Cinema under the stars

Summer’s 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.

Bleah.

But, wait: Once you’ve stocked up on Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils, there’s still time to savor this unbelievably beautiful (and precious) season we call summer in Minnesota.

Our suggestion? 

See a movie under the stars and amongst the fireflies — at a drive-in movie theater.

A what?

Yes, Minnesota is home to six drive-in theaters. 

Though many Minnesota cities offer music and movies at various public parks all summer long, this is something different: This is classic, old-fashioned fun meets brand-new blockbuster releases. 

More than 90 percent of the state’s drive-in movie theaters have shut down.
But those that are left have extremely loyal followings.

Why?

Drive-ins — which show all the latest movies — are ridiculously affordable when compared to multiplexes. 

Drive-in tickets typically top 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. July offerings at Minnesota’s drive-ins included a mix of PG and PG-13 films such as Minions, Jurassic World, Pitch Perfect 2, 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, too, including $1 hotdogs. 

Vali Hi, which celebrated its 80th birthday in 2013, and Elko Drive-In Theater, in the south-metro area, allow visitors to cook their own food. Many families can bring their own small grills and outdoor games and sit in lawn chairs while they wait for the sun to go down. 

Tom Novak of Rochester, who helps runs the Sky-Vu theater in Warren with his brother, Steve, said the drive-in audience has changed dramatically since the ’60s and ’70s. (Their father, Leonard, has owned the drive-in since 1971.) 

It used to be a lot of teens and people in their 20s looking for a night on the town.

“Everything changed in the ’80s and ’90s,” Novak said. “Now what we’re finding is that it’s families that come out. They are the ones who support us more than anything.”

In fact, Novak said, they expect the summer’s animated films — such as Inside Out and Minions — to do better for them overall than the blockbuster hit of the summer, Jurassic World. 

“We would prefer to show an animated featured film … more than we would a horror flick,” he said 

Pure joy

Daniel Claseman, who co-owns Long Prairie’s Long Drive-In Theatre with his wife, Michelle, said the smiles on kids’ faces are a joy. 

Many families come early to play Frisbee and games before the sun goes down.

“They put down the phones and all the games and they play for two to three hours,” he said. “You’re stepping back in time; you’re getting back to the simple things in life. It’s catching hold. It’s growing nicely for us.” 

When the show starts, Claseman said, families always sit together.

“Whether they have two people or 10, they all try to fit in the back of their truck.” 

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. 

Check them out!

Here's a look at the six remaining in Minnesota. Most open in April or May and close in September or early October, so you have plenty of time to check them out! 

 

Vali-Hi Drive-In

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. No credit cards are accepted, though there’s an on-site ATM.

Where: 11260 Hudson Blvd. N., Lake Elmo, about 13 miles east of downtown St. Paul. Arrive early to make sure you get a spot. Vali-Hi often sells out. 

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

 

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.

Where: Highway 1, one mile west of Warren, about 30 minutes from Grand Forks, N.D.

Cost: $8 for ages 13 and older, $5 for ages 12 and younger

Info: 218-201-0329, skyvumovies.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, snacks and ice cream are sold on site. 

Where: 1607 S. Kniss Ave., Luverne, 3½ hours southwest of the Twin Cities 

Cost: $5 for ages 6 and older, free for ages 5 and younger

Info: 507-283-0007, vernedrivein.com or facebook.com/vernedrivein

 

Starlite Drive-In Theater

This classic theater venue features multiple screens as well as a concession stand. It also hosts special events, including pro wrestling. 

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 a blanket. Pizza, pulled-pork sandwiches, hotdogs, fresh buttered popcorn, ice cream and more are for sale on site. Outside food and alcoholic beverages aren’t allowed. Pets are OK. Shows are on select Thursdays and all Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

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

 

Elko Drive-In Theater

Elko Speedway — a NASCAR racing site — is also home to a drive-in theater with shows Wednesday through Saturday nights. Hot food, wine and beer are sold on site. This summer, the venue, now in its second season, is allowing families to bring grills to cook their own food and to create a tailgating-type atmosphere.

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. On Saturdays, doors open earlier and adult ticket prices go up to $15. Specials include $15-per-car admission on Wednesdays.

Info: 952-461-7223, elkospeedway.com/drive-in


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.