Interview with Big Sky Drive-In owner - Mary Bork

Big Sky Drive-In is one of only ten drive-in movie theaters in the state of Wisconsin. Located just east of downtown Wisconsin Dells, Big Sky offers double features of first run movies nightly May through September. Recently, I got to spend time with owner Mary Bork, who for the past thirty-three years has helped bring the outdoor movie viewing experience to tourists, as well as area residents young and old. 

Tell me a little about yourself Mary and how you got into the movie business. Are you originally from the Dells?

MARY BORK: I was born in Green Bay, but I moved here in 1980 and started working here at the Drive-In in 1981. My parents Don & Dorothy Legros used to own it. They bought it in 1980 and I worked for them for many years. When they got older, I then took it over.

Did you always want to be in the movie business?

I don’t know about owning a Drive-In, but I worked at a couple of my dad’s indoor ones since I was child. He had theaters in both Arcadia & Neillsville,Wisconsin.

My parents moved to Arcadia in 1971. I worked for them there, and then when I graduated high school I worked at Neillsville. Ran that one for a year and a half and then came here.

The Drive-In was operating before your parents took over. Do you know when it originally opened?

I think it was opened in about 1953. It was Winnebago Drive-In then. My dad changed the name to Dells Drive-In, and then when he put the 2nd screen in 1994, he changed it to Big Sky.

What’s the story behind the name Big Sky?

I don’t know how that came up, but it probably wasn’t such a good idea! In 2005 a Drive-In was built in Texas and they named it Big Sky. So now, every time you go on the Internet, people come here and think I’m playing what that guy is playing! (laughs)

That sort of stinks, especially since you guys had the name first.

That does! I’ll ask people and they’ll say: “No, I was on the Dells website.” – and I’m like, I’m not sure about that… (laughs)

Last month you made the switch from film projection to digital. Is there a big difference in the picture?

The picture is a lot better – way clearer and brighter – so it’s really good.

Was the conversion a big cost for you?

Yes, highly. They came out with a program last April for Drive-Ins where the movie companies would help fund it.

That’s pretty cool.

But I didn’t go with that – I did it on my own. So, I’ll be paying for that for the next twenty years! (laughs)

Besides the picture quality, what’s the biggest difference between film and digital?

The movies now come on a flash drive about the size of one of those old 8-track tapes, where before they were shipped in five or six huge film reels that we had to haul upstairs to the projection room.

They say the digital files are really encrypted. I heard it’s three times more security then the White House, but I’m like really? Come on now! (laughs) I don’t think it’s quite that good.

Tell me a little about the process of getting the movies going each evening.

Well, when it’s time to start the movie, I have it rigged specifically so that you don’t have to go upstairs. You just have to push these two buttons, one for each screen, and the films start up by themselves. I used to have to go up there, start it, thread it, and stick around to watch and make sure things began smoothly. It wasn’t like this new stuff. If the film quit, it would fry the film and there would be white on the screen. Or it would wrap itself around that big table you saw that held all the reels – what a mess! And the stuff wasn’t easy to fix either. You couldn’t get it back together. You’d have to splice it because it gets so twisted – it was an incredible mess. But it was fun. I mean, I miss it. I ran this place for the past thirty-three years on film. I had to rig stuff up. I fixed things on the projector. I did all the maintenance.

How often did you have to fix something that went wrong when dealing with film?

About once every couple weeks. We play first run movies, so they were generally new, but the 2nd features were usually a little older, three weeks old or so. They would send me one from another theater – usually from places being run by teens who didn’t care, so you would get the film and wouldn’t know what was heads, what was tails, what reels was what. So that could get you into trouble. I did that once. I ran a movie with the reel in the wrong place – it was like twenty years ago – and nobody said nothing. Well, one person came up to me and said you know, that movie seemed a little weird, cause something happened latter and it shouldn’t of. I said really? Then I knew exactly what it was. (laughs)

Often you had to really work to fix things though. Let’s say they were six reels and there was a problem in reel three. You had to take the first three reels all off to get to reel three. Everybody thinks if something happens, you can just back it up. You can’t do that. You can do that with digital though.

What’s the most memorable thing that’s happened here over the years?

We had the Weinermobile here last year – that was pretty neat – that thing is huge!

Do you get people trying to sneak in?

Oh yeah, they still do that. In fact, last week my sister hid in the trunk just to give me a good laugh. Pulled up to the ticket booth with her friend driving, started banging on the trunk – they thought they were hilarious.

What do you do when you catch people?

Well we make them pay – we should charge them double! (laughs) There’s a lot of sneaky ones – there is a lot of blankets coming in here – or one person coming in to a kids movie by themselves. The teens do it mostly. They’ll only be one in the car – oh I’m meeting some friends – not exactly… We keep our eye on those.

Sounds like something I would do when I was younger! Well, before I go, you got to tell me about this Big Momma burger I keep hearing about.

Well it originated back in the day, invented by my mother. It’s a third-pound of ground chuck steak and I think it was actually made by mistake. We were making burgers and made a couple big ones. They went over really good and so we just left it as that. It comes on a five inch bun which you can’t get in stores, you have to order than from the bakery. They’re way bigger then normal.

Well, it sounds pretty good to me. Thank you Mary for spending time with me and giving me the tour, I can’t wait to come back here to catch my next flick – and taste one of those burgers!