Historic Properties – “Shawano has History”

The Shawano Drive-In


Photo Gallery

A Brief History

The Shawano Drive In
Hwy 22 and Main Street
Shawano, Wisconsin

Thedacare Medical Center is situated where the Shawano Drive In was once located.   Thousands of people in the Shawano area fondly remember going to the Shawano Drive-in and watching their first “outdoor” movie.

This was an experience invented in the United States by Richard Hollingshead who opened the first theater in Camden, N.J. People paid 25 cents per car as well as per person to see the British comedy Wives Beware under the stars. The concept of showing movies outdoors wasn’t novel; people often watched silent films on screens set up outside. However, it took an auto-parts salesman such as Hollingshead to see the genius in giving a car-loving society one more activity they could do in their vehicles.

Shawano’s drive-in got its start in April 1953, 20 years after the first outdoor opened in New Jersey, during the heyday of the outdoor theater in the USA. William L. Ainsworth, president of Independent Theaters announced the construction in the Shawano Evening Leader. The Independent Theaters company bought the Crescent from Anna Nagle who built and operated the Crescent since its opening in March 1915. Adding a new, modern “outdoor theater” was just the latest update to a business that went from live acts and Vaudeville on the Crescent stage to silent movies, to “talkies.”

Ainsworth announced the theater would be ready for the summer season, the first week of June in 1953. Both the Crescent and Shawano Drive-In were operated by Russel Robbins. The theater was at the corner of highway 187 and 22 on the edge of the city, had a 47 X 63 foot screen, and a capacity for 550 automobiles. This was a state of the art drive-in theater where each car had a separate speaker with volume control!

John and Elenor Reilly bought the Crescent and the Shawano Drive-In from Independent Theaters in 1962. On July 19, 1975 high winds blew down the original screen and the Riellys upgraded the equipment and screen to 58 X 64 foot screen. The Reilly’s operated the Shawano Drive-In during the glory days of the outdoor.

In 1958, the number of drive-ins in the USA peaked at 4,063. By 2008, only 400 drive-ins remained in the United States, a number that hasn’t changed much. Although the Shawano Drive-In closed in the 1980’s, we’re lucky to still have an outdoor in Shawano but unfortunately, it’s not at the original location.

How many remember the Shawano Drive-In and…..

  • Sneaking into the movie by hiding in the trunk of the car to avoid paying and jump out once past the ticket booth?
  • The playground equipment near the screen….set up for kids before the movie?
  • The advertisements during intermission?
  • Coming into the concession stand squinting because we’ve been in the dark?
  • That  first kiss and those steamed up windows?

You can still see remnants of the Shawano Drive-In at the ThedaCare clinic site today. The trees planted along the north side fence, next to the screen are still there. Next time you visit the clinic, remember all those movies, mosquitoes, and fun times at the Shawano Drive-In.

Several attachments are included in photo gallery….aerial view of the Shawano Drive-In, photos after the drive-in closed, and advertisements…..take a peek at all of them!