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THE SKY-VU DRIVE IN: A Red River Valley Icon of American Pop Culture

Updated: Nov 6, 2018

Movie theater rekindles old memories, creates new ones

On a warm July day, wildfires in Canada triggered a smoke advisory for northwest Minnesota, creating a foggy shroud under overcast skies. By the time Steve Novak finished mowing the grass that evening at the Sky-Vu Drive-In movie theater just west of Warren, Minnesota, the clouds began to break up, the sun started to shine and a cooler breeze from the northwest prevailed, helping clear much of the smoke.

Would lower temperatures and clear skies attract more moviegoers to the Friday-night screening of “Hotel Transylvania 3?” “Your guess is as good as mine,” replies the irrepressibly cheerful Novak, who operates the business. “On a night like this, 30 cars, I’ll be happy; 50 cars, I’ll be ecstatic. And anything more than that, I can’t tell you,” he laughs.

Novak’s phone rings. The caller from Fargo wants to know what movie’s playing tonight. Novak launches into full-sales mode, telling about the movie, the beauty of the setting, the delicious food and snacks available at the concession stand and how much fun everyone has at the drive-in. He does his best to convince the potential customer that watching a movie under the stars at the Sky-Vu Drive-In is well worth the 200-mile round-trip from Fargo.

“They can make a family vacation out of it,” Novak says after hanging up. “A lot of people got this on their bucket list. Once I can get them here, they do come back—that’s the key. A lot of times, when people come here, they don’t think it’s that big of a deal, but it is a big deal.”

It’s a big deal because since the first drive-in theater opened in the U.S. in 1933, their numbers have steadily fallen from a peak of around 4,100 in 1958. According to the website, there are currently fewer than 350 drive-ins remaining in America. Novak says the Sky-Vu—one of a handful of drive-ins open in Minnesota—is the only such theater between Minneapolis and Winnipeg, which recently lost its only drive-in. A Smithsonian Institution article on the history of drive-ins says there are currently about 100 drive-ins in other countries—mostly Australia and Canada—but they’re also gaining popularity in China.

“The drive-in became an American phenomenon when people became more mobile with cars,” says Wheeler Winston Dixon, professor of film studies and English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “There were drive-ins around the world and—once upon a time—in Europe.”

One aspect of drive-ins that attracted young people during the 60s and 70s was the opportunity to get away from their parents. “Drive-ins were known as passion pits because teenagers would go there to neck when they wanted to get out from under mom and pop,” Dixon says. “The drive-in was a great place to get out of the house, to go and have some time alone.”

A filmmaker himself, Dixon has written and co-authored more than 30 books on film, including his best-selling work, “A Short History of Film,” used as a required textbook for film studies classes worldwide. He says a combination of factors led to the declining numbers of U.S. drive-in theaters, a trend he believes won’t be reversed because the land upon which many drive-ins are located is being turned into offices, apartments and big-box stores.

“The biggest factor that led to the demise of drive-ins is that it’s much easier to stay at home and just pop something in the microwave,” Dixon elaborates. “It’s kind of sad. Of course, it doesn’t give you the same immersive experience that you got in a drive-in because films were not designed to be shown on flat screens—that’s television. They’re meant to be shown on enormous, 100-foot-long screens in CinemaScope.”

However, Dixon also believes that drive-in theaters will never completely disappear. “There will be a niche for them,” he says. “There will be a few and they will be kept up by people who love cinema. There won’t be many because they’re just not economically feasible anymore. It has to be a labor of love.”

The Sky-Vu Drive-In near Warren originally opened in 1953 when drive-in theaters were approaching their zenith. Novak’s father, Leonard, who lives with his wife in a house adjacent to the Sky-Vu, bought the theater with his brother in 1973 after working a second job there as a projectionist.

“We’d run triple features out here and all these kids did was drink and party,” Leonard remembers. “Now it’s totally different. You don’t get that. You run a triple feature and they don’t stay for the third show. The party boys, they were the ones who stayed until 3 or 4 in the morning. You don’t have those anymore.”

Today, Steve says it’s unusual when either he or his employees have to pick up trash after a movie. That’s mostly because Sky-Vu has returned the experience to its roots, a time when drive-ins were considered entertainment for the entire family.

Leonard recalls when many area drive-ins in North Dakota and Minnesota began shutting down between 1985 and 1995, mostly due to the advent of movies on VHS tape and DVDs. “Back in those days, if I hadn’t lived right next door, I think I would have shut it down, too,” he says.

While Steve and Leonard sometimes disagree on details of the Sky-Vu’s history, they both remember the movie that signaled a turnaround in the theater’s fortunes. It was the release of “Twister” in 1996 starring Helen Hunt and the late Bill Paxton as star-crossed storm chasers. It brought the moviegoers back, which Steve finds somewhat ironic. “We’ve had two or three tornadoes go through here and take the screen down,” he chuckles.

It was around this time that Steve began to get involved in operating the Sky-Vu, even as he ran four restaurants in the area. In 2008, he took over managing the theater and now also runs Beaver’s Cafe across the Red River in Minto, North Dakota. He’s put his own stamp on marketing the venue and promotes a family atmosphere centered on fun and quirky attractions.

For example, customers are encouraged to write their names on the concession stand, the theater marquee and other outbuildings. There’s a tiny building called the penalty box. As Steve explains it, if someone brings a guest to the Sky-Vu and the guest doesn’t have a good time, the guest’s host must sit in the penalty box.

“I love people; I really do,” Steve says. “I love seeing their expressions and how much fun they’re having here. Seeing these kids and adults writing on the walls, it’s a great feeling.”

Normally, the price to attend a movie is $8 per adult and $6 per child, but an entire carload can get in for a dollar if they pay with a silver eagle piece or Morgan silver dollar. Steve has added pizza made at his restaurant and soft pretzels to the concession stand’s fare, which also includes popcorn, barbecues, hot dogs, candy, soft drinks and slushes.

“The first impression I want to give when people walk into this place is that if I can’t get them to laugh and smile and have a good time, then I’m not doing my job,” Steve says. “They just love that first impression or last impression and the good food—that’s what it’s all about at the drive-in.”

Although the Sky-Vu looks as if it hasn’t changed since the 70s, part of its recent success is not only due to a nostalgia for drive-ins, but also because of updated technology. Steve uses a Sky-Vu website and social media to help attract clientele and keep them up-to-date on movie schedules and events. The business’s Facebook page has 14,000 followers. He also updated to a digital projection system, brought in rural water and recently purchased a new popcorn machine.

Moviegoers no longer need to hang a speaker inside their car window to hear the audio, a practice Leonard remembers causing at least one broken car window a night when drivers tried to leave without first removing the speaker. Now they can either tune into an FM station and listen through their vehicle’s audio system or listen to the theater’s outdoor speakers.

The Novaks, however, have no plans to change what makes their drive-in the Sky-Vu. “A person could add on here and make it really fancy, but then would you lose your nostalgia and lose your clientele?” Steve asks. “You just never know. You want people to look at it as a drive-in. You want it to be recognizable.”

Part of the success is the Sky-Vu’s focus on family-friendly entertainment. That drew Brittany and Ryan Horn, who brought their daughter Ellie to see the Friday-night showing of “Hotel Transylvania 3.” Ryan hadn’t been to the theater in more than 20 years. Brittany, who grew up in Grand Forks, had never been to a drive-in. “It’s been on our bucket list to do every summer,” she says.

The Horns joined other families who backed their pickups and SUVs into parking spots in front of the big screen to watch the movie from the comfort of their own chairs, using blankets and pillows to stay comfortable on a cooler-than-average night. The setting sun and smoky haze created golden rays through the passing clouds, which culminated in a brilliant red-orange sunset through purple-hued clouds. Moviegoers scrambled to capture the unfolding scene on their cell phones.

“I remember hearing of this drive-in, but I never went,” Brittany Horn says. “Even now, this is just beautiful,” she remarks, gesturing with a sweep of her hand across the darkening star-filled sky. “We’ve been taking pictures since we got here tonight. It’s just like he (Steve Novak) said: you need to write on the wall, you have to have fun and you need to make memories. I just feel like this is memories,” she relates.

The Sky-Vu opens when the snow is gone, which can be as early as mid-April. It closes after the first snow flies, which is sometimes late October. When school begins and families are far less likely to attend a drive-in movie, the theater shows movies that appeal more to the 18- to 35-year-old demographic.

As long as the Novaks are in charge, the Sky-Vu will be a labor of love, providing Red River Valley residents with a unique opportunity to experience a slowly disappearing slice of American pop culture. G

// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here



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