Now showing at a drive-in near you

Nicole Robinson

During the daytime, they appear to be nothing more than vacant, rundown lots with poles protruding from the ground like tombstones and a ghostly white, empty screen stretching into the sky.

However, something electric and powerful flows through these sites when the sun goes down. The stars look down upon these locales as if something magical were to happen at any moment.

Hordes of people pile into their cars and travel from miles around with hopes of catching a piece of the magic that radiates from what has became a rare gem in the nation.

In the 1950s, drive-in movie theaters hit an all-time high with more than 4,000 screens across America. In Wisconsin alone, about 75 drive-in theaters were located around the state, with the first appearing in 1940.

“We’ve been around so long and still keep to the basics.”Monne Anderson
Manager, Gemini Drive-In

The general public preferred them to indoor screenings, which attracted an elitist cinema group that dressed up for the occasion and paid a respectable amount more.

Today, over a half-century later, America holds between 450 and 500 active screens, with only nine of them in Wisconsin. Yet, Charles Bruss – a self-proclaimed nostalgia and history buff writing a book on Wisconsin’s drive-in history – said families are seemingly rediscovering the value of drive-in movie theaters.

Bruss’ first experience with drive-ins was in 1977, at the eager age of six. He vividly remembers watching the Death Star explode on a screen twice the size of the indoor screens he was accustomed to in the highly successful “Star Wars.”

“It was lager than life,” Bruss said of the childhood image.

Since then, Bruss has been fascinated by drive-ins.

Also, Bruss’ Web site located at drive-inthruwisconsin.com gives more than enough insider information for every drive-in theater that has ever existed in the state as well as pictures and personal stories.

In Eau Claire’s history regarding drive-ins, there have been two theaters: the Stardusk and the Gemini. In 1973, the Stardusk was closing just as the Gemini was on its way up.

Now, about three decades later, the Gemini still stands clinging to the traditions of which it was first established.

Other than painting the concessions building earlier this summer, manager Monne Anderson said the Gemini has clung to the traditional drive-in feel.

Most of the drive-ins today have upgraded their sound system to connect to car radio units and the convenience of advanced projection very similar to indoor theaters; however, the Gemini continues the use of speaker boxes and older projection equipment.

“We’ve been around so long and still keep to the basics,” Anderson said of the drive-in.

In the heyday of drive-ins, these theaters received a reputation for being “passion pits,” Bruss said.

However, the community-friendly establishments introduced Sunday church services with cars being substituted for pews. The Gemini was, and still is, one drive-in that utilizes its speakers and stage every Sunday for a church service throughout the summer, Anderson said.

Even though the number of drive-ins has significantly diminished, Bruss said every year there are closings, openings or re-openings. People are starting to realize the positives of drive-ins, making it possible for many, including the Gemini, to still go strong, Anderson said.

“It’s not the normal atmosphere,” Anderson said. “You get a private spot outdoors, not in a crowded room, and a good family atmosphere.”

However, some have found the drive-in experience can have its negatives as well as positives.

“When it’s raining, it’s really hard to see the screen,” senior Chris Conklin said of the weather-dependent medium.

Other complaints may range from bugs to loud roads near the drive-in making it hard to hear the film, junior Alex Henry said.

On the other hand, for less than the price of one ticket to an indoor theater, a drive-in movie includes two first-run feature films; a wider selection of food at the concession stand; and the freedom to smoke, talk, kiss or snore whenever necessary.

For students without a car, Eau Claire has two alternatives to the Gemini that offer a similar experience.

As a part of CUBEfest, both the Sutherland and Murray residence halls take advantage of the nice weather, new faces and large hall facade for an annual outdoor screening.

Added to the festivities are s’mores, popcorn and a bonfire for students to relax with friends.

“It’s an easy way to meet people,” senior RA Kelly Pierce said. “It’s cheap and it’s fun.”

After having experienced both an outdoor and the annual CUBEfest screening, Pierce said she prefers Sutherland.

For the fifth year in a row, senior RA Casey Mc Partlan has been a proud part of the CUBEfest screening and hopes the tradition can continue.

Within the next few weeks, hall directors and university administration may be working out a plan for the annual event to become a weekly part of residence life, Pierce said.

In an untapped resource that would seem at the surface to be nothing more than an empty alley with the address 205 Graham Ave., Volume One editor Nick Meyer saw promise and gave it life. Because of its natural amphitheater quality, Meyer turned the space into the “Back-Alley Summer Cinema Series.”

On Monday nights this summer, the series screened diverse products from Alfred Hitchcock to short films to documentaries. Because of its huge success, 100 to 300 spectators per week Meyer said, the “Back-Alley Summer Cinema Series” hopes to be back next summer in a big way.

“We really want to keep it going,” Meyer said. “If the space is available and a huge sponsor helps with costs, then we will.”

As the lights that illuminate the enormous screen fade out, and the car lights multiply in turning on, audience members go home satisfied with a cheap and different movie experience.

However, the curtain hasn’t quite closed yet for the historic and magical arenas.

Tomorrow night will be just another chapter in the long and illustrious line of magic that these sites create.

The Gemini
Highway 12
Cost: $6 per person, free for children 11 and under
Time: Dependent on sunset

Volume One Back-Alley Cinema Series
205 Graham Ave.
Cost: Free
Time: Season ended

Backyard Outdoor
Behind Sutherland and Murray Halls
Cost: Free
Time: 8 p.m. Saturday