Drive-in theaters, which once were popular in Otter Tail County and all across the nation, are seeing comebacks thanks to the shutdown of indoor theaters and the spread of COVID-19.

Some people who live in Otter Tail County are planning trips to the two nearest outdoor theaters, the Sky-Vu Drive-in at Warren and the Long Drive-In at Long Prairie.

Two drive-ins that were popular here in Otter Tail County, from the 1950s to the 1970s, were the Prairie Drive-In at Perham and the Fergus Drive-In Theater in Fergus Falls.

Today, the few remaining drive-in theaters in Minnesota and across the nation are gaining in popularity. Social distancing can be practiced at these outdoor theaters.

Cars are spaced 6 feet apart at the Long Drive-In at Long Prairie. Movies must be watched from inside the vehicles.

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Masks are recommended when people are out and about on the lot. There are guidelines for traffic into concessions and restrooms. Additional portable restrooms are installed and restrooms are cleaned every 30 minutes as per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Overnight camping at many drive-ins likely will resume when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

Several vehicles with patrons using social distancing were at the Long drive-in theater at Long Prairie on Friday evening, May 29. (Photo by Tom Hintgen, Otter Tail County Correspondent)
Several vehicles with patrons using social distancing were at the Long drive-in theater at Long Prairie on Friday evening, May 29. (Photo by Tom Hintgen, Otter Tail County Correspondent)

The history of drive-in theaters

In 1946, following World War II, the number of outdoor theaters across the United States totaled only 155. Two years later, in 1948, the number had grown to 820.

A decade later, in 1958, the number of drive-in theaters nationwide had grown to more than 5,000.

In addition to outdoor theaters in Perham and Fergus Falls, residents of Otter Tail County also went to the Valley Drive-In at Wahpeton, Sky View Drive-In at Detroit Lakes, Sunset Drive-In at Alexandria and Moorhead’s Starlite Drive-In These drive-in theaters advertised “fresh, hot popcorn, ice cold soft drinks, tasty hamburgers, delicious hot dogs, your favorite candy, crispy hot French fries and pizza with your favorite toppings.”

Many drive-in theaters had snack bars just below the projection booths. Other drive-in theaters offered the use of playgrounds for children before the movies started.

Kids sat in the back seats while their parents watched from the front of the vehicles. Part of the side window of the vehicle, on the driver’s side, had to be partially rolled down so that the speaker could be attached.

“Families frequented the drive-in, and young kids would come in their pajamas,” wrote Lance Johnson in his book, “Fergus Falls and the Fabulous Fifties.”

A popular movie at drive-in theaters in 1955 was “Scared Stiff” starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

A decade later, into the 1960s, those same baby boomers were back at the drive-in, but this time with girlfriends or boyfriends. Many kidded about tongue-in-cheek cult classics such as “The Mad Doctor of Blood Island” or “X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes.”

By the end of the 1970s the drive-in movie era, for the most part, was over.