LITCHFIELD — On a stunningly beautiful Minnesota spring evening cars and trucks were lined up Friday along state Highway 22 on the edge of Litchfield waiting for the gates to open at the Starlite Drive-In movie theater for a double-feature that doesn’t start for another 2½ hours.
Vehicles with teenagers, parents with young children and older couples on a date night were all part of the mix during the season’s opening night of the Starlite.
With car windows rolled down it was easy to see the toothy grins of people eager to watch a movie and just plain eager to be someplace — anyplace — other than stuck at home because of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order.
Bethanie Hinkley, 18, of Zimmerman drove about 1½ hours with her friend Veronica Lee, 17, of Elk River to come to the movie.
“I think the drive-in is a really authentic experience and this is one of the only things we can do right now with quarantine happening,” said Hinkley. “And I was really excited to find out it was opening, period, and it’s the only one open in the state right now,” she said.
They didn’t know what was showing on the big screen before they came and they didn’t care. They were just happy to be there.
Jason Schmitz, drove about 1 hours from his home in Forest Lake with his two young kids, ages 10 and 7.
“It’s something else to do and the kids enjoy it,” he said.
When asked if it was worth the long drive — even if the kids didn’t stay awake to the end — Schmitz had a quick response. “Heck yeah, it’s worth it.”
That kind of response is exactly what theater owner Dave Quincer likes to hear.
Quincer not only owns the Starlite Drive-In theater in Litchfield but also the indoor movie theaters in Wadena and Perham.
Being closed because of the pandemic has been extremely difficult for the family, which has been in the movie theater business for 97 years with hopes that a fifth generation will carry it on.
Quincer said every business he owns has been shut down for two months but he still has bills to pay. “We’ve wiped out our savings account,” he said. “Am I supposed to lose my business over this?”
Quincer typically opens the drive-in at the end of April or first of May. Even though the stay-at-home order wasn’t set to be relaxed until this week, Quincer said he made numerous attempts to get guidance from the state and communicated with local authorities before taking a chance to open last Friday.
Quincer said he wasn’t trying to “defy the governor’s orders” but was trying to save his business.
“Our season is so short. We only have four to five months to make any money,” said Quincer. “And we’re out of money right now.”
Quincer said he’s following the CDC guidelines used by other drive-in theaters in the country and asked people to park six feet from each other and to stay in their vehicles.
“All the people who came did exactly what they were supposed to do,” he said. “Everybody knows what to do.”
The space restriction means they can only fit half as many vehicles as usual in front of the two separate screens. But he’s OK with having fewer people as long as he’s generating some revenue.
“We feel we’re keeping our employees and our customers safe and still providing an option for entertainment for them,” he said.
Kim Rotert and Mark Fogel, of Litchfield, typically go to the Starlite at least once a month to watch movies. They’d been eagerly waiting for it to open so they could get out of the house. “We had to have something to do,” said Fogel, who readily admitted to being very bored during the stay-at-home order.
Mitchell and Lonette Dubois drove to Litchfield from their home in Shakopee for the opening night.
“We’ve been waiting to go to the drive-in and just wanted to get out of the house and figured this would be something nice,” said Lonette Dubois, as the couple sat in lawn chairs in the bed of their red pickup that was parked with a good view of the screen. They had blankets and a cooler nearby.
The couple didn’t mind the travel miles and didn’t care what was showing. They were just looking to “get out and relieve some of the stress” and “enjoy the three days of summer in Minnesota,” said Mitchell Dubois.
Quincer said he’s been pleased with the support he’s received about opening and was happy with the turnout over the weekend, even though they weren’t sold out. Rain Saturday and Sunday didn’t help.
“Hopefully the restrictions will get loosened more in the coming weeks and hopefully we can get back to somewhat normal,” he said. “But I think all summer long we’re going to be practicing some forms of social distancing of some kind.”
Quincer said he’s happy the drive-in is back in business for the year and hopes it will continue.
“It’s a unique, nostalgic thing and there’s so few of them left,” he said of the drive-in theater. “It’d be a shame to see it go away.”
For the record — and for people who do care what is showing on the two big outdoor screens, the feature films being shown at the Starlite this weekend are “The Call of the Wild” and “I Still Believe.”
Shows are held Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The gates open at 7 p.m. and the shows start at around 9:10 p.m.