From the cornfields, drive-in theater bucks the trend

Land of 10,000 Stories: Drive-in movie theater defies the odds

SPIRIT LAKE, Iowa - Iowans are used to imposing figures rising up from cornfields. But while the state’s wind turbines point toward the future, another skyward-reaching structure is rooted in the past.

“Sun will be coming down pretty soon and getting dark and we’ll start a movie,” Gaylord Kemp says as he walks to his pickup truck.

Seconds later, he’ll drive past the shadow of the 55-foot-tall screen and take his seat in the ticket booth of his drive-in theater.

“Everybody’s always anxious to get in, get the best spot,” Gaylord says, glancing toward the cars already waiting in line.

Five miles from the Minnesota border, the Superior 71 Drive-In shares the skies with a wind farm, and the ground with tractors and combines that farm the land around it.

The odd juxtaposition didn’t come to be without the persistence of its owner. 

“I've been bugging my wife forever, you know, we should build a drive-in theater,” says Kemp.

The retiree from the AGCO tractor factory in Jackson, Minnesota, wasn’t interested in hoeing an easy row into the sunset. If he was, the notion of owning a drive-in theater would have long ago faded. 

“Actually, they're failing at an alarming rate,” says Kemp.

Drive-ins reached their peak in 1958 with 4,063 theaters, according to statistics kept by the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association.

As of 2016, that number stood at 324.

“Last time I was at a drive-in was probably when I was little,” says one of Kemp’s customers through the window of her vehicle.

But the little kid in Kemp couldn't stop thinking about his trips to drive-in theaters with his family as a child.

“You know, I think it was my destiny,” he says. “It has to be.”

If it wasn’t destiny, how else was Kemp able to pry 10 acres of farmland away from a corn grower, convince local officials to change the zoning, and find an intact screen seven miles away at a drive-in shuttered for nearly 40 years?  

“He kept talking about it and pretty soon the dream came true,” says Kemp’s daughter Cally Balling as she scoops up popcorn in the concession stand.

Seven years after opening for business, the Superior 71 attracts about a 50/50 split of regulars and first-time customers.

“Last year we really got into it,” says Jericca Barnett, who drove 40 minutes to the drive-in from Windom, Minnesota, with her husband Richard and their young children. “It’s exciting for the kids, they can run around and they’re not just confined to just a little seat in the movie theater.”

Kemp waves in cars as show time nears for his first feature, Fate of the Furious. 

“It is the greatest job in the world, because everybody's happy when they come in,” he laughs.

Minnesotans Eian Denton and Haley Trumpold came to Superior 71 on a date. 

“This is the first drive-in I've ever been to,” says Trumpold, wrapped in a blanket and seated in a lawn chair next to her boyfriend in front of his Jeep. 

“I love being outside and you couldn’t ask for a better time like this,” says Denton.

A couple cars away, three generations of the Keeper family watch the movie from the back of their Ford Excursion.

“We drove by and saw it, so we came,” laughs grandmother Gina Keeper. “It's kind of fun to sit in the back of the car and relax – the atmosphere, the night sky.”

The sight of Hollywood rising above the stark horizon still catches people off guard. Says Balling, “It's crazy, they're like, ‘What is that?’” Just Vin Diesel owning the space where John Deere diesels used to run.

Kemp is understandably proud of his business, especially since the odds seemed stacked against him.

“If it was easy, everybody would be doing it,” he says.

Give credit to a Minnesotan who swam upstream down to Iowa - then found his field of dreams.

“Every night, it never gets old,” says Kemp, smiling broadly. “We're out here with the cornfields and windmills.”

More information about Superior 71 is available online.

© 2017 KARE-TV


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