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Starlite to show final movie, possibly forever

The carloads of memories have been coming back all summer for Jeff Logan.

Owner of Mitchell’s Starlite Drive-in, Logan has been expecting this day for months, and now it is here.

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Tonight, after one final movie, the Starlite is closing.

“It’s really sad, and this week as we’ve been getting ready for the Longfellow carnival night, just doing a lot of the normal routine stuff, it really hits you and is sad,” Logan said, referring to tonight’s Longfellow Elementary Parent-Teacher Organization event, in which proceeds to go school improvements. The event includes bounce houses, a 72-foot obstacle course, train rides and free mini golf.

In July, Logan announced the cost of converting from film to digital projectors at the drive-in would be too high, forcing him to close the outdoor theater. By the end of the year, movie studios will likely switch from film prints to digital, forcing theaters to convert, a process estimated to cost $70,000 per screen.

At 5 p.m. today, the Starlite’s box office will open for what’s presumed to be the final time ever. The final showing is “Despicable Me 2,” a computer-animated comedy starring Steve Carell, rated PG. The movie should start around 8:25 p.m. and the cost is $15 per carload.

“We think it will be a real good crowd of people for the last time,” Logan said. The drive-in can hold about 350 cars.

After opening in 1949, Mitchell’s drive-in closed in 1986 and stayed dark until 1993. The facility, located near Lake Mitchell on the city’s northern edge, reopened 20 years ago and has been a summertime option for moviegoers ever since.

Logan said business has been up since July’s announcement. He noted one of the best double features this summer was a showing of 1970s John Travolta movies “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever.”

“Too bad it couldn’t have been like that all through the years,” Logan said of the attendance. “Then we wouldn’t be in this shape.”

Some in Mitchell have wondered why the Starlite has not entered the Honda’s Project Drive-in, a contest in which drive-ins across the nation submit a video explaining why they should receive a free digital projector from Honda. Then, the video is placed online and the top vote-getters receive a new digital projector to save them from the high conversion costs. At least two South Dakota drive-ins have entered the Honda contest, including one in Mobridge and another in Winner.

“The fact remains the last several years it’s lost money — as have many drive-ins — so that’s why we did not enter the Honda contest where they’re giving away free projects to five drive-ins,” Logan said. “Even a free projector wouldn’t solve all the other problems at the drive-in.”

Eventually, the property where Mitchell’s drive-in sits will get redeveloped or sold, and Logan said he’s uncertain of what will come of the 10.5 acres after closure. He added it’s possible there could be a commercial development or some sort of housing eventually put on the property.