Highway 18 Outdoor Theater

Highway 18 and Highway 89,
Jefferson, WI 53549

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HIGHWAY 18 Outdoor Theatre; Jefferson, Wisconsin.

Owner Lee Burgess in 2011.

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LouRugani
LouRugani on May 14, 2020 at 6:26 pm

Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre near Jefferson to open June 19 Rob Thomas | The Capital Times

Lee Burgess, owner of the Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre in Jefferson, is shown here in this 2011 photo. Gov. Tony Evers announced Monday that drive-in theaters can open with proper restrictions.

Two weeks ago, Leo Burgess would have bet that the big screen at his drive-in theater, Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre near Jefferson, would stay dark for the entire summer because of coronavirus restrictions.

So Burgess was caught by surprise by Gov. Tony Evers’ order on Monday that allowed drive-in theaters in Wisconsin to operate.

“It actually came quite suddenly,” Burgess said Wednesday. “I’d been working with our industry reps and our lobbyists. But given how government usually works, I didn’t expect quick action.”

Executive Order #36 allows drive-ins to open, provided that they do not offer outdoor seating, reservations and payments are handled online if possible, and that patrons only leave their cars to pick up food and drinks or use the restroom. Food and drink sales have to comply with other “Safer at Home” restrictions, and theater employees may deliver food and drinks to their car.

“A semblance of normalcy returns,” George Rouman, president of the National Association of Theater Owners of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, said in a statement. “Based on the drive-in theater business model, this will enable guests to find some enjoyment and normalcy outside of their homes in a safe environment.”

Because he was unsure if the theater was even going to be able to operate this summer, Burgess said he is just this week starting to prepare the Highway 18 facility for opening. So the theater, located about 30 miles east of Madison, won’t open until Friday, June 19.

“It’ll be a short, flat season,” he said. “But a little bit’s better than nothing.”

The other big challenge facing drive-in theater operators is what movies to show. Movie studios have been pushing back all their releases, such as “Black Widow,” “No Time To Die” and “F9,” to the fall or next year because there are so few theaters open.

So for the first few weeks, Highway 18 will play classic retro films, Burgess said. He’s not announcing yet what those movies will be, but said that film distributors have been helpful. “They’ve been pretty good, making a lot of great titles available to us at reasonable terms.”

Right now, the first summer blockbuster set for theatrical release is the Christopher Nolan time-travel spy thriller “Tenet” on July 17, followed by Disney’s “Mulan” on July 31 and “Wonder Woman 1984 on Aug. 14.” If those movies don’t get delayed further (a big if), Burgess said Highway 18 will screen them.

Burgess said that with that vast majority of movie theaters closed, he doesn’t fault the studios for delaying those big tentpole films. But losing them will hurt business.

“I am just sitting here hoping against hope that they don’t pull those titles off the schedule,” he said. “If they do, that leaves the drive-in just showing old movies for the rest of the summer.”

Burgess said he’s not sure what kind of business the drive-in will see when he opens in June. But in addition to his regulars who come each summer, he does think new customers who have been “stir crazy” for several months and just want to go see a movie will show up as well.

“I think we’ll get some crowds,” he said. “How long that will last with retro titles is up in the air. It’ll be something of an experiment.” (Madison Capitol Times, May 15, 2020)

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