The late 1950’s and early 1960’s were the golden years for drive-in movie theaters across the country. During that time about 4,000 outdoor theaters brought Mad men, Godzilla, and Ben Hur to the big screen. The number of drive-ins have been in a steady decline to about 350 now. And at the end of the summer comes the permanent closing of Mitchell’s Starlite Drive-In theater. SDPB’s Kathleen Serie has the story on the end of the drive-in era.
The fresh summer night air, the relentless "chirp" of crickets, the crunch of rubber tires on gravel and of course the intoxicating, buttery aroma of freshly popped popcorn. All of these things can be experienced on the ten and a half acre grounds of the Starlite Drive-In Theater.
The Starlite has entertained guests of all ages with movie-filled evenings under the stars since it first opened in 1949- then known as the Lake Vue Drive-In. But soon owner Jeff Logan will close the gates and shut down the old film projector.
"We’re very sad and there’s a sense of loss and we hate to close it but that’s part of business," says Logan.
Logan’s family has been in the theater business in Mitchell since 1933- and he has owned the Starlite since 1976. This isn’t the first time the drive-in has shut down. In 1986 the introduction of new technology like the VCR caused many drive-ins including the Starlite to close. But a newfound interest in outdoor theaters led to the Starlite’s re-opening in 1993. Although Logan says the business has done pretty well financially since then, the levels of attendance for his and all drive-in theaters have never been as high as they were in the 1950’s & 60’s.
Although the theater bounced back in the 90’s Logan does not foresee a re-opening for his drive-in again. The decision to close the Starlite came after theater companies announced they were going to stop making movies on film.
"They’re switching to digital distribution where they send the theater a hard drive. And the projection equipment required to run a digital movie costs upwards of 70 thousand dollars for each theater screen you have to convert," says Logan. "Well that’s simply too much money for a drive-in in this part of the country."
Logan says the region’s late springs and early winters make the operational season shorter, making significant profits harder to come by, especially if he were to invest large amounts of money into digital conversion. Logan says all theaters, not just drive-ins are faced with the financially daunting task of switching to digital. He says it is difficult to acquire a loan for digital equipment because there is too much debt and not enough money to pay it off. As a result , Logan says most drive-ins are faced with closing.
Logan says he’s received sad yet supportive responses from the public about the shutdown of the drive-in. He says the Starlite has made a positive impact on the community over the years.
"A drive-in theater- it’s kind of like a movie picnic- you’re outside you’re under the stars nothing like it on a beautiful South Dakota evening with the clear skies and the stars twinkling and a gentle breeze- it’s great. So people do love it and it is- and a lot of people have told us- it’s a quality of life issue. And it’s something that Mitchell has that not many cities do," says Logan.
In addition to the comfort of the outdoors The Starlite has a nostalgic feel to it. From the small playground to the mini golf course and even the complimentary window washings, this drive-in is reminiscent of the golden age of outdoor theaters. The first three rows of parking are equipped with the old in-car speakers that hang from the vehicle’s windows. This establishment even boasts promotional reels from the 1950’s and 60’s, featuring dancing hotdogs and singing soft drinks.
"We have those films and a lot of others so we try to keep that flavor: that timeless- or that nostalgic 1950’s/60’s flavor to the drive-in. Although we’ve made a lot of remodeling and upgrades but we try to keep the theme," says Logan.
Logan recalls one his first memories of the drive-in as a double date after prom in a borrowed Cadillac. Some people come to the drive-in with lawn chairs, others sit in the bed of a truck, and some have even brought RV’s to the Starlite.
No matter how you go to the drive-in, the employees are there to meet you with a friendly smile.
They too are sad about the closing of the Starlite. Adam Schorzmann has been working there for eight years.
"It is pretty sad since I’ve been out here for a while and I mean after all the years you start to develop relationships and friendships whatever with the cast and with the people out here that come and it’s just going to be really sad to see the memories and the nostalgia of the whole drive-in theater aspect kind of go away," says Schorzmann.
Logan says the theater has been featured in several travel magazines and news stories throughout the world, and the guest book shows many international guests that have dropped by to experience a movie under the stars. Although a specific date is not yet set Logan says The Starlite will show its final film sometime in September.