2015 Article: "With deal in place, Starlite Drive-In in Litchfield doesn't appear to be going anywhere"
There was a period in the 1950s and ’60s in pastoral America when the drive-in theater was a magnetic scene. Artists renderings online and imagery of the day fashion these settings as a place of muscle cars and jocks with Brylcreemed breakers and varsity jackets, their pretty dates in poodle skirts. At their peak, there were more than 4,000 of these theaters across the country, according to the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. And then came urbanization. With rising property values, many drive-in operators began selling their land to developers, who demolished the theaters to make way for big-box stores, retail centers and multiplexes. Now, per the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, 393 drive-ins remain in operation nationally. It’s a trend long vexing to Tim Eiler. He’s a former movie theater projectionist who later began a career servicing theater equipment. He’s also the proprietor of the Starlite Drive-In in Litchfield, one of six remaining theaters of its kind in Minnesota, according to driveinmovie.com. So when he decided to list his property on the market this year, he hoped the drive-in wouldn’t go the way of so many others defore it. Billed as a “no-frills, outdoor drive-up,” the Statlite offers double features each weekend through the summer, the movies projected onto each of the theater’s five screens. But to Eiler, the theater is also a slice of Americana. “There’s a certain nostalgia to these theaters,” he said. “So many places had one and now they’re gone. It’s always a shame to lose that link to another time.” Enter David Quincer, whose family’s ties to the theater business go back to the 1920s. He owns the Cozy Theater, a vintage, brick-lined three-screen cinema in Wadena, a community of some 4,000 residents, two hours north of Litchfield. Quincer began his working life as the projectionist at his family’s now-shuttered drive-ins in Wadena and nearby Perham. When he learned the Starlite was on the market he was instantly intrigued. “I’d been looking for a drive-in,” he said, “I’ve long missed the experience.” The 11-acre, tree-lined property was listed for $70,000, including equipment — about the same price as the value of the land, which is assessed at $69,000, according to the Litchfield Independent Review newspaper. Quincer signed a purchase agreement this month and plans to close on the property in early October. “I have a son in college at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks who wants to get into the theater business, too,” he said. “ ... And this deal provides him with the opportunity to gain some key experience during his summers off.” The Starlite has been a fixture in Litchfield for much of the past six decades. The theater was opened June 28, 1956, by Fred and Lloyd Schnee, brothers who also owned the Hollywood Theater on Litchfield’s main drag and the Vogue Theater, according to cinematreasures.org, an online theater guide. The Vogue eventually closed and was razed, but the Schnees ran the Hollywood and Starlite until 1976, when they were purchased by the Lutz family. The Starlite closed five years later, in 1981, sitting vacant and in disrepair until 1997, when Eiler purchased the property. The theater reopened the following summer, drawing an inordinate opening night crowd for a showing of “Titanic,” James Cameron’s Oscar-winning, box-office phenomenon, that chronicled the sinking of the world’s grandest ocean liner on her maiden voyage. Eiler slowly began restoring the property in his spare time and operating it on the weekends. He lives in the metro area and is employed full time by Bright Star Systems, a movie theater equipment distributor located in St. Louis Park. After he suffered a debilitating ankle injury in the spring, the maintenance and upkeep of the property became problematic for Eiler, and he made the decision to sell. “Between working full time and driving out here to work at the drive-in on the weekends, it just became too much for me,” he said. Quincer said esthetically, the theater needs some sprucing up. He plans to paint the screens and modernize the worn marquee, box office and snack bar, “while also keeping with the ambience people expect from this type of experience.” He also plans to upgrade the theater’s bathrooms. Eiler will continue operating the business until it closes for the season sometime after Labor Day. He said he’ll miss the theater, but is pleased it will continue in its current capacity and hopes to return as a spectator. “I think people are thankful this place is here,” he said. “It gives them a chance to remember something from a bygone era. And it’s a new experience for the younger crowd.” Starlite’s upcoming movies can be viewed online at www.starlitemovies.com. Cost is $7 for adults, $3 for those ages 6-12 and free for those age 5 and under. Quincer said he has no plans to change those prices heading into next season.