TV & Film

Lakeside Cinema

Photo: Bryce Richter

Photo: Bryce Richter

On summer nights for more than three decades, it’s been location, location, location for those who settle in to watch free movies on the Memorial Union Terrace.

In the age of surround sound and stadium seating, moviegoers who crowd the Memorial Union Terrace on Monday nights each summer make a deliberate choice to eschew those creature comforts for the atmosphere and lake breezes.

Since 1978, the Wisconsin Union Directorate film committee has sponsored free movies on the Terrace. Originally called Starlight Cinema, a name later co-opted by an avant-garde film series, Lakeside Cinema brings action, comedy, and cult classics to its outdoor audience.

Each summer centers on a theme. Last year’s — quests — kicked off with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Other recent themes highlighted movies from the 1990s, including Wayne’s World, and musical classics such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The moviegoing experience vastly improved last summer with the purchase of a high-definition projector and a new screen (replacing what looked like a bed sheet with a line down the middle). The image on the screen is now bigger and brighter, and the dialogue and action scenes are easier to hear over conversations at nearby tables.

UW students and city residents gather on the Terrace as the sunset paints the sky and motorboats bob offshore with lights illuminated. Serious viewers plant themselves front and center, and some look as though they have been there since midafternoon, surviving on provisions offered by the brat stand.

As dusk makes way for dark, empty chairs are annexed from neighboring tables and maneuvered to ensure a better vantage point for watching the screen. Some viewers sit on the low stone wall that runs midway through the Terrace, and others park folding chairs on the narrow patch of grass behind. On one summer night, a bride and groom made their way through the crowd, eating ice cream cones.

Music blares from speakers before the projector turns on. People cheer when a familiar movie title comes up on the screen, primed to laugh at famous lines and savor their favorite cinematic moments, along with the summer night.

Published in the Summer 2013 issue


  • Joyce Godsey Ericsson July 1, 2024

    I no longer live in Madison but come “home” every chance I get.
    This summer is our WHS class of ’64 reunion. Friends and I will definitely come on UW campus for ice cream!

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