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Giant Chief Drive-In screen comes down

By Staff | Jun 25, 2008

Employees of Forbes Moving in Spirit Lake began dismantling the huge screen which delighted Chief Drive-In patrons west of Estherville. It has a new owner and soon will have a new home. EDN photos by Samantha Heerdt

Many area movie lovers who enjoyed being in the great outdoors can recall sitting in vehicles and watching the big screen at the former Chief Drive-In.

The only telltale sign of the former drive-in was that same screen sitting west of Estherville off Highway 9. The establishment closed in 1978.

Now the screen is going too. Gaylord Kemp is having the screen dismantled for transport to its new home–the northeast corner of highways 9 and 71, west of Superior for Iowa’s newest drive-in. Forbes Moving of Spirit Lake is in charge of relocating the screen.

Larry, Cass and Joan Bryant are present-day landowners of where the drive-in once was situated. Cass has maintained communications with Charles Legg. He and his wife managed the Chief Drive-In.

Legg told Cass he was operating several theaters in the early 1950s and was looking to possibly acquire a drive-in location.

Cass related, “He met Paul Gronstal, a banker from Council Bluffs. His family was originally from Estherville.”

It was through this association that Legg purchased farmland available near Estherville, the area west of the Elks Lodge.

“He told me he put up his “first” screen in June of 1951 and opened up for business on Friday the 13th,” Cass said. “He showed a movie and a midnight special movie after the first one. The movies were shown from 7 p.m.-2 a.m.”

In those days, admission was 50 cents per person. Children who were 12 and under were not charged. “Legg said 1 to 1 and one-half cents went for sales tax and 8 cents went to a federal excise tax (He said this excise tax was implemented in World War II and was supposed to be discontinued after the war but was still active in 1951.).”

Legg said the first screen measured 30 feet by 40 feet and was made of canvas. “It was strung between two telephone poles that were put in by DEK,” Cass explained. “The screen was secured by cables and turnbuckles. There was room for 200 cars.”

Two years later, the second screen was installed because the wind blew down the initial screen. “This one was made of wood and covered on the front, sides and back with 4 by 8 sheets of asbestos. Legg said the asbestos was brought in by the railroad.”

He told Cass the wooden screen was enlarged to 92 by 56 feet in 1955 and parking was increased to accommodate 400 cars.

“He said it was the largest screen in the world with a 400-car capacity at the time. The larger screen accommodated the new CinemaScope that was being used.”

He shared that from 1951 to 1958, the drive-in was open from the middle of March until the day after Thanksgiving. The 50-cent admission price continued until 1958 when it increased 85 cents for a year before jumping up to $2.50 through 1970.

“He remembers buying 200 car window heaters in 1958. The drive-in was open all winter on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.” Once in the mid-60s, so much snow had accumulated the drive-in did not open for business.

The Legg couple worked at the drive-in. They hired young people to assist. Two women operated the concession stand.

“He told me they also hired two guys to “walk the field.” It was their job to walk behind the cars to make sure everyone was in a sitting position. Mr. Legg believed the drive-in was a family event and he wanted to keep it that way.”

Pizza sales boomed at the concession stand. In 1954, a small electric oven made it possible to cook a pre-made crust with canned sauce. The drive-in acquired a better oven the following year. Pizza sales alone netted $12,000 per year. Patrons were charged $1.95 for a large pizza with everything on it.

One memorable event involved a trunk filled with movie-goers and a call to the sheriff.

Cass shared, “He said his wife was taking tickets when a girl pulled up and paid for one ticket. She could see in the car and saw five purses. Her husband checked the trunk and there were the four other girls.”

Cass said he told them the rule that anyone caught sneaking would be charged double. The sheriff would be called if the person who refused to pay that amount.

“Sheriff Barnie Reynolds took the girls to the courthouse and their parents were notified. The sheriff said all five girls were from prominent families and that the extra cost was not an issue.”

The grounds were also used on Sunday mornings for Presbyterian Church services. “During clean up, a $250,000 check was discovered. Mr. Legg was able to find the individual who lived in Swea City. He had gone to Sioux City to sell his cattle and was paid with the $250,000 check. On his way back he stopped to see a movie and that’s when he dropped the check. He was one happy guy when his check was returned.”

The Leggs operated the drive-in until 1970 at which time it was leased to Fridley Theatres for 12 years. “After 10 years, it came back to the Leggs,” Cass explained.

Legg remembered the final showing involved four Clint Eastwood Westerns. “Mr. Legg said what hurt the drive-in business the most was when they went to Daylight Savings Time.”