(Photo by John Cook) The Hi-Way Drive-In in Sandusky.

Still showing off: Hi-way Drive-In lighting Thumb sky again

Off the Beaten Path in Michigan's Thumb LogoSANDUSKY —The 5-foot-high metal poles – that once held speakers that could clip to car windows – still stand in the grass at the Hi-Way Drive-In five miles east of this Sanilac County city.

The 70-foot-wide steel movie screen, and its concrete-block concession stand, still rise along M-46, accessible by a gravel path leading from the highway.  

And when darkness comes on May 20, cars will sit parked once again when the show begins – in defiance of multiplexes, Netflix, iPads, Kindles and Nooks.

“I think it’s nostalgia,” said drive-in co-owner Lisa Kursinsky, 41, when asked why she and her husband, Steve, 46, keep the Hi-Way in operation. The drive-in opened in the late 1940s.  

“We get a lot of people who bring their grandkids because they went to the drive-in as a kid,” Lisa Kursinsky said. “We’ve been almost busier the last couple years. It’s picked up. I don’t know why, but I think maybe that’s it.

“You can sit in your car. You can bring your own food if you want. We do have a concession stand, but we let people bring their own food. I think it’s more affordable. You get two movies for the price of one, too. We always play a double feature, and it starts at dark.”

(Photo by John Cook) The Hi-Way Drive-In in Sandusky.
(Photo by John Cook) The Hi-Way Drive-In in Sandusky.

Lisa and Steve Kursinsky also own the Firebird Theater in Sandusky, a three-screen indoor cinema where it costs $6.50 for a movie for children ages 2 to 11, and $8.50 per movie for those 12 and older.

Those are the same prices customers pay – but for two movies – at the drive-in, one of about 10 remaining drive-ins in Michigan.

The Hi-Way Drive-In was destroyed by a tornado in the 1980s and – Steve Kursinsky said – ready for the wrecking ball when he bought it in 1999. Kursinsky is the son of Duane and Wanda Kursinsky, owners of the Sandusky Dairy Queen.

“Mom and dad always have run a very clean operation, and they believed in reinvesting back into the business, and expanding,” Steve Kursinsky said. “But when I bought the drive-in, my dad didn’t want me to. He actually said it was a bad investment. It was done. They were bulldozing it that year.

“I looked at it and I thought ‘Well, geez, everything’s here. It just needs painting and cleaning up.’ So we started cleaning, and cleaning, and cleaning, and started putting new roofs on things. Everything inside the bathrooms was made new.”

The Kursinskys also spent the money to convert to a digital-projection system at the drive-in, and updated the sound system so drive-in viewers hear the audio through an FM station on their car radio. The couple plans to expand the women’s restroom in the future to alleviate long lines of movie-goers waiting to use the facility.

Steve Kursinsky estimates business doubled after he spruced up the drive-in.

“After that, we kept on going with it, and we’ve built from there,” he said.

The business has benefited from a group of customers who generally haven’t attended drive-ins until now: 20-somethings and their children.

“Maybe they won’t go until they have kids,” Steve Kursinsky said. “But all of a sudden, they’ll show up with their kids, and it’s like this new nostalgic experience. Now just like that you have two more generations back hooked on it.”

The drive-in shows movies on weekends only starting May 20, but beginning June 10 will show movies every night until about the second weekend in September.

In the summer, the Kursinskys run their Firebird Theater multiplex, and their drive-in, simultaneously.

“The theater is a lot more serious…” Steve Kursinsky said. “Out at the drive-in, there’s always somebody that wants to share a pop.  If nobody’s causing problems, it’s not a problem. The only thing I do encourage is if you have too many beers, stay in your car. Sleep it off.

“I don’t have any problem with you sleeping in the field. If you’re planning on tying one on, bring a tent. Pitch a tent in the back row. Have fun. Don’t bother anybody.”

In an era of cellphones and streaming video, some teenagers attend the drive-in, Lisa Kursinsky said.

“They come out on dates, and it’s cute – I think ‘Oh, look at that,’ and then I think ‘Maybe not’ – as long as it’s not my kids,” she said.

“It’s privacy – that’s what drive-ins are known for,” Lisa Kursinsky adds with a laugh.

For others, the Hi-Way is a social experience.

“People bring their blankets out, people bring their lawnchairs out,” Steve Kursinsky said. “I’ve had roofers that throw couches on their ladder racks on top of their trucks, strap it down, come out here and throw the couch out in front of their truck, and sit on their couch and watch the movie.”

The drive-in, on 11 acres, holds a maximum of 350 cars. Steve Kursinsky said its largest attendance was about 1,200 people in 2002 when crowds jammed the venue for the double feature of “Mr. Deeds” and “Scooby-Doo.”

As the Hi-Way Drive-In survives for another summer, Steve Kursinsky said some people thank him for keeping it alive.

“Places like this, you have to invest money into ’em,” he said.

It may bode well for the drive-in that the Kursinskys are Sandusky High School graduates intent on carrying on a tradition in the dark summer sky five miles from their hometown in Michigan’s Thumb area, known for small towns and big farm fields.

“The drive-in doesn’t do badly,” Steve Kursinsky said. “When I bought it, I gave it one year, and then I was going to bulldoze it and turn it into commercial property. I wanted a downtown theater (in Sandusky). I didn’t want a summer job.

“You know what’s funny? There’s going to be a time where I’m only going to want a summer job, and not this year-round job. And I’ll keep that drive-in, and I’ll probably, someday, get rid of this (multiplex) theater, and only work summers.”

Tom Gilchrist is a staff writer at The Advertiser and can be reached at gilchrist@tcadvertiser.com

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