Cathy Free
A fan of drive-in movies since he was 2, Mark Gudenas opened The Shooting Star on the edge of Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante wilderness. The drive-in features classic films and cars from the '60s.

ESCALANTE, Garfield County — As a star-struck boy in Illinois, Mark Gudenas used to jump the fence at the drive-in theater in his hometown to catch the latest movies featuring Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor and Steve McQueen.

Later, when he was old enough to drive, he showed up at the Double Drive-In outside Chicago in a matador red '63 Cadillac convertible, roomy enough for “three friends in the front seat, three friends in the back seat and four in the trunk.”

“It was a fun time, a simpler time,” recalls Gudenas, now 57. “Hanging out at the drive-in — that was our social scene. And it was a blast.”

Today, he no longer has to scramble over the fence for his movie fix, because Gudenas owns the drive-in. In an era when outdoor big screens are rarer than 29-cent gas, he’s opened a drive-in theater in one of the world’s best places to view the stars: on the edge of nearly 2 million acres of wilderness in Escalante.

At his Shooting Star Drive-In and Airstream Resort, guests can take their pick of vintage convertibles — from a '61 Rambler to a '65 Galaxy 500 — to watch classic films from Gudenas’ extensive collection.

After the movie, they retire to Airstreams decorated in the style of Hollywood stars shooting on location, from “Holly’s Hideway” featuring a little black dress and tiara from Audrey Hepburn’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” to “Sugar’s Shack” honoring Marilyn Monroe, and “Bogie’s Boathouse” replicating Humphrey Bogart’s digs when he was filming “Key Largo” with Lauren Bacall.

Now in its second season, The Shooting Star was a lifelong dream for Gudenas, a former marketing director who moved from the San Francisco Bay Area after falling in love with southern Utah while visiting the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument for the first time 11 years ago.

“When I saw this spot in Escalante, I knew it was the perfect place to combine my three favorite things: Airstreams, drive-ins and classic cars,” he says. “Airstreams are so cool — they’re the pinnacle of American industrial design, evoking the freedom of the open road. And drive-ins, well, who doesn’t have fond memories of those?”

Eager to share his fascination with the '60s, Gudenas recently invited me to take a very long drive and meet him for a Free Lunch of steak and veggies, cooked on the grill outside “The Duke,” a rugged Airstream that pays tribute to John Wayne when he was shooting “The Searchers.”

He has no regrets about trading his suit and tie for a Hawaiian shirt and Panama hat, especially now that he can “drive with the top down” every night at sundown as he entertains tourists from around the world with classic cartoons and movies starring Ann-Margret, Paul Newman, Doris Day and Cary Grant.

“My very first memory was when I was a 2-year-old in pajamas, bouncing around the backseat of my parents’ Ford Fairlane at the drive-in,” he says. “The movie was 'Bridge on the River Kwai.' I’ve loved drive-in movies ever since.”

After he bought 25 acres for The Shooting Star, Gudenas scoured the country for vintage Airstreams and convertibles, painstakingly refurbishing them until they took him back to 1965. At the drive-in, he took the starters out of the cars but left the keys in the ignition for an “authentic” touch, then stocked the snack bar with vintage candy, soda in glass bottles and retro popcorn boxes.

As the sun sets and a full moon rises above the red cliffs across the highway, Gudenas starts up a classic dancing hot dog commercial and grins.

“I’m living my dream,” he says as guests pile into the cars to watch “Bye-Bye Birdie.” “Classic movies, classic cars and happy memories. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

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Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.