Movies under the stars; Minnesota’s drive-in movie era fades, but some won’t let it die

Published 7:08 am Saturday, July 14, 2018

By Bob Collins

MPR News/90.1 FM

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.

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“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 nearly impossible for drive-ins like his to survive.

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.

As lightning flashes across the western sky, you can almost hear Quincer doing the math. 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 inside 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 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, 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 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 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

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.

He’s 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.

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 clean, 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.