Let’s all go to the movies
It should just be a matter of a week or so until a brightly lit outdoor theater screen again appears on the Iowa prairie.
The screen from the former Chief Drive-in Theater, a landmark for the last several decades on the west edge of Estherville, over the last month was dismantled and re-erected at the junction of Highways 9 and 71. The new Superior 71 Drive-in Theater is scheduled to open early August.
Owner Gaylord Kemp of Alpha, Minn., said the site on the northeast corner of the highway intersection will accommodate 350-400 cars. Admission to the double-feature movies will be $7 for adults, $2 for children ages 7-12 and under 6 free.
“This is something I’m doing on my own,” said Kemp, who has had a dream of seeing an outdoor theater again. “This is a dram I’ve had ever since I was a little kid.”
Kemp observes that many outdoor drive-in theaters have closed because the land has become too valuable. Other factors blamed for the demise of drive-in theaters are Daylight Savings Time and cable television.
The first drive-in theater opened June 6, 1933, in Camden, N.J. At one time, there were 4,063 drive-in theaters in the United States. That number began to decline in the 1960s. Most outdoor theaters that remain are in the Sunbelt states and California.
So if that’s the case, why is Kemp opening a new drive-in theater?
Perhaps part of that answer lies in the fact that the same couples who may have courted at outdoor theaters are now approaching retirement age. And, as empty nesters with the kids’ college tuition and home mortgage paid, they have the expendable income for nostalgic entertainment. And what’s more nostalgic than a movie in the outdoors, with a background of crickets chirping during intermission.
In addition, Kemp will offer a full array of concessions, including popcorn, pop, hotdogs, corn dogs, pizza, nachos, fries, candy, ice cream and chicken strips.
Kemp readily acknowledges that baby boomers are a big part of his target market. “Very seldom when we have something like it does it come back,” he said.
He plans on running family oriented films so parents can bring also their children and babies without having to worry about bothering the person in the next seat. “You can go to the drive-in and come as you are,” Kemp said. “I’m going to capture as many people as possible.”
One thing that will be different from the outdoor theaters of yesterday is that Kemp is installing an FM transmitter to people can hear the film.
Kemp chose the site at Highways 9 and 71 because of the traffic. About five or six years ago he was looking for a site for a theater in Minnesota, but it was hard to find commercially zoned property. Most of the good spots there for drive-in theaters were taken up by ag land.
After some research, Kemp found he needed to be within 35 miles of a total population base of 40,000 people. And the highway intersection fell right in the middle.
He plans on staying open until the snow flies, unlike many drive-in theaters in Iowa and Minnesota that shut down right after Labor Day. “If we have nice weather in November, I’ll show a movie for them,” Kemp said.
Kemp observes that the screen is in remarkably good shape for being up 25 years. At 90 feet in width, it’s one of the largest in the U.S. and at one time it was the largest. The screen in Luverne, Minn., by comparison, is just 60 feet wide.
Kemp even managed to salvage the old Chief marquee sign. He said every bulb still worked.
And so, finally, Kemp’s lifelong dream appears to be about to happen.
“Talk about sitting under the stars watching the stars,” he said whimsically.
“I wanted Estherville to feel like it was theirs. I wanted Jackson to feel like it was theirs. I wanted Spirit Lake to feel it was theirs. I want everybody to feel like it’s theirs because it is,” Kemp said. “It gives a chance for people to slow down.”