These Minnesota Drive-In Movie Theaters Are Hanging On

The drive-in filmgoing experience has dwindled in the state, but several options still offer retro delights
Only four dedicated drive-in theaters remain in the state
Only four dedicated drive-in theaters remain in the state

Photo by Minnevangelist

They said the drive-in movie business would never work in Minnesota.

That was the consensus that kept the state lagging behind a growing national trend, which saw more than 200 of these new, car-centric exhibitors screening outdoor movies by 1947. But that year, The Bloomington became the first of its kind in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Seventy-five years later, we’re still proving wrong the assumption that drive-in movies aren’t viable in Minnesota. Sure, the climate makes it impractical seven months of the year. But during those foreshortened seasons, Minnesota is a perfect place to take in a drive-in flick. The summertime dark begins to leach the heat from the ground, and a twilight breeze blows through the open windows just as the credits begin to roll. The butter on the popcorn stays warm but the ice still clinks in the sodas. It’s showtime.

During the drive-in heyday of the 1960s and ’70s, there were over a dozen drive-in theaters in the Twin Cities metro, and more than 80 drive-ins statewide. Only four fully-dedicated drive-in theaters still operate around the state today—in Litchfield, Long Prairie, Luverne, and Warren. All of the metro drive-ins have closed. Still, the folks keeping the drive-in movie projectors rolling tend to have deep roots in the business.

That’s the case with Dave Quincer, owner and operator of the Starlite Drive-In in Litchfield. He bought the Starlite in 2015, but his history with movies under the stars goes back to his childhood.

His father, Rich Quincer, and his uncle Don Quincer opened the Wadena Drive-In and for several decades operated two different drive-in theaters simultaneously. A young Dave would follow along, watching movies and helping out until he became a projectionist at age 15. It was a tender age to be in charge of the movies they were screening at the time.

“My first weekend was ‘Hot T-Shirts’ and ‘Gas Pump Girls,’” Quincer says with a chuckle. “My next week was ‘Prom Night’ and ‘Phantasm.’ That was a pretty good one.”

When Quincer cites two movie titles together, he’s referring to a double-feature, which remains a drive-in tradition. The first movie begins at dusk, and the second follows, after a brief intermission to allow for a bathroom break and another trip to the snack bar. All four Minnesota drive-ins still play double features every night they’re open.

The Starlite has the distinction of being the only two-screen drive-in theater in the state. That allows the owners to show a pair of family-friendly movies on one screen while offering PG-13 and R-rated fare on the second. That’s especially important, Quincer says, because the rowdier, more teenager-centric drive-in culture of the ’60s and ’70s has given way to a much more family-minded atmosphere.

“Most of the kids on a Friday night weren’t there to watch the movie, nor did they know what was showing. It was just the place to be,” Quincer says. “Now it’s a nostalgic thing for people. Grandparents bringing grandkids, families, kids running around before the movie. We try to cater to the family audience as much as we can.”

It’s also a family business for Steve Novak, whose father, Leonard, bought the Sky-Vu Drive-In in Warren, north of Grand Forks, in 1973 before passing it along to Steve, who works with his son, Christopher.

“I’ve been through every change from ’65 to now,” says Steve Novak.

The Sky-Vu is the only local drive-in open seven days a week during the season. And it has changed remarkably little since its inception, featuring the same marquee, ticket booth, concession stand—and the same homemade pizza—that its audiences have been enjoying for decades.

The only planned additions at the Sky-Vu are more picnic seating and on-site camping to facilitate travel plans for its patrons. Novak says he gets a lot of customers on vacations from quite far away. It’s a popular destination for University of North Dakota students, particularly students from other countries studying abroad, who want to experience this uniquely American tradition.

The Classic Car Cruise at the Long Drive-In in Long Prairie
The Classic Car Cruise at the Long Drive-In in Long Prairie


Property Values

Alas, the drive-in is threatened by another American tradition: expansion. One of the major reasons for drive-in closures from coast to coast is that these theaters were often built in rural areas within easy driving distance of cities and larger towns. Suburban expansion jacks up the value of the property—a necessarily large plot of land—making both the tax burden and the temptation to sell significant. That seems to have been the fate of the Vali-Hi in Lake Elmo, which showed its last movie in 2021 and by all indications will not re-open.

The real-estate element that has endangered the drive-in was, to some degree, built into the equation, explains Bill Kenney, author of “Twin Cities Picture Show: A Century of Moviegoing,” from the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

“For a lot of those people, it was a real-estate venture,” Kenney says. An entrepreneur would buy a plot of suburban land they thought would be of much greater value in 10 or 20 years, then put the infrastructure for a drive-in on the grounds so they could make money while the property value appreciated. “Yeah, they liked the movies and it was fun to be in that business, but they were looking at it as a way to build wealth.”

In 2023, the remaining drive-in owners are in it for the love of the game. That includes Michelle Claseman, owner of the Long Drive-In in Long Prairie. She took over the Long in 2013 from her mother, who started working there in the 1960s.

One of the biggest changes to the drive-in is the sound system. The soundtrack used to be piped in over detachable speakers mounted on poles next to the parking stalls, but most modern outdoor theaters project the sound over a low-frequency radio station. The Long has the radio option as well, but it still has several rows of those vintage speakers.

The Long also offers on-site camping for overnight guests, as well as several spaces for RV parking. Reservations for both should be made ahead of time, though, as they are quite popular. Claseman says one family even picks a weekend every year and rents all the RV spaces for an annual reunion.

Verne Drive-In in Luverne
Verne Drive-In in Luverne


Family Business     

Family is indeed the theme of the modern-day drive-in, but it’s not entirely a legacy business. There’s a new generation of drive-in theater proprietors.

Gracie Rozeboom is the manager of the Verne Drive-In in Luverne. Since March of 2020 she has run the Verne with her brother, Doug. This brother-and-sister team is still in their early 20s.

Doug started working at the concession booth as a teenager, and he liked it so much he convinced Gracie to do the same. It was about the only job kids could get as 14-year-olds, Gracie notes. When the previous owner decided to move to Wyoming, they bought it, surely making them Minnesota’s youngest theater impresarios.

Becoming a business owner on the cusp of a global pandemic is particularly daunting, although drive-in theaters experienced a bit of a renaissance. At a time when indoor entertainment was risky and public gatherings were few, a movie under the stars in a wide-open field was the perfect solution. It introduced the drive-in to a whole new audience.

Gracie says they found a lot of success running old favorites and modern classics—“our biggest turnout was for ‘Hocus Pocus’”—as well as screenings of recorded concerts from big touring acts like Garth Brooks.

“That summer was definitely our best summer in eight years,” Dave Quincer concurs. “And we had no new product to play!”

Hollywood is back in full swing for 2023 with Barbie, Tom Cruise, and superheroes galore. To see the season’s biggest movies on the biggest possible screen, you just need to take a little drive out to the country. Maybe bring some lawn chairs and a blanket. Hit the concession stand early and wait for the sun to tuck down behind the horizon. Settle in, watch the show, and squeeze every drop out of a Minnesota summer night.