A decade at the Drive-In
Ten years ago, there was only crop land where Highway 71 merges with Highway 9 west of Superior. But one man from Alpha, Minnesota, had a dream. He'd had it for a long time.
"I can remember going to the drive-in theater with my dad, walking across the parking lot with my arm stretched up in the air, walking to the concession stand and looking at all the excitement going on," Gaylord Kemp said. "The drive-in theater at that age looked unbelievably big. It was huge."
Kemp worked in agriculture for 30 years, but the idea of opening his own drive-in theater was forever planted in his mind. He said he would often pester his wife Pam with the idea, but they always seemed to be too busy raising their family or dealing with health issues. Yet, even after drive-ins began to close in the 1980s, Kemp continued to nurture his dream, and an upgraded internet connection helped him research the idea more easily in the early 2000s — which led to more conversations with Pam.
"'Finally,' she said, 'You're not getting any younger. If you're going to build it, you better get on this.'" Kemp recalled. "So that's what I did."
After finding the plot of land, rezoning the 10-acres, putting together a business plan and getting all the necessary permits, his dream finally became brick and mortar in 2008 with the help of Pam and son Zach. Kemp would often build the then-film reels after a late night showing and go to work almost immediately after finishing.
"I finally got the chance to retire and took it," Kemp said. "It'll be three years now. All I do now is the drive-in, grandkids and ice fish."
But make no mistake. Kemp stays busy taking care of the drive-in.
"There is a lot to maintain because Mother Nature around here, she isn't so cooperative all the time," Kemp said with a laugh.
The extended winter this year, coupled with the recent heavy rains have kept him busy grooming the gravel lot. Plus, a lightning strike damaged portions of the theater's server and projector components just before they opened for the season.
"You just pick one or two items a day to fix and you can stay on top of it," Kemp said.
He estimated 366 cars will fit in the gravel rows if they park perfectly — which he noted adds up to more than a mile's worth of parking. He said another 200 to 300 cars could potentially park on the grassy portions of the lot, but anywhere between 150 to 180 cars is considered a good night.
"This time of year, we can see 150 to 250 cars going through on a weekend," Kemp said.
The screen itself is some 66 feet wide and is powered by a 6,000 watt bulb — six times brighter than most indoor theaters, according to Kemp. He said even sitting a football field's length away from the outdoor screen would be equivalent to sitting closer than 6 feet from a 60-inch television.
"At a drive-in, you can sit in a crowd if you want to be in a crowd," Kemp said. "If you want to be alone, you can go out in one of the back rows, and it'll be almost as private as your living room, it's so secluded."
The drive-in switched to a digital projection format in 2015, and the concessions stand now uses the mobile payment system Square to not only run the cash register, but send orders to the cook in the kitchen as needed. The lights surrounding the drive-in are also operated through digital means. Kemp controls the lighting and sound from a laptop in the projection house. He uses the same program to load the films, credits and previews in the correct order for each showing and can even access the system remotely. He broadcasts music and sound from the projection house over the radio — visitors may bring their own radio or rent one from the concessions stand. Outside the projection house, Kemp provides jumpstarts for drivers who have left their vehicles' batteries running for too long. He said he can often get folks up and running in about a minute.
"I figure, if they're going to support my concessions stand, I'm going to support them," Kemp said.
And as much as the Superior Drive-In is near and dear to Kemp himself, he is particularly glad to see drive-in visits becoming a tradition for some families.
"The cool thing is, 10 years ago, we had young families coming in for the first time — never been to the drive-in before — bringing their kids," Kemp said. "Now, 10 years later, they're bringing their families in with their kids. It's kind of cool. And when they come in, they tell me that."
He said he and his family initially expected the drive-in would draw families within a 30-mile radius but are finding it's reach to be almost a 200-mile radius. According to Kemp, it's not uncommon for drive-in visitors near the Minneapolis area to wait five to six hours before a showing, so some would rather drive two hours to the Superior Drive-In and get a sure spot.
"While they're down here, they'll get a room and see the sites the next day, so the drive-in does it's part to bring people into the area," Kemp said. "We get them from all over the world — Rome, Spain, Brazil, New Zealand, Japan."
Kemp doesn't see a full-on revival of the American drive-in coming soon, but joked the idea of drive-ins is having a revival of sorts. Turning fantasy into reality as Kemp did can be cost-prohibitive for many. That said, as one of only four drive-ins in Iowa, Kemp tries to help prospective revivalists as much as he can — he said he gets calls nearly every week.
Recently, his son Zach began looking into ways to finance a second screen on the opposite side of the projection house. A second screen would help offset the cost of studio contracts, which sometimes require a film play for several weeks. Long contracts can delay screenings of new hits, but a second screen would cost upwards of $200,000 to construct. Some companies are even beginning to consider contracts that would give studios a cut of concessions sales — the real money-maker behind most theaters — Kemp said. And, as much as traditional theaters might feel the same pressure from studios, Kemp says the drive-in isn't quite in the same market.
"I've always said, the indoor theaters, they're not my competition because we are so different," Kemp said. "There's people who never go out to the movies, but they'll come out to a drive-in movie because it's a drive-in."
Even with all it's challenges, Kemp wouldn't want to do anything else with his time and is pleased with how the public has received his road-side silver screen.
"I think the public is very aware of the drive-in as far as supporting it," Kemp said. "It means a lot to a lot of people."