Looking Back: Albert Lea’s version of an outdoor theater

Published 9:09 am Saturday, September 6, 2008

For 36 years area citizens had a somewhat seasonal choice of seeing movie films at three places. One popular destination was the Broadway Theatre on, logically enough, South Broadway Avenue. Another choice was the Rivoli Theater, located a block and a half straight north of the Broadway. And the third was a warmer weather alternative choice on the city’s east side with a rural setting was the Starlight Drive-in Theatre.

A short news report in the July 9, 1949, issue of the Tribune had this headline: “New Open Air Theatre will be Opened Soon.” This was followed with,” Something new in entertainment will be in store for people in this vicinity with the opening of the new Starlight Drive-in Theatre on Highway 16 (now County road 46) between Albert Lea and Austin.

“This theater built by the Friedman brothers, owners of the Broadway and Rivoli Theaters in Albert Lea, covers 12 acres of ground and will accommodate 500 cars. The grounds have been graded and graveled and equipped with semi-circle ramps for the cars with a slight increase in height for the front wheels of the cars to provide a good vision of the screen.

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“The mammoth screen will show a picture 52 feet by 46 feet or about four times the size of a picture in an ordinary movie theatre. Each car will be equipped with its own speaker unit where the patron may adjust the volume of the sound to his or her own liking.

“The concession building located in the center of the grounds will house the booth equipped with the latest and best sound equipment to guarantee the best in sound and projection. Also in this building will be sanitary restrooms for both men and women and a refreshment stand. A moonlight beam has been installed.

“’There will be a staff of 30 people to give the best of service,’ George Henrickson, manager, said.”

It wasn’t long before area families started to go to the Starlight by the carloads. To emphasize this theater’s family-friendly appeal, there was free admission for children under the age of 12. Also, parents could dress their children in pajamas and/or nightgowns. Maybe the younger children were wide awake for the cartoons; if they fell asleep during the feature film, the back seat could suffice as the place for early bedtime.

For the area’s teenagers and young adults, this outdoor theater became a new place to mingle, socialize and have fun.

One challenge for some in this group was trying to gain free admittance. This could be done by a few passengers hiding in the car’s trunk or lying down across the back seat floor as the vehicle went past the ticket booth.

Once inside what could be called a cow pasture cinema, the vehicle (with headlights off) would park next to a steel post which had a speaker with an extension cord. This speaker would fit on a window and had a knob to control the volume.

During the time in this large glorified parking lot facing a large screen, there were opportunities to go to a refreshment counter, the restrooms, or even visit folks in other cars.

For the operators of these theaters the old phrase of rain or shine was changed to rain or clear. In other words, adverse weather conditions didn’t interrupt their movie nights at all.

Like the then-popular drive-in root beer stands and places with car hops, these theaters were very seasonal ventures.

The ads for the Starlight and other open-air theaters said the films would start at dusk. In June and July and even August especially, this could be rather late in the evening. And one detail which caused anguish for the operators of these theaters was something called daylight savings time which made dusk an hour later.

One gimmick these theaters liked to promote were weekend all-nighters, a series of films from dusk to dawn which featured the showing of racy films, plus cheap and poorly made horror flicks and beach-themed movies.

One rather obscure song, “Drive-in Show,” is listed on a Web site with Eddie Cochran as the author and performer. Cochran, who was born in Albert lea, likely went to the Starlight in his younger years before the family left the city in 1955. Cochran is actually better known for a very popular movie-related hit song, “Sittin’ in the Balcony.” However, this last song was really written by John D. Loudermilk.

The last Tribune ad for a film at the Starlight Drive-in Theatre was in the July 21, 1985 issue. Factors causing the demise of this outdoor movie palace include the widespread use of cable TV and VCRs, and the concept that the land could be used for something with more practical year-round usage. In the 1980s the number of drive-in theaters in the nation declined from 3,500 to less than a thousand. At the present time there are about 700 to 800 of these once popular entertainment destinations in the U.S. and Canada.

For the last four years Ernie’s Canvas Products has occupied a portion of the former site of the Starlight Drive-in Theatre, located on County Road 46 east of Albert Lea.

A recent listing of drive-in theaters shows there are 10 of these once popular movie palaces still active in Wisconsin, with the nearest ones to this area being in Eau Claire, Wisconsin Dells and Richland Center. There are four still active drive-in theaters in Iowa. And here in Minnesota there are drive-in theaters listed in Long Prairie, Litchfield, Lake Elmo, Luverne, Warren, Cottage Grove, Minneapolis and Hallock.