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Starlite 14 Drive-In

By Erin Dorbin | Summer 2022 Inspire(d)

As the drive-in movie theatre nears its 90th anniversary, just over 300 outdoor theatres remain in the US – and only a few continue to greet carloads of moviegoers in the Driftless. One, the Starlite 14 Drive-In in Richland Center, Wisconsin, has endured through historical drama, land disputes, and digital upgrades.

Old newspaper clippings show a handful of movies from the past at both the indoor and outdoor theatres in Richland Center. / Photos courtesy Cindy Herbeck: “After my dad saw Smokey and the Bandit, he went out and bought a brand new black 1977 Trans Am with the eagle on it, just like the one in the show,” she says on Facebook.

Auto parts professional Richard Hollingshead opened the very first American drive-in theatre in Camden, New Jersey, in 1933. His mother had complained about the uncomfortable wooden indoor theatre seats of the day. He wondered: What if you could enjoy the big screen from the comfort of your personal automobile?    

This idea changed moviegoing forever. 

In the 1950s and 60s, as American car culture took hold, over 5,000 drive-in movie theatres were built nationwide. It was the affordable option for families to attend the movies and the perfect way for teens and young adults to explore their newfound freedoms within the privacy of the automobile. 

But as moviegoing options of the 1970s through 2000s evolved – through VHS, DVDs, and home streaming services – the drive-in’s popularity waned. The Starlite 14, though, managed to hang on through the decades.

“No matter what comes along, the theatre always comes back,” says longtime Starlite 14 Drive-In owner, turned-employee, Bill Muth. Bill “caught the bug” in 1974 after he started working as a projectionist at the Starlite 14. “Once I got hooked,” he says, “it was hard to get away.”

In 1988, Bill and his wife, Lisa, purchased Richland Center’s downtown indoor theatre, the Center Theatre, and the Starlite 14 Drive-In as a package deal. “The money you made at the drive-in in the summer paid for heating the Center Theatre during the winter,” he explains. “Basically, I had two full-time jobs. While the theatres always did pay for themselves, I worked at Rockwell Automation for 43 years at the same time.” 

And when you own a popular regional – and seasonal – tourist attraction, it’s hard to get away with your own family for a break. “Every summer we’d get 20 to 25 different state license plates on cars coming through,” Bill says with pride. “But we only took two family vacations in the 31 years we owned the theatres!”

In 2019, Bill and Lisa finally took a much-deserved retirement and listed the Center and Starlite 14 theatres for sale – more on that soon. First, let’s dive into the history of these two Richland Center, Wisconsin theatres; It provides enough drama to script a drive-in double feature!

The Center Theatre opened March 4, 1937 as the Eskin Theatre. It was designed and built by Sarah and Jacob Eskin, who’d previously purchased another downtown theatre in Richland Center after relocating from Milwaukee. The couple divorced that same year, and Sarah received the two theatres as part of the settlement.

The Eskin Theatre, designed by Sarah and Jacob Eskin, opened in Richland Center in the late 1930s. / Photo courtesy Richland County History Room

Local lore suggests Jacob granted Sarah the theatres as an attempt to overwhelm her rather than as an equal splitting of assets. Their marriage was by all accounts a tumultuous one and Sarah was granted the divorce on the grounds of cruelty. Yet, Sarah did well in the theatre business and acquired land east of Richland Center to build the area’s first drive-in. 

In a deed signed August 28, 1951, Sarah was granted a lifetime lease on a 20-acre parcel of a family dairy farm for $15,000. The Hi-Way 14 Outdoor Theater opened on May 6, 1952. Sadly, the following year Sarah passed away in her home after working one Friday evening at her drive-in.

So what would happen to her drive-in? One of the most fascinating parts of the history is that 1951 deed. It states that the land must be forever used as a drive-in theatre. If it ever ceased to be used for this purpose, the title would revert to the grantor, his heirs, or assigns. These unique terms manufactured many courtroom dramas and periods of suspense after Sarah’s death.

The Supreme Court of Wisconsin heard multiple cases against her estate to challenge and re-interpret the terms of the lifetime lease. Yet, the drive-in operates today on those original 20 acres. Elsewhere in the Midwest, drive-in theatres succumbed to a major development boom in the 1990s and 2000s. Those former theatres became tract homes and sites for big box retailers, such as Walmart. 

The Starlite 14 at sunset. / Photo courtesy Starlite 14

Over the years, the Richland Center drive-in evolved alongside technology and its community, including a name change – Hi-way 14 became Starlite 14 – in the late 1970s. And in 2013-2014, during the national industry-wide conversion from 35mm film to expensive new digital projection, Bill and Lisa poured their hearts and finances into keeping both the indoor and outdoor community screens from going dark. Many small theatres couldn’t afford the transition.

Richland Center resident, Sheila Troxel, remembers, “We all knew what a vital part the theatres were in our community. That’s why when Bill and Lisa needed to modernize projection, we all came together.”

In a collective show of support, 80 community members each loaned the theatres $1000 in a zero-interest contract with Bill and Lisa to cover the roughly $80,000 digital conversion costs for the two theatres. 

“Quite honestly, at that time, we felt it was something we’d never get paid back, but we weren’t doing it for that reason,” Sheila says. “But, sure enough they were able to raise the money and slowly one-by-one pay everyone back.”

The drive-in was saved, again – for a time.

Remember, in 2019, after the successful effort to upgrade and save the theatres, Bill and Lisa were ready to retire. They listed the Starlite Drive-In business and the Center Theatre for sale, yet the enduring terms of the drive-in’s lifetime land lease meant that if the theatres did not sell and reopen within the year, the drive-in would be lost forever. 

Drive-ins and pop-up theatres became popular again during the pandemic. Writer Erin Dobin organized this one before that, though, in 2013 in Milwaukee, WI. / Photo by Erin Dorbin

Enter Richland Center natives Holly and Tony Johnson and their friend Brent Montry. They purchased the two theatres in 2020 ahead of an unexpected national drive-in theatre revival.

During the pandemic, pop-up drive-ins popped up everywhere, from big city rooftops to parking lots to private backyards. In fact, the same Walmart stores that developed former Midwestern drive-in theatre land were now opening their own pop-up drive-in movie theatres in their large parking lots! The drive-in had come full circle.

Sheila praises the new ownership team for thinking outside the box. “They were so supportive of all of the other community businesses and events that were also struggling and they asked, ‘How can we help?’” 

During the height of the pandemic, Starlite 14 hosted events that couldn’t be held elsewhere indoors – everything from dance recitals to farming events. They even erected a permanent stage for performances below the movie screen. 

“We don’t see ourselves as owners, we see ourselves as stewards,” says co-owner Tony Johnson.

The Starlite 14 marquee displays an upcoming movie & Starlite Market in May 2022. / Photo courtesy Starlite 14

In a recent radio interview, Richland Center’s director of tourism, Marty Richards, reveals he “did a little jig” when Tony, Holly, and Brent purchased the theatres. He just knew they’d bring new ideas and innovation to the format. 

Just shy of their second year of stewardship, the Starlite 14 and the Center Theatre were named 2022’s Businesses of the Year by Richland Rejuvenates, a local booster group. 

“I think they’ve taken the drive-in to a whole new level,” confirms Sheila. 

New programs at the Starlite 14 include live performances, livestreamed concerts, and a Saturday Starlite Market running May 14 through October 29. The Market is open to all vendors and will include food trucks and other local goods. 

“In a small town we can complain about what we don’t have, but we should celebrate what we do have,” Tony says.

Ask Tony about his earliest memories at the Starlite 14 and he’ll tell you about the time he got ejected from the drive-in as a rowdy teen. “I got kicked out by Bill!” he remembers, laughing.

All is forgiven and Bill remains hooked by the drive-in, even in retirement. He stays busy working maintenance and greeting neighbors, friends, and first-timers at the ticket booth. The ticket booth is Tony’s favorite spot, too. “It’s like being the bartender at Cheers!”

Erin saw her first movie at the drive-in in 1997. She caught the theatre bug and traveled to photograph every remaining drive-in she possibly could. In 2008, she was hired to document the theatres of the Erie Canalway in New York state where she snapped this polaroid of Midway Drive-In Theatre in Oswego, NY. She calls Houston, MN home.

Driftless Drive-In summer!

 Starlite 14 Drive-In, U.S. Highway 14, Richland

Center, WI. Want to participate in the Starlite Market? Contact Tony Johnson at trieliteholding@gmail.com. Have another idea? “We’re open to anything!” Tony says. Track upcoming movies and more at richlandmovies.com and www.facebook.com/starlite14drivein

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Highway 61 Drive-In, 1228 US-61, Delmar, IA. Just south of Maquoketa, IA. Dennis Voy celebrates his 50th year of ownership in 2022! Stay up-to-date at 61-driveintheatre.com