Back to School / Birthday Party Issue
Compared to multiplex prices, drive-ins — which show all the latest movies — are ridiculously affordable with tickets topping out at $8.50 for adults for evening shows.
Cinema under the stars
Minnesota’s drive-in movie theaters draw loyal families with affordable pricing, atmosphere and blockbuster films
By Kelly Jo McDonnell
Summer is slipping away.
Instead of pool noodles, coolers and grilling gear filling the seasonal aisles at Target, it’s back-to-school supplies everywhere you turn.
But, wait: Once you’ve stocked up on crayons and Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils, there’s still time to savor this unbelievably beautiful (and precious) season we call summer in Minnesota.
See a movie under the stars and amongs the fireflies — at a drive-in movie theater.
Yes, Minnesota is home to six drive-in theaters.
Though many Minnesota cities offer music and movies at various parks all summer long, this is something different: This is classic, old-fashioned fun with brand-new blockbuster releases, too.
More than 90 percent of the state’s drive-in movie theaters have shut down.
But those that are left have extremely loyal followings.
Drive-ins — which show all the latest movies — are ridiculously affordable when compared to multiplex prices with tickets topping out at $8.50 for adults. Ages 5 and younger usually get in for free; and older kids can attend for as little as $1 each.
And those prices typically include two, if not three films, for those willing to stay up late. June offerings at Minnesota’s drive-ins included a mix of PG and PG-13 films such as Jurassic World, Pitch Perfect 2, San Andreas, Inside Out, Tomorrowland and others.
And the treats?
They cost easily less than half of those at local mall-based theaters.
Some venues, such as the highly popular 800-car-capacity Vali Hi in Lake Elmo, sell hot food — including $1 hotdogs.
Vali Hi, which celebrated its 80th birthday in 2013, even allows visitors to cook their own food.
Many families can bring their own grills and outdoor games and sit in lawn chairs while they wait for the sun to go down. Getting there early ensures a community camp-out kind of atmosphere. It also means making sure you can find a spot for your car — important at Vali Hi, which routinely sells out.
According to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, there are fewer than 500 such theaters left in the world with the majority — 368 — in the U.S.
Dara Vigoren Hartzler of Stillwater remembers going to the drive in as a teenager.
Thanks to Vali Hi nearby, she’s now able to pass along the tradition to her daughter.
“It’s the experience, being outside, with friends, a little portable grill, playing tag, catching Frisbee. It’s always its own community,” she said.
Kristine Greer of Minneapolis grew up going to Duluth’s Sky-Line Drive-In Theatre (now closed) in the late 1960s.
She said the scary movies stood out in her mind. She first saw Psycho, King Kong and Creature From the Black Lagoon on a big, drive-in movie screen.
“It was always fun,” she said. “There was a playground next to the big screen, and we would go and play before we would see the shows.”
Greer said going to the theater was always an event for her family.
“It was more special than just going to a movie theater … it was a real experience,” she said. “At the end, some folks would honk their horns, as if they were clapping. It was a great time.”
Kelly Jo McDonnell lives in Lino Lakes with her son. She is a freelance writer and a producer/writer with Minnesota Bound on KARE 11 TV.
Minnesota’s drive-in theaters
This 1950s-themed venue is the most centrally located drive-in for metro-area residents. It offers 3-for-1 films seven days a week during its peak season, plus concessions, an arcade, $1 hotdogs, $1 admission for ages 6–12 and a relaxed atmosphere. There are spaces for 800 cars, but be sure to arrive early to guarantee a spot.
Season: May to early October????
Where: 11260 Hudson Blvd. N., Lake Elmo, about 13 miles east of downtown St. Paul
Cost: $8.50 for ages 13 and older; $1 for ages 6–12, free for ages 5 and younger
Info: 651-436-7464, valihi.com
Elko Drive-In Theater
Elko Speedway — a NASCAR racing site — is also home to a drive-in theater. Hot food, wine and beer are sold on site.
Season: Wednesday–Saturday June 5–Sept. 6, 2015
Where: 26350 France Ave., Elko New Market, about a half-hour south of downtown Minneapolis
Cost: Tickets are $8 per adult, $5 for ages 4-12 and free for ages 3 and younger, except on race nights when doors open earlier and adult ticket prices go up to $15. Specials include $10-per-car admission on Wednesdays, 2-for-1 adult admission on Thursdays and free admission for kids on Fridays (Family Night).
Info: 952-461-7223, elkospeedway.com/drive-in
Starlite Drive-In Theater
This classic theater venue features multiple screens as well as a concession stand.
Season: May through September
Where: 28264 Highway 22, Litchfield, about 1½ hours west of the Twin Cities
Cost: $7 for ages 13 and older, $3 for ages 6 to 12, free for ages 5 and younger
Info: 320-693-6990, starlitemovies.com
Long Drive-In Theatre
Go back in time at this family friendly outdoor movie theater. Sit in your car or bring some lawn chairs or blanket. Pizza, pulled-pork sandwiches, chimichangas, hotdogs, pretzels, nachos, fresh buttered popcorn, ice cream sundaes, rootbeer floats, candy and more are for sale on site. Outside food and alcoholic beverages aren’t allowed. Pets are OK.
Season: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays mid-April through early October
Where: 24257 Riverside Drive, Long Prairie, 2 hours northwest of the Twin Cities
Cost: $6 for ages 12 and older, $2 for ages 6–11, free for ages 5 and younger
Info: 320-732-3142, thelongdrivein.com
Verne Drive-In Theatre
Catch a sunset before the movie at this old-school drive-in known for its relaxed, serene setting. Hot food and ice cream are sold on site.
Season: May through early October
Where: 1607 S. Kniss Ave., Luverne, 3½ hours southwest of the Twin Cities
Cost: $5 for ages 6 and older, free for age 5 and younger
Info: 507-283-0007, vernedrivein.com
Sky-Vu Drive In
Not much has changed at this Red River Valley theater since it open in the 1950s — except the movies and that each film’s audio comes to patrons on their FM radios. Hot food, including BBQ sandwiches or nachos for $3.25, is sold on site. Popcorn starts at $2.50.
Season: May through early October
Where: Highway 1, one mile west of Warren, about 45 minutes northeast of Grand Forks, N.D.
Cost: $8 for ages 13 and older, $5 for ages 12 and younger
Info: 218-201-0329, skyvumovies.com
*Arrive early to get a good spot and enjoy the fireflies just before the movies start dusk.
*Many venues are cash only (even for concessions), so come prepared.
*Most drive-ins transmit the film audio via FM radio, so make sure the radio in your car works or bring along portable radio. Be sure to start your car in between movies to charge the battery if you use your car stereo.
*Shows usually start dusk, which is pretty late in Minnesota during summer, often between 9 and 10 p.m.
*Unless the weather turns severe, most theaters show their movies rain or shine.
How did it all begin?
The drive-in theater got its humble start in Richard Milton Hollingshead’s driveway in New Jersey.
Using a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car, the auto parts sales manager projected the film onto a screen nailed to a tree. The home radio sitting behind the screen provided the sound. Hollingshead sat in the family car and watched and listened. And from a simple idea, the drive in was born.
By the 1950s, the drive-in — and automobile — industry was booming, especially in rural areas, with some 4,000 to 5,000 drive-ins in the U.S.
Minnesota once had 80 drive-in theaters.
Advantages were apparent to both adults and kids: A family with small children or babies could take care of their children while watching a movie, while teenagers with access to cars found drive-ins perfect for the dating scene.
Hollingshead even advertised his theater with the slogan: “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.”