By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
The Long Prairie Drive-In, open in 1956, is now one of only five drive-in theaters still operating in Minnesota.
Cliff and Laurel Meyer became the owners in 1985, after Laurel had been working there since 1969, and Cliff had been working the projectors since the early 1970s.
“Watching my dad with the projector, you could tell he loved it,” said Michelle Claseman, who now owns the drive-in with her husband, Dan.
Cliff died in 2008, and Laurel kept it open with a lot of help from family and friends.
“Randy Wilmes and Dave Hilsgren helped,” Michelle said. “Kim Welters and her family have been an enormous help.”
Michelle and Dan assumed ownership of the theater in May.
“I don’t know a summer when I wasn’t at the drive-in,” Michelle said. “My kids have been out here every summer.”
Owning the theater has its challenges.
“I can remember my parents running a movie for five cars,” Michelle said. “They had full-time jobs but they just loved to do it. Through the slow years, they ran at cost.”
The Clasemans are rethinking how to reach more people. “We’ve been advertising more with newspaper, online and some radio and raising funds for a new digital projector,” she said. “We plan on making the atmosphere as family-oriented as we can, with a retro 1950s theme.”
Changes will include red soda fountain bar stools and retro signage. The Clasemans hope people will feel like they’ve stepped back in time when they drive in.
“There isn’t a thing in here from 1956 that doesn’t work — including the projector,” said Michelle. “We have the popcorn machine, ice cream freezer, hot dog display and the fridge and stove. The freezer we bought last year quit working.”
Both of the Clasemans’ teenagers work at the drive-in. Hailey loves the popcorn. But her true satisfaction is with the people who come.
“It’s seeing how much the kids love it,” she said.
While Dan has a full-time job, Michelle knows the theater will be full-time work for her this coming winter. Having taken over just at the start of the season, “there is a lot of catching up for me to do,” she said.
Next season the theater will be digital. The Clasemans are collecting donations for the transition.
“We have enormous support from the community,” said Michelle. “People come here from the Cities too, especially since the Cottage Grove drive-in closed.”
One of the fundraising opportunities is a contest sponsored by Honda, with five digital projectors (valued at $75,000 each) as prizes.
Drive-in fans nationwide are asked to go to www.projectdrivein.com and vote for the theater of their choice to receive a digital projector. Voting ends Sept. 9.
“People can vote every day,” Michelle said. “They can vote on all devices and all browsers (Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Firefox, Safari). Votes can also be texted in to: vote63 to 444999.”
The Clasemans feel fortunate that Honda has stepped forward to try and save as many drive-ins as possible.
“We are prepared to do whatever it takes to stay open and continue to serve this small community,” said Michelle. “This includes donation drives, applying for grants and applying for historical status.”
It has been very gratifying for Michelle to discover how much people really appreciate the drive-in.
“There are so many wonderful comments that people leave on Facebook,” said Michelle. “What keeps me going are memories of my parents, who kept the drive-in open when everyone around them was closing. Now it’s our turn to find a way to make it through this digital conversion.”
The theater is open from snow melt in the spring to the first winter snow. “We ran to Oct. 21 last year; people still come when it’s cold,” Michelle said.
The annual “Fright Night” weekend takes place near the end of the season, featuring a night of scary movies.
“Buying the theater was a hard decision. I saw my parents and knew the amount of commitment needed,” she said. “But I love coming out here and couldn’t see it closing down.”
For more information, call (320) 732-3142.