WINNER — The winds came roaring through Winner on Jan. 14. The 70 mph gusts downed tree branches and caused other problems usually associated with South Dakota wind storms.
But one long-time landmark suffered heavily from the storm.
The Winner Drive-In Theatre, a staple in the community since 1950, saw its screen severely damaged by the winds. The damage was bad enough that it will make projecting movies on the screen impossible, leaving area fans of the theater without access to outdoor big-screen entertainment.
Kim Nordsiden, 63, is trying to make sure the drive-in theater continues to provide Hollywood entertainment to area residents. The owner of the family-run small business said she has been seeking donations to help cover the costs of repairing the structure so that the flickering light of feature films can return to Winner.
But the damage is bad.
“I would say 20 to 25 feet across from the top, it peeled off almost all the way down,” said Nordsiden, whose father Harvey Fast built the theater in 1950.
The theater was originally located about a mile outside Winner, but community expansion eventually crept closer to the drive-in. Fast originally erected a 48-feet by 50-feet screen but upgraded that to an 88-feet by 55-feet screen in 1955 to accommodate Cinemascope films. The slightly curved style of the screen gives more depth to the image projected onto it.
And locals flocked to it over the decades. Nordsiden said the theater can accommodate up to 300 cars, and it still draws loyal customers for shows. The theater even has its own fan page on Facebook.
But as the screen currently stands, no images can be projected onto it, and the drive-in theater season is approaching closer each day.
“We tried to get the city out just to put something across it to save it, but it would not have been safe for anybody to go up and do that. We were grateful that they looked and tried to help, but first and foremost we had to think about safety,” Nordsiden said.
The screen has been damaged by winds before. A tornado that passed through the area in 1991, but Nordsiden said at the time they carried insurance on the structure, and with nearly 30 years having passed, it is unclear exactly what it will cost to repair the screen. The cost of new materials, such as pressure-treated lumber and steel are high, Nordsiden said.
“At that time they had insurance and it fixed really well, but then their insurance dropped them,” Nordsiden said.
Thankfully, the Winner community appears ready to help preserve the beloved old gathering spot. Nordsiden said a GoFundMe page has been started with a goal of $5,000. Over $1,600 had been raised through it as of Wednesday, but there have been other partners in the effort. Nordsiden said locals have sent money to a savings account set up at First Fidelity Bank, Frontier Motors donated $100 for every car they sold in January and Grossenburg Implement matched those figures.
“This morning I received two checks for $8,100. That $16,000 will go a long way to fixing it, but there is a lot to do there,” Nordsiden said.
She said two companies are on their way to Winner to give bids on the repair job, and hopefully the figures will jibe with what they have available to pay to get the screen back to showtime condition. While the Winner Drive-In Theatre has operated consistently since 1950, many drive-in theaters around the country have slowly closed over the years as competition from home video, streaming and even Daylight Saving Time cut into profitability.
The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association lists 305 theater locations and 549 total screens across the United States as of October 2019. In South Dakota, the organization lists six total drive-ins with seven screens.
But with the arrival of COVID-19 and social distancing guidelines that discourage large groups from gathering indoors, many people itching to get out of the house for entertainment have rediscovered the pleasures of the drive-in movie theater, and that’s something Nordsiden wants to preserve for the future.
“They do like the atmosphere of being able to get outside, have a big tub of popcorn and concessions and watch a movie on the big screen,” Nordsiden said.
There are still other challenges down the road. The same pandemic that has rekindled interest in the drive-in movie format has also halted or postponed production on many Hollywood feature films, delaying their release, in some cases indefinitely. That means Nordsiden has an audience, but nothing new to show them.
The theater filled the schedule holes in 2020 with events like pre-recorded concerts by acts like Garth Brooks and Metallica, but Nordsiden hopes there will be fresh movie fare in 2021, assuming the screen is ready to go at showtime.
Decisions will have to be made after the bids come in, but Nordsiden said she and her family are ready to continue the tradition of bringing big-screen entertainment to area residents if it all works out. She knows from the support the theater has received already people are ready to enjoy movies again in the outdoors on the big screen.
“We will do what we can do,” Nordsiden said. “It’s part of me. It’s in my blood, what can I say.”