STARS UNDER THE STARS
Drive-ins are on the decline, but Starlite 14 shines in the face of adversity
At one time in the 1950s, there were 79 drive-in theaters in the state of Wisconsin. Now, there are only 11 left.
Starlite 14 Drive-In in Richland Center, a city in southwestern Wisconsin, holds a prominent spot in Wisconsinites’ hearts, something owners Brent Montry and Holly and Tony Johnson know well. When the previous owners decided they wanted to retire after 32 years of running the drive-in, the Johnsons and Montry knew they had to buy it to preserve this essential place in the community.
“We bought it to save it because it has historical value in the community,” Tony says. “If it isn’t a drive-in movie theater, then it goes back to farmland.”
They bought the drive-in theater in July 2020, right in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Both our families loved to take our kids to the theater, and we just felt that we wanted to save the theater for our community, and that’s the main reason why we purchased it,” Holly says. “It just happened to be during [COVID-19].”
Attendees showed up in all forms, from being masked up and barely rolling down the window to buy a ticket, to not having a mask in sight and meeting up with people outside of their households, according to Tony. Due to the low number of new movie releases during the height of the pandemic, Starlite 14 showed mostly old classics and other requests taken through their Facebook page, found at @Starlite14DriveIn.
“During the shutdown, we didn’t get to do a lot of things with our family and the public,” Holly says. “This [was] one way families felt safe to be out in public, and also get to do one of the things they love, and that’s watch movies.”
While some businesses found hardship and faced closures due to the pandemic, Starlite 14 was able to keep running and provided a space for people to get out of their homes.
“I think [COVID-19] has really helped bring back the outdoor movie theaters and really show families how special they are,” Holly says.
A huge part of the attraction of an outdoor movie theater is the connection between the motion pictures on a screen combined with nature.
“Families are busy these days, and it just helps us slow down and get together with people [and] enjoy,” Holly says. “Everybody loves the movies, just to be under the stars, be outside, have the fresh air and reunite with each other.”
As one of the last drive-ins standing in the state, Starlite 14 still has connections to its past. The theater has made significant upgrades over time — including remodeling the concessions stand — but they still use the old speaker posts to direct cars on where to park.
The drive-in was originally run by Jacob Eskin, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who came to America with his wife, Sarah, in 1914, according to the theater’s historical page. While they started out in Milwaukee scraping by as “junk dealers,” they eventually switched professions to fur trading, then were grocery store owners and finally movie theater owners. They bought the Orpheum Theater located in Richland Center in 1923 and expanded their empire to include a total of nine movie theaters in southwestern Wisconsin.
After Sarah and Jacob divorced on “grounds of cruelty,” Sarah was granted a lifetime lease on 20 acres of land and opened up the drive-in in May, 1952. The deed stated that the land must be used for a drive-in theater or it will be given back to the “grantor, his heirs or assigns.” Since then, the drive-in has catered to families with children, couples out on date nights and everybody in between by connecting people to the movies and the outdoors.
Starlite 14 has been able to show new movies such as “No Time to Die” and “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” and Holly is looking forward to showing more Christmas-themed movies during the holidays.
Bring some friends and come out to Starlite 14 Drive-In for what the Johnsons say will be a night to remember, filled with concessions, new movies and nature.
Click on any picture below to see a photo gallery of the Starlite 14 Drive-In, curated and photographed by Kalli Anderson