Minnesota’s drive-in movie era fades, but some won’t let it die

The sky above the Starlite Drive-in is true to its name on this mid-summer night. There isn’t a city light for a few miles. The not-quite-full moon is rising above the snack bar. “The Incredibles” are almost done saving the world again on the giant screen that sits on a dozen acres from America’s past. And Dave Quincer’s stress level is peaking because from his spot outside a ticket booth, he can see the future.

He’s a fourth-generation theater owner who comes by his worry honestly. He’s managed to keep the films rolling, but Hollywood’s demands and the changing economics of movies are making it difficult for theaters like his to go on.

Drive-in movies were once a staple of small-town Minnesota summer life. In the 1950s, there were nearly 80 across the state. Now, there are only six, including the Starlite and screens in Elko, Long Prairie, Warren, Lake Elmo, and Luverne.

Quincer, 53, has been pouring money into the Starlite since he bought it a few years ago. He knows one of the projectors is bound to give up the fight one of these nights.

He wouldn’t have bought the place if the ancient projectors, which required a projectionist and the splicing of huge reels of film, hadn’t already been replaced with digital equipment; a demand by Hollywood studios that turned thousands of drive-ins into Walmarts. But they’re old now, and the projector needs a new motherboard and software update. That’s a $4,000 fix.

Thunder hasn’t yet accompanied the far-off lightning that flashes across the western sky, so you can almost hear Quincer doing the math in his head. Next year, Hollywood will demand another format, and that’ll mean a new projection system for each of the two screens.

He thinks he can nurse them through this season, but next year will require big money.

All in the family

Quincer’s family once owned the Prairie Drive-in in Perham, Minn. That closed in 1987. Their Wadena drive-in went black in 1989 after the anxiety got to be too much for Quincer’s dad.

“Years ago, my dad had issues too because Friday nights were just a big beer party and he knew he was going to have trouble,” he said. “So, my dad was popping Tums and he had a nervous stomach.”

It was a good, if challenging life for a kid, though. “I used to play on the floor of the ticket booth while my dad sold tickets,” Dave says. “To me, being at the drive-in in the summer was a fun thing. My dad was always working so if I wanted to see him, I needed to work there.”

The family had a cabin by the lake in Perham, too. So, whoever worked at the drive-in got to stay at the lake.

As the drive-ins closed, the Quincer family kept only The Cozy, an indoor theater in Wadena, which his son, Matt, runs on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays when Dave, his wife, Lynn, and their son, Thomas, drive 100 miles each day to Litchfield to keep a cultural icon alive.

When the Starlite came on the market for $70,000, the family held a vote. “I was the only one to vote ‘no’,” Lynn Quincer said. And with good reason: it’s a two hour-plus ride from Wadena, often late at night when deer rule the road.

But she knows the theater business. She met her husband when they were teenagers; she worked the concession stand.

That’s also how Quincer’s parents met. That’s how his grandparents met, too.

“The nice thing about my mom and grandmother, they were all ‘concession girls’,” Dave said. “They understood the business. They understood the pressure it puts on a family. It’s not conducive to family life at all. You work nights and weekends, and if your kid has a game or a band concert, it’s always at night when the theater is open.”

Movies and mosquitoes

On this late June night, the family, along with one of Thomas’ friends — Henry Fitzsimmons, 18, who’s agreed to help out — arrives at 6:30 p.m. The ticket window doesn’t open until 8 p.m. and the first show doesn’t start until 9:30 p.m., but there’s not much time to waste.

The bathrooms need cleaning, the hot dogs need to be started, as does the popcorn, there’s a new teenager starting work tonight, and the air conditioning units need to be fired up in the two projection shacks. The laptops that control both screens from the tiny ticket booth need to be programmed with the night’s offerings.

But there’s always time for a little worry. With Litchfield, like much of Minnesota, in the grips of a heat wave, people might decide to stay indoors. And then there’s that cold front heading Litchfield’s way.

“It’s all weather dependent; if we get rain at 5, even if the sun is out at 8, people have already decided,” Quincer says. “So, we’d be screwed.”

And the competition is fierce. The same movie is playing at the Hollywood theater down the road, a venue with ties to the Starlite. Fred and Lloyd Schnee opened the Starlite on June 28, 1956. They owned the Hollywood on Litchfield’s main street.

“If you had a theater in town, you didn’t want someone in town building a drive in to compete with you,” Quincer said.

At one point, there were five screens at the Starlite, but the Schnees sold the place in 1976. It closed five years later and stayed closed until Minneapolis resident Tim Eller, who made his living in the theater projector installation business, reopened it 17 years later, selling it to Quincer in 2015.

Two abandoned screens at the Starlite are overgrown, their projection shacks now a cobwebbed museum of drive-in history. Behind one is a cultural cemetery: a pile of posts that once held speakers. A fifth screen fell victim to a tornado a few years ago.

“Tim was probably going to close the place if he didn’t find a buyer,” he said. “There’s six drive-ins left in Minnesota, and there’s a generation of people who haven’t experienced it.”

Quincer figures about 50 to 80 carloads of people will show up on this Friday night — $7 a head, no moving from one screen to another once you’ve chosen which movie to see — though that’s still a far cry from his Friday night record of 153 cars for Stephen King’s “It” last year.

But it’s been a good year for the first-run movies he needs to show this season, although the rains of April prevented him from opening until late spring.

The studios get a cut of the box office — half or more — but he’ll get enough cars to at least break even or better, unlike his recent test to open on Thursdays. Few people showed up. The Starlite is closed on Thursdays now.

“There’s so many aspects of this business I can’t control. People complain about mosquitoes,” he says. “I’m surrounded by farm fields that are full of drainage ditches and water with all this rain.”

Nostalgia wins the night

More than halfway through the first feature, a car leaves. A little while later, so does another.

Maybe they didn’t like the movie. Maybe the kids were scared of “The Incredibles.” Maybe 11 p.m. is too late to be sitting in a field in Litchfield.

Maybe it was the mosquitoes, a thought that makes Quincer tap into some drive-in memories. He recites perfectly an old ad for drive-in mosquito repellent. It’s an affliction from being a movie projectionist from the time he was 15.

 

Quincer has fixed the place by restoring it to its art deco roots. He’s thinking of returning to the days of speakers that hung on car windows, against the advice of a colleague. You can only take nostalgia so far.

For now, however, nostalgia works. Quincer’s attendance prediction turns out to be accurate.

It was more than the movie that drew Butch and Robyn Peterson of Becker, Minn., to the Starlite. Their daughter, Cathy Yackel of St. Cloud hadn’t been to the drive-in since she was a young girl and the family lived in Coon Rapids. The drive-in there closed in 1986. It’s a subdivision of homes now.

On this night, the Petersons hosted Yackel and her young children on the back of a pickup truck.

“We wanted to continue the tradition,” Butch said.

And Quincer’s upgrades paid off for Karri Vrabel of Minneapolis.

“It was just chaos; you couldn’t figure out where the screen was,” she said of the Starlite’s bad old days. “The weeds were at least 3 feet high.”

“This is cool. It’s grass and not gravel here,” she said, adding the movie selection made it worth the nearly two-hour drive.

“I always worry about customers being unhappy, but for the most part when they get here they’re happy and excited to be here and my concern is we don’t do anything to mess that up,” Quincer said.

“The Incredibles” save their corner of the planet and the snack bar hosts the intermission rush, which may not be as plentiful as Quincer would like. Pushing a broom after starting the second feature, he said he may have to start enforcing his rule against bringing food into the drive-in. “I need the concession money to keep the place going.”

But he said he doesn’t think he is the Starlite’s last chance. He’s been told a chain might be interested in buying the place someday.

By midnight, the snack bar is spotless, the second feature is halfway done, a colleague is keeping an eye on things, and the family piles into the SUV for the drive back to Wadena.

There might be light in the eastern sky by the time they get some sleep before turning around and driving back tomorrow to make another stand against the advancing alternatives.

If the deer and that projector behave themselves.

  • Got a drive-in movie memory to share (of course, you do!)? Tell us all about it.

    • MrE85

      I worked the Shadeland Drive In in Indianapolis as a high school student and the Y & W in Bloomington (IN) as a college student. Both are long gone now.

      I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but doing a walk around the back row during a movie at the Y & W, I encountered a enraged man dragging a woman out of the drive-in. The guy was enormous, and the woman was terrified and pleading for help. I had no phone, radio, or weapon of any sort, and I realized that as much as I wanted to stop this man, there was little I could do. When talking and shouting to the man had no effect, I sprinted away to the nearest phone, which was in the concession stand. It took me 2-3 minutes to run there (it seemed like forever) and call the police. In another 15 minutes they were there, but could not find the couple in the darkness. That night, a single vehicle was left in the lot.

      I never found out what happened to that woman, and my actions (or inactions) have haunted me ever since. Could I have done more? Did I make the right decision? I still don’t know.

    • Jim in RF

      Being an out-stater, I spent a lot of time in drive-ins but don’t think I’ve got any special stories other than jumper cables in the dark and the mosquitos. Every time I drive past the Lake Elmo one, though, I sing a little of The Great Compromise by John Prine, though.

    • Rob

      At the Sioux Drive-In in Rapid City SD, I remember seeing a double feature in the mid-60s of Mr. Limpet (starring Don Knotts, who falls overboard at sea and turns into an animated fish), and the sci fi/horror movie, Day of the Triffids. The latter involved a convoluted story about a comet hitting the earth that caused most people viewing it to go blind, and a biologist doing experiments with plant-like creatures that grow massive and run amok, attacking people. There was also some Red Scare subtext (which, at the tender age of nine, was of course totally lost on me). Superior Hollywood entertainment, for sure.

    • AL287

      There were four Drive-In theatres in my hometown of Baton Rouge—The Airline, The Rebel, the Tiger and the Florida. All of them had swing sets and slides for the kids.

      Our family of eight would pile into our 1959 Pontiac Catalina station wagon (for those who are old enough the one with big fins on the back and the chrome grill). My brothers and sisters put on pajamas and when we got sleepy went to sleep on the car mats in the back.

      We usually went to the Tiger or the Airline features as they were closer to home.

      We also went to the drive-in in Pensacola, Florida when we were on vacation.

      Here are some of the features we watched over the years:

      “Wait Until Dark”
      “Charade”
      “Swiss Family Robinson”
      “Tora, Tora, Tora”
      “Funny Girl”
      “Spencer’s Mountain”

      This brings back so many great memories.

    • boB from WA

      Was with a family friend (we were both in 10th grade at the time and she had the license to drive) and went to the Y&W in Merrillville IN twice. The 1st time was to see “Woodstock”. I hid in the trunk so as not to be charged for admission. The 2nd time was to see a double: “3 in the Attic” and “4 in the Basement” – those were the high quality pictures of their time .

    • X.A. Smith

      I know I attended a drive-in several times as a young kid. I remember laying in the back of our Ford Pinto eating popcorn. I remember the last time I went, the features were the Twilight Zone movie, and Superman II or III.

    • ec99

      I used to go to the Rose drive-in on Snelling in Roseville, next to the broasted chicken place whose name I don’t remember. Last movie I saw there was “Support Your Local Sheriff” in the late 60s.

  • emersonpie

    Double dating, in the back seat with my boyfriend, both of us trying to watch the movie while the couple in the front seat really went at it.

  • Gary F

    I can no longer go to the France Avenue Drive In in Edina. Not because it isn’t there anymore, but that in the early eighties I was caught for underage drinking and my parents had to pick me up and was told I was banned from the establishment. The movie was Body Heat.

  • jon

    The way movies are projected has changed, cars are changing too…

    I wonder if electric cars will make things better or worse… on the one hand installing chargers for them would be pricey, but a field of chargers (maybe a few fast chargers) can make the place a destination for those needing to fill up…

    Nearly silent hvac systems running throughout the movie in your own car has some appeal to it (stay cool/warm keep the mosquitos out of the car, no running engines or burning gas, just using the electrons pumped in via the charger)

    And a double features means about 5 hours of charging, that’s enough bring most cars on the market now from empty to full on a level 2 charger…

    I’ve often said movie theaters should have charging stations, they can install some cheap level 2 chargers the cars are going to be parked there for a few hours at a time so a more expensive fast charger isn’t needed, and if you happen to be along a major travel route being able to stop, charge, catch a matinee before continuing on your trip seems like a nice break… I’ve never considered drive-in theaters.

  • Dave S.

    We used to go to the Navarre Drive In when I was a tyke. I remember seeing The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (starring Don Knotts) and getting so scared I hid under the dashboard.

  • Barton

    I have never been to a drive-in movie. I’m 47, so my age isn’t a reason – they definitely existed throughout my life. I don’t know, it was just never a thing for us, I guess. I kinda feel like I’ve been missing out now….. sort of.

  • wjc

    My problem with drive-ins simply boils down to astronomy. If the first show doesn’t start until 9:30pm due to our late sunsets, I’m a goner. No way I’ll make it through one movie. Two? No way, no how.

  • RBHolb

    Mu mother loved taking us to drive-in movies. We could bring our own snacks and treats, so there was no concern about the costs of visiting the concession stand. The first feature was usually something family-friendly. By the time the second, more adult, feature came on, we were asleep in the back seat.

    We got to see a movie, and mom and dad got a relatively inexpensive night out. A win-win, if you don’t count the lost revenue for the concession stand operator.

  • John F.

    I grew up by the Starlite in nearby Cokato. For older Millennial rural kids, it was an inexpensive way to spend an evening and our parents knew where to find us (no smartphones, what a time to be alive!). Props to the family for trying to keep a tradition alive, I hope I can take my daughter there someday.

  • Jeff

    I vaguely recall going to the drive-thru (I think they only exist in Ohio) with a friend’s older brother and loading up on 3.2% beer before the trip to the Montrose drive-in, drinking lots of bad beer (Schlitz?) for the first time, and barfing in the backseat of their Vega on the way home. Not sure what the movie was. But sigh, what a night!

  • KTFoley

    So cool — thanks for doing this!

  • Here’s a cool image from the old projection shack. These round “tables” spin. When they got the movie on four reels, it would typically take two projectors. You’d string up one reel — that’s 20 minutes — and maybe you remember the little white dots that would signal a projectionist that it was time to kick on the next projector with the next reel.

    By taking the four reels and splicing them together. They have a giant celluloid roll on the top feeding the projector, which would spit it out and be taken up by the tray on the bottom.

    The lawnmowers are stored in there now.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f5de1b629869d384d9759885b4addee627abe02e4bc57f007f938d3bbaccfc0b.jpg

  • Jack

    Not in Minnesota but interesting
    Think I ran across this one in Colorado on s past road trip. Drive in theater with motel.

    https://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/20900

  • Jack Ungerleider

    We didn’t go to the Drive-in that much when I was a kid. (At least nothing stands out.) There were two that I remember that were within about 10 miles. Both on the same state highway: NY Route 303. The closer of the two had a driving range/mini golf course at the “back” of the Drive-In area. (I don’t know if they were owned by the same people or not.) The best part was that the tee boxes for the driving range faced the screen. (One screen late 70s – early 80s) So we could see what was on the screen and comment about it without hearing the dialogue.

  • 212944

    The Vali-Hi in Lake Elmo runs triple-features, all first-run movies.

    When they lead with a family-friendly movie (such as “Incredibles 2”) there is often a line formed in both directions before the gate opens at 6 on the weekends. By showtime, the lot is packed and the very well-staffed concession both has had lines constantly, selling what must be thousands of hot dogs, sodas and bags of popcorn each night (despite the fact that they allow people to tailgate pre-movie, part of the reason there is a line at 6 p.m.).

    And as the families pack up to leave, there are cars waiting outside to replace them for the second movie of the night.

    • Though I live in Woodbury, that description makes me want to head for Litchfield.

      • 212944

        I am with you on that, but I suspect that that Vali-Hi model makes it easier to replace failing equipment. Weekends leading with a family-friendly movie, they are packed.

        • Dave said Vali-Hi is the only drive in left that’s making any real money. Gonna have to keep raking it in to keep that from becoming a shopping center the way things are going in the east metro.

          • 212944

            Dave?

            I’ve been told by other business owners in the area that it is no secret that the Vali-Hi has been open to offers for years. Won’t be long before someone offers the right price for that land.

          • Yeah, Dave. Did you even read my post? Hey, I’m working here! :*)

          • 212944

            Sorry, I thought your reply read, “Dave since …” instead of “Dave said …”

            I even misread it that way more than once. My addled brain is more addled than usual, which is saying something.

            (And, yes, I read it …. thank you for putting the time into it that you did).

      • Ickster

        Your story makes me want to try the Starlite again, even though it’s a long way from MSP. Went there back in 2002; the screen was terrible and the mosquitoes in the back 40 where we were were simply incredible.

        Sounds like it’s a lot better than it used to be.

        The Vali-Hi is OK, but focuses too much on teen blockbusters for my tastes. Most weekends I look at what they have playing and decide against it. The Cottage View had a better lineup, but Cottage Grove decided a Walmart was a better use of the land. Oddly enough, I haven’t been back to CG since the Cottage View closed.

        (edited to get rid of weird line breaks)

  • Ryan Baron

    Some of my best High School memories came from the Long Prairie Drive-In. It was time spent with friends talking and just being together. We tried to go every weekend during the summers. We didn’t always watch the movies but that wasn’t what it was always about. The atmosphere is great. It is unique and nostalgic. I still enjoy catching a movie there once or twice a summer-even being 220 miles away now. I am glad to see that I must arrive 2 hours before the movie to get a good parking spot because the crowds are so large. I love to see families bringing their kids and grandkids for picnics long before the movie even starts.

  • crystals

    Thanks to you and the Quincer family for this story and glimpse into a true labor of love.