At least in the short term, the Starlite Drive-In Theatre is back in business.
The beloved Mitchell outdoor movie theater will re-open again on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, starting May 8. Starlite owner Jeff Logan said it mixes a desire for some entertainment options, while following social distancing guidelines.
“It seemed like the right answer to provide extra social distancing, but let people watch movies, get together and get out,” Logan said. “... (Previously), everyone loved the idea of the drive-in, but they weren’t going to it. We think now, there’s a demand, people feel safer and they can maintain social isolation in the car.”
Logan confirmed the reopening of Starlite on Thursday, seven years after he thought it was closed for good. When the theater closed in 2013, Logan admitted the single-screen outdoor theater 3 miles north of Mitchell on State Highway 37 was not a money-making venture and he had recently upgraded his indoor screens to digital projectors for $70,000 apiece.
But with each of his three Logan Luxury Theatres -- located in Mitchell, Huron and Dell Rapids -- temporarily shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an opportunity emerged to give the community an entertainment option once again, three nights a week.
Now, with his indoor theaters closed, Logan can move one of the projectors at the downtown Mitchell location outdoors. He hopes to reopen later in the summer if the pandemic clears, but he does not anticipate using each screen once it happens, leaving room to run the drive-in through the end of the summer.
“I could have reopened it if we wanted to and the opportunity presented itself where the situation was different,” Logan said. “If the Mitchell population grew, if there were a lot more movies being produced -- this is the kind of thing. It’s nothing we ever could have predicted, but it makes drive-ins a more attractive option.”
The Starlite has a capacity of 350 vehicles, but plans are to allow half that number with one vehicle per speaker pole rather than the typical two for each showing, a single-feature of movies that were playing when the pandemic hit and eventually showing classic films such as Grease.
Tickets are not available for purchase online for the drive-in and it will be open on a first-come, first-serve basis when gates open at 8 p.m. Gift cards also will not be accepted due to a lack of computer setup. Logan Luxury Theaters' Director’s Club rewards points will be manually tallied, but they will not be transferred until customers return to the indoor theaters.
To limit personal contact, food from the concession stand is available and paid only through an application -- which will be announced at a later date -- on smartphones and tablets and picked up at a walk-up window at the concession building.
Rather than hanging handheld speakers on vehicle doors -- which had been done in the past -- sound can be transmitted through an FM frequency in car radios or portable radios.
Meanwhile, an attendant will be posted outside each restroom and only one individual will be allowed to enter at a time and it will be cleaned after each occupant.
“We’re only running single-features rather than double-features to minimize the need for the bathroom, but we ask that people consider them emergency use only so that we can meet the demand,” Logan said.
Originally opened in 1949 as the Lake Vue Drive-In Theater, Logan purchased the theater in 1976 and closed it in 1986 before reopening after a 20-year hiatus. Although he never formally put the location on the market after closing for a second time in 2013, Logan attempted to sell, but the right offer never came.
There were more than 4,000 drive-ins throughout the United States at its peak in 1958, but the American Automobile Association reported the number of active drive-ins has dwindled to 305, including six in South Dakota.
Roy’s Black Hills Twin Drive-in in Hermosa is temporarily closed due to COVID-19, while Midway Drive-in in Miller is closed for 2020. The Winner Drive-In has already opened for the summer, while the Hilltop Drive-In in Gregory is prepared to open in May after undergoing renovations and implementing social distancing guidelines.
Painting and maintenance work are currently being conducted at the Starlite and Logan is committed to running shows each weekend throughout the summer. He said the success of the season will determine whether it returns in the future.
“If people support it and we think there would be a need, then maybe we can find a projector and make the investment,” Logan said. “We’re not promising anything. We hope people support it, and if they do, great.”