RICHLAND CENTER — Bill Muth got his start in the movie business in 1975 making sure cars were properly aligned on the dirt and gravel ramps and keeping an eye out for freeloading kids climbing out of trunks.
Now, 38 years later, Muth and his wife, Lisa, are trying to ensure one of the state’s last remaining drive-in movie theaters remains open.
The couple, both lifelong residents of Richland Center, has owned the Starlite 14 Drive-In on the city’s east side and the Center Cinema Twins indoor theaters in the downtown since 1988.
And, like virtually every other movie theater operator in the country, the Muths are trying to find the money to upgrade from film to digital movies. The change is being forced by the movie industry, which plans to distribute only digital copies starting sometime in 2014.
The result is that theater operators are being forced to spend thousands of dollars to upgrade. It’s not much of a problem for major players with deep pockets like Marcus or AMC, but for the independent theater and drive-in operators, the switch is difficult at best, disastrous at worst.
“The film industry is not user friendly,” said Bill Muth, who first came to the drive-in as a child with his parents. “It’s not a big moneymaker, it never was, but it’s a positive place for the community to come and have an evening out.”
According to the United Drive-in Theater Owners Association, there were 366 drive-in movie theaters left at the end of 2011. At the industry’s peak in 1958, there were more than 4,000 around the
country. But as owners looked to retire and land prices soared, many outdoor theaters were closed.
Wisconsin, once home to dozens of outdoor venues, now has 11 drive-in theaters, which ranks 10th, tying Idaho. Wisconsin’s drive-ins include the Stardust in Chetek, Twilight in Chilton and Gemini in Eau Claire.
Surprisingly, two outdoor theaters have opened in the state in the last 13 years. In 2000, the Moonlite Outdoor Theater opened in Shawano, while Field of Scenes opened in 2003 in Freedom.
This summer, while on vacation in Door County, our family experienced one of the oldest, the Skyway Drive-In at Fish Creek. Despite unseasonably cool temperatures that forced many under blankets, the place, founded in 1950, was packed.
The snack shack had a full range of offerings and doubled as a museum with old movie posters and newspaper articles about the outdoor theater industry. We dined on smuggled cherry pie as we took in Despicable Me 2 and then struggled to stay awake for the zombie flick, World War Z.
In the greater Madison area, we’re blessed with outdoor movie opportunities. While the Big Sky and Badger outdoor theaters in Madison have been closed for years, there are four drive-ins an hour or less from the Capitol Square.
Muth’s Starlite 14 opened in Richland Center in 1953 while Monroe is home to the Sky-Vu, which converted to digital this year and will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2014. The Big Sky Drive-In on Highway 16 east of Wisconsin Dells sports two screens. The Highway 18, just west of Jefferson, went digital in 2011.
“So it was gut check time for me: do I invest almost $100,000 (or) more in my Drive In or do I just milk the business for the next few years and shut down?” Highway 18 owner Lee Burgess wrote on his blog in 2011. “Bottom line: I’ve already invested too much time, energy, and money in this theatre to just let it die.”
To say the Muths are committed to their business is an understatement.
In the summer, they rarely see each other, with Bill, 57, at the drive-in almost every night and Lisa, 52, at the indoor. In addition, Bill works full-time on first shift at Rockwell Automation starting at 5 a.m. and punching out at 3:30 p.m.
The indoor theater at the corner of East Seminary and South Central streets opened in 1937. In 1991, the Muths split the single auditorium into two theaters, one with 143 seats and the other with 125 seats.
The outdoor theater features a 38-foot by 60-foot screen and has room for 300 vehicles. Moviegoers tune their radios to 107.9 FM for sound; the posts with old-fashioned speakers still remain but no longer work.
“We left them because there’s no reason to take them down,” Lisa Muth said.
The Muths, who have four adult children, all of whom worked at the theaters, have already raised a sizable chunk for the digital conversion through a unique zero interest loan program.
Forty-four of their supporters have each loaned $1,000 that the Muths will pay back in 10 years. Those funds are enough to cover the switch for the indoor theaters, but $50,000 more is needed for the Starlite, which will have a $70,000 digital system.
But it’s an all-or-nothing deal. Profits from the outdoor theater help pay the bills for the indoor theater, which is notoriously slow from September to Thanksgiving. So if the outdoor theater closes, so does the indoor operation.
And, if the outdoor closes, it terminates a lifetime lease that would then likely revert the property back to agricultural land and add Richland Center to a growing list of communities that have a closed drive-in, Muth said.
“Both theaters feed each other,” Muth said. “If we don’t get the money everything stops, but we can’t wait until spring to make a decision.”
The Muths have a self-imposed deadline of Jan. 15 to raise the funds. They are set to launch an online store where they will sell T-shirts, season passes, reusable popcorn buckets and soda cups, blankets, sweatshirts and caps.
Merchandise also is available at the indoor theater. And they’re offering lifetime passes for anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000 per family.
“They’ll probably carry me out of here because I don’t think I’ll ever retire,” Bill Muth said. “I’m going to try and keep it open.”