Damage at the drive-in: Iconic Long Prairie theater screen destroyed by wind
LONG PRAIRIE, Minn. — For 61 years, the towering screen at the Long Drive-In Theatre brought double features to life for generations of Minnesotans.
The stalwart steel structure met its match Monday, July 17, however, when a dangerous thunderstorm accompanied by strong winds marched across the region and left destruction in its wake. Now, it's unclear whether the local business considered a cornerstone of the Long Prairie economy can afford the repairs necessary to reopen.
"Right now I'd say I'd call it a nauseous waiting game," said co-owner Michelle Claseman. "We have insurance, but they're busy because there's been a lot of damage (in the area). ... And the insurance company has never replaced a drive-in screen. They're scrambling, trying to find their numbers."
Michelle shared the story of her family's deep roots at the drive-in Thursday inside the concession stand, which looks almost exactly as it did the day it was built in 1956.
"In 1956, this is what got parked here," Michelle said. "It's still the same floor, it's still the same popcorn maker, the butterer, the projector."
In view through the picture window, Michelle's husband, Dan Claseman, loaded crumpled steel panels scattered across the grass into the back of a pickup truck. The couple purchased the business in 2012 from Michelle's parents, who'd owned it since 1985. Before that, her parents both worked at the drive-in — Michelle's mother in the box office, and her father as the projectionist.
"I've been watching my mom and dad work their tails off out here for 30 years before we bought it," Michelle said. "I was trying to figure out why I was so emotional. Obviously, it's steel. But the thought that it's been here for 60 years, can you imagine its perch? Just looking over the drive-in and watching the cars change, the families change, the view. I guess that's where the emotions come from for me. It has a story to tell."
The Clasemans first saw the damage wrought by the dramatic wind gusts when someone posted a photo online Tuesday morning. The two, who live in Little Falls, were preparing for a trip to St. Cloud to purchase paint to refresh the speaker posts. That project, once at the top of the to-do list, was scrapped once the Clasemans realized their screen was half-gone.
"My first reaction was, that's not our screen," Michelle said. "And then, I noticed our garbage cans, and I noticed that they were all lined up. If that much wind came through here how did they stay untouched? But on the other side, those garbage cans were all over the place."
Over the six decades of the screen's life, the original steel panels made it all the way through, with some reinforcement to the wooden structure added over the years. At one point, the wind took down two corner panels of the screen, but the panels were not damaged and were reattached with the help of a crane.
"Whoever designed it, designed it at a perfect angle," Dan said. "When the storms come out of the west ... the wind just seems to whip around it. That's why we're thinking it had to have come from straight in back."
Word spread rapidly of the drive-in's plight through Long Prairie, across the state and beyond. As one of six remaining drive-in theaters left in Minnesota — and one of just two open continuously since the 1950s — the Long Drive-In Theatre draws moviegoers from a wide swath of geographic area and is intended to accommodate 400 vehicles.
Melissa Kolstad of Long Prairie took notice. The boutique business owner runs the Long Prairie community Facebook page, and said photos and testimonials of the theater began pouring in.
"I own a business myself, and the drive-in is a huge draw for the community," Kolstad said. "This is not only their livelihood, it's just a huge, historic landmark I believe. An iconic landmark for Long Prairie."
A Long Prairie native, Kolstad said the theater was the place to be when she was in high school, and now she enjoys the experience with her family.
"I was probably out there every Friday night through all of my high school years," Kolstad said.
After speaking with Dan and Michelle, Kolstad organized a GoFundMe fundraising campaign for the drive-in. As of late Friday afternoon, a total of $2,625 of the $5,000 goal was donated.
"We've lost a lot of businesses," Kolstad said. "This is just a business our town cannot afford to lose."
Without knowing how much the insurance will cover and how soon the screen can be repaired, the Clasemans are bracing for a stop to their income at the busiest time of year. Michelle said she knows of just one company in the U.S. building drive-in screens, and the estimated cost for a new one is $200,000.
"I'd like to have it up tomorrow, but my husband keeps telling me it's not going to happen," Michelle said.
The situation has them considering some creative solutions.
"I had someone tell me, 'We should have a redneck screen-building party, and everybody bring white tarps and we'll just duct tape them up there to get to the end of the year,'" Michelle said with a laugh. "We'd have some wind movement, so you'd have a little bit of 3-D going on."
Dan and Michelle said they were overwhelmed by the support they've received and the stories people have shared about what the business means to them.
"For us to hear this, I guess we just didn't realize how much of an impact this place had on people," Dan said. "People are sending in through Facebook and emails what they've experienced."
Despite the challenge Mother Nature dealt the Long Drive-In Theatre, the Clasemans remained hopeful.
"We will go up with another screen, and hopefully it's here another 60 years," Dan said.