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A long decline
The Twin Cities once had more than three dozen drive-in theaters. But after the Cottage View closed, the Vali-Hi Drive-In in Lake Elmo became the lone survivor in the metro area.
Four others remain outstate: the one in Litchfield, the Long in Long Prairie, the Verne in Luverne and the Sky-Vu in Warren.
The toughest years were the 1980s, when developers bought and demolished drive-ins to make way for big-box stores and retail centers, many of which housed a growing number of movie multiplexes. Drive-in operators whose children weren’t interested in carrying on the family business cashed in on rising property values.
Recent challenges include the expense of converting to digital projection as the film industry makes it all but impossible for theaters with old projectors to operate. Digital projectors can cost $70,000 to $80,000.
But the industry group says the decline in drive-ins has become less steep and a handful open each year.
Eiler said he was surprised when he learned of plans for the theater at the Elko Speedway.
“The season in Minnesota is so short,” he said. “But with the racetrack already there, they won’t be depending on the drive-in all by itself, so it might work.”
The new drive-in holds about 600 cars. Ryan had hoped to be open by Memorial Day, but installing the 116-by-46 screen took longer than expected because of necessary upgrades in its support system, he said.
Ryan won’t disclose how much he’s spent installing the screen, constructing a projector building and getting a digital projector. But he said it’s more than he planned.
“I don’t even want to think about it,” he said. “I got a really good deal on the screen, but that was the beginning and end of my really good deals.”
Ryan plans to show movies seven nights a week through Labor Day, with a double feature every night except Saturday, when a single film will run after the last race. He is working with a film buyer and hopes to have a new lineup of movies each week.
Susan Feyder • 952-746-3282