“When I was a kid, the only way I saw movies was from the back seat of my family’s car at the drive-in.” —Forest Whitaker, American actor

Having logged 14 years in the North Woods, I’ve made my share of round-trip runs between Boulder Junction and Rhinelander as a Shopko devotee.

Driving along Highway 17 during a visit to Rhine­lander for an interview and photo shoot last week, I was struck that I’ve never seen the forest for the trees. Or, in my case, I hadn’t seen the drive-in for the Shopko.

Without the distraction of Shopko, shuttered since the Wisconsin-based chain’s June 2019 demise, I finally really looked around and took note of the crumbling ruins of the old Rouman Drive-In Theatre, a veritable stone’s throw away along Highway 17.

While nature has inexorably reclaimed the North Woods drive-in campus with soaring hardwoods and majestic pines since its 1980s closure, the rusting metal support framework still reaches toward the azure northern sky even as gravity-challenged panels drop one by one from the expansive 40- by 74-foot VistaVision screen that once hosted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of “gigantic” double features “in glorious color.”

Now surrounded by the encroaching urban sprawl of Ascension, Marshfield and Aspirus medical facilities and commercial developments including Walmart, Kwik Trip, Pizza Ranch and Shopko’s vacant big box, at the time of its July 1954 debut to an overflow twin-bill crowd, the Rouman Drive-In was an outlying fringe development a mile east of Rhine­lander’s then city limits.

The Rouman Drive-In capitalized on the post-World War II hit-the-open-road heydays of pop American car culture, years when drive-in theaters were at the height of their popularity — 4,151 blanketing the United States from sea to shining sea. 

Last year, just 321 were in operation as a retro-chic old-school novelty, including nine drive-ins sparsely dotting Wisconsin in Shaw­ano, Wisconsin Dells, Monroe, Jefferson, Freedom, Fish Creek, ?Chilton and Chetek.

By comparison, back when I was a “Wonder Years” kid growing up in the late 1960s and ’70s waning heydays of the green pastures country drive-in, hometown metro Milwaukee had eight — eight — outdoor theaters alone among the 73 reaching for the sky across Wisconsin at their peak of popularity. 

Inexpensive summertime family entertainment back in the day, my folks were drive-in fans, hitting all the outskirt metro Milwaukee drive-ins at some point during my childhood — Bluemound, 41 Twin, 59 Outdoor, 15 Outdoor, 16 Outdoor, Victory,?Franklin 100.

Living on Milwaukee’s far northwest side, our regular go-to was Menomonee Falls’ nearby Starlight Outdoor Theatre, its soaring screen-back neon marquee overlooking highways 41 and 45, lit up brighter than a Las Vegas casino with its colorful twinkling stars. 

Outings to the Starlight often included a pre-show swing by Wilbur’s A&W for a decadent quart waxed cone of frosty, foamy root beer to pass around the car during the movie.

Passing what’s left of the Rouman Drive-In put me in a nostalgic blast-from-the-past reverie for the simple delight of drive-in theaters of yore.

As I headed back to the News-Review office in Eagle River, my mind was awash in a rich mélange of vivid drive-in memories — the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the feel.

Cartoon shorts and double- and triple-feature movies under the starry skies. Warm, gentle summer breezes. The immersive surround-sound effect provided by hundreds of window-mounted speakers. Mosquitos and bug spray. Blankets and lawn chairs. Sparklers and frisbees. Buttery concession stand popcorn and roller-grilled hot dogs. The old school pre-nanny state playgrounds filled with the exhilarating thrill of real, imminent bodily harm danger. Dancing anthropomorphic soda cups, popcorn boxes and hot dogs doing a silver screen “Let’s all go to the snack bar” conga line during intermission.

But like the decaying Rouman Drive-In, the outdoor theatres of my childhood are all memories now.

The Starlight, overrun by urban sprawl development, was closed in 1994, replaced by a big box Woodman’s supermarket.

The Victory, once billed in glorious ginormous neon as the “World’s Most Beautiful Drive-In” is now a subdivision.

The last of the drive-ins of my youth, 41 Twin along the namesake old Highway 41 alignment, closed in 2001, replaced by an 84-acre office park.

These days, I have to really exercise the ol’ gray matter to recall my last drive-in experiences, including a last hurrah pre-closure August 1995 viewing of “A?League of Their Own”?with my wife at Rockford, Ill.’s circa-1965 Belford Outdoor.

And I have fond memories of treating our kids to the memory-making joys of 2006 drive-in excursions in our Ohio days, taking in Disney double features at Andover’s Pymatuning Lake Drive-In and suburban Cleveland’s Mayfield Road Drive-In at Chardon.

While the indoor theaters may have all the creature comforts and none of the mosquitos, for sheer fun in my book, life was much butter — er, better — at the drive-in.

Take a kernel of advice. You auto go to the drive-in — if you can find one.