered Elsewhere

School boards for other smaller high schools in Wisconsin are considering nearby drive-in theaters for a graduation ceremony too, but it’s not an easy decision for practical and emotional reasons.

“It’s a pretty cool idea,” acknowledged Tim Mayer, Bonduel High School principal, but the logistics of keeping 70 graduating seniors safe from virus exposure are complicated. Internet strength is another prospective challenge. And there’s been wide-ranging feedback.

“We want to listen to the preferences and concerns of the seniors and their parents,” he said.

One thing doesn’t rattle him: technical hurdles. Mayer taught computer studies before becoming principal.

Few Theaters Remain

Few can consider a drive-in theater for a graduation ceremony. Nationwide there are 305 such properties compared to the peak of 4,063 in 1958, says the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association.

Wisconsin is down to eight: Big Sky, Wisconsin Dells; Chilton Twilight, Chilton; Highway 18, Jefferson; Moonlight, Shawano; Sky Vu, Monroe; Skyway, Fish Creek and Stardust, Chetek. Field of Scenes is in business but for sale. Starlite 14, Richland Center, closed in 2019 and hasn’t sold.

Charles Bruss of West Allis, a drive-in theater historian, said the reputation of most goes beyond movies. Drive-ins began hosting church services, flea markets and bike nights decades ago.

Unusual concessions are reasons to visit too. Expect real butter on popcorn at the Skyway, “loaded diapers” (deep-fried tacos with chocolate fudge, marshmallows and whipped cream) at the Stardust. Gone are the chocolate-covered pickles at the Franklin 100 which closed 40 years ago.

“Concessions are where drive-ins make their money,” Bruss said. “Many people have no clue about how the movie business works.”

The drive-in theater is not classified as an essential business, so they remain closed for what owners already know will be a tough season. Some still are paying off the $50,000 to $70,000 cost of converting to digital projectors.

COVID-19 prompts more changes. Things like closing playgrounds, monitoring bathrooms, adding markers for social distancing, putting more space between cara, selling tickets online, and ordering food that way, too.

Chilton Twilight will make menus available online and encourage customers to text their orders, to be delivered to their vehicle. Expect one family at a time in bathrooms, “with cleaning between customers,” says owner Vicki Ladue. “We are ready to open when the state allows it.”

“Even when business is good, you need a second income when you own a drive-in theater,” said a frustrated Paul Javener of the Stardust, “but now we are just watching work and retirement savings slip away.” He wanted to open in March and believes Wisconsin will lose one-half of its drive-ins by spring 2021.

“Because of the virus, film companies already have pushed back movie releases until late summer or fall,” said Tim Suick of the Moonlight. Family-friendly “Trolls World Tour,” deemed perfect drive-in fodder, bypassed theaters in favor of TV streaming.

He remains hopeful about the 2020 season: “You just can’t stay home forever.”