When I drove old Highway 51 up the length of Wisconsin earlier this year I made note of the numerous supper clubs along the route and decided that you could write a book about these uniquely Wisconsin restaurants along this uniquely historic route. Some day I just might write that book.
You could probably also write a book about the drive-ins along Highway 51 through Wisconsin. If you did, the Circus Drive-In would probably be the final chapter. It was the only one that I saw along the way and, sadly, it didn’t open this summer.
Eating in restaurants was a very different experience before our car culture produced the drive-in and other road side eatries. Average Americans seldom ate in restaurants and when they did, it was typically for a special occasion – an anniversary, birthday, funeral, etc. – and one probably dressed up for it. Our society has become far more casual since then and drive-ins are partly responsible.
J. G. Kirby is credited with opening the first drive-in restaurant in 1921. Restaurants which catered to travelers were not new but Kirby’s Pig Stand in Dallas, Texas, offered a new format where diners got their food more quickly and ate in their cars rather than in a dining room. The speed and convenience of the drive-in restaurant made it an instant hit that was quickly copied by others such as A&W, Maid-Rite, Howard Johnson and, of course, the McDonald brothers.
While large franchise and chain operations were part of the action almost from the very start, small, regional chains and locally owned restaurants were often just as popular in their respective communities. My home town of Beloit, Wis., was home to several drive-in restaurants located along two major highways leading out of town, U.S. Highway 51 and Wisconsin State Highway 13. (Before the Interstate Highway system brought I-90 along the east side of Beloit, Highways 51 and 13 were the two most heavily traveled routes here as they connected Beloit to Janesville, the county seat, and Madison, the state capital.)
For some reason, most of the chain operations – Dog ‘N’ Suds, Hollywood Drive-in and McDonalds – were located on Highway 13 on the city’s west side while the two most popular locally owned drive-ins – the Toot & Tell and Circus Drive-In – were located on Highway 51 on the north side. The local drive-ins had more interesting menus that included offerings such as fried chicken and smelt along with the usual hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries and onion rings.
The drive-in also became a hub for social life in the 1950s and ‘60s. The movie American Graffiti glorified the cultural impact of the drive-in but it did not exaggerate it. In many communities drive-ins were wildly popular gathering places, particulary for teenagers anxious to show off their cars (or their dads’ cars) or hook up with the opposite sex.
Like everything else in life, though, the drive-in has evolved over the decades. Diners are no longer content to eat in their cars in the parking lot and instead they either come inside or take the food home (assuming it makes it all the way home before it’s eaten). Instead of socializing with their friends in the parking lot, they now network with them on their smart phones while waiting in the drive through lane.
Traditional drive-ins like the Circus Drive-In have become victims of these changes, particularly in northern areas where winter weather has always posed a challenge to their business. The Toot ‘N’ Tell, across the road from the Circus Drive-In, went out of business long ago. It was remodeled into a more traditional restaurant that didn’t prove viable, either. The empty building is now for sale.
Different owners of the Circus Drive-In have tried to make a go of it over the past several years but the public just doesn’t seem interested. The unique architecture of the facility was a drawing card in its heyday. It’s now a detriment as it makes it difficult to repurpose the property into anything else.
Perhaps someone will come along with just the right formula for making the Circus Drive-In a success again, but I don’t hold out much hope. Time, as they say, moves on and there is little point in waxing sentimental over such things. We shed a little tear and move on.