Vote for the theater to receive a new digital projector
by Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
The Long Prairie Drive-In opened in 1956 and has provided continuous summer movie enjoyment to area residents and vacationers for 57 years. It is now one of only five drive-in theaters still operating in Minnesota.
The theater changed hands a few times until it landed with Cliff and Laurel Meier in 1985. Laurel had been working at the theater 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 my mom keep it going,” Michelle said. “Kim Welters and her family have been an enormous help the last four years.”
In April, Laurel announced to her family that if anyone wanted to take the theater on, they had until the end of the year.
Michelle and Dan bought the theater, assuming ownership 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.”
Even with decades of history and a solid place in the community, the theater has its challenges.
“I can remember my parents running a movie for five cars,” Michelle said. “They both had full-time jobs but they just loved to do it. Through the slow years, they ran at cost.”
There were a lot of headaches for the Clasemans the first month they took over. “It was a huge learning curve,” Michelle said. “We’ve been advertising more with newspaper, online and some radio. We’re trying for television coverage too, and raising funds for a new digital projector.”
The Clasemans are running the theater a little differently, rethinking how to reach more people.
“We plan on making the atmosphere as family-oriented as we can, with a retro 1950s theme,” Michelle said.
The refurbishment will include red soda fountain bar stools and retro signage. The Clasemans’ goal is for people to feel like they have stepped back in time when they drive into the theater.
There are several original 1956 machines in the concessions building.
“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 in the back room. The freezer we bought last year quit working.”
Both of the Clasemans’ teenagers work at the drive-in. Hailey loves the popcorn, as an added bonus. But the true satisfaction is with the people who come to watch movies.
“It’s seeing how much the kids love it,” she said.
With Dan working 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 now 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 for the theater is being involved in 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 and do not want to see it go.
“There are so many wonderful comments that people leave on Facebook,” said Michelle. “There has been nothing but support from the community.
“What keeps me going are memories of my parents, who kept the drive-in open when everyone around them was closing,” she said. “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.