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Published August 10, 2012, 08:34 AM

Sky-Vu Drive-in Theatre has experienced its ups and downs

Just outside of Warren, Minn., a sign reads Sky-Vu Drive-in Theatre. A red arrow leads cars down a dirt road to a ticket booth. Steve Novak mans the counter and greets each carload the same: “Hi guys, how’s it going? My name is Steve, and I’m the voice.”

By: Heidi Bounphithack, Grand Forks Herald , INFORUM

Just outside of Warren, Minn., a sign reads Sky-Vu Drive-in Theatre. A red arrow leads cars down a dirt road to a ticket booth. Steve Novak mans the counter and greets each carload the same: “Hi guys, how’s it going? My name is Steve, and I’m the voice.”

Sky-Vu is one of five remaining drive-ins in the state, and Steve’s father, Leonard Novak, has owned and operated it for more than 40 years. Nowadays, Steve helps run everything from running the intercom to putting the film together.

“And then, he tries to tell me what to do,” Leonard Novak said teasingly.

Everyone in the family — right down to the grandchildren who hand out brochures — has a task at the drive-in. Novak’s wife, Marilyn is “the backbone of concessions,” and daughters Theresa Lamppa of Grand Forks, and Jackie Schroeder of Plymouth, Minn., still fill in from time to time.

In 1968, Novak started as a projectionist at Sky-Vu. Three years later, the owner approached him about purchasing it. Novak eventually became full owner of the drive-in and Warren Theatre.

It started out as a side business, which sometimes incurred more costs than profits.

“We went through some lean years, I will tell you that,” Novak said.

His son, Tom Novak recalled the second time the theatre’s screen collapsed due to high winds. “I remember the look on my dad’s face, and I can honestly say, I think it was the first time he actually considered giving up.”

Hardships

In the early ’90s, drive-in theatres all over the country experienced major hardships that forced many of them to close. In 1994, Leonard Novak was unable to sustain both theaters, so he decided to close Warren Theatre.

But he refused to close Sky-Vu. “My pride says I cannot quit,” Novak said.

And he never did. Over the past few years, his hard work has started to pay off.

The Novaks attribute much of their recent success to social media, which allows them to reach a larger audience. More than 90 percent of Sky-Vu’s business now comes from more than 30 miles away.

Jennifer Heikkila, her brothers and two daughters traveled just over an hour to Sky-vu from Northwood, N.D. Heikkila recalled how much she used to enjoy the drive-in and decided to bring her daughters for their first experience.

“I just wanted them to experience the drive-in like I did when I was little,” she said.

Heikkila and her brothers planned to watch that night’s film, “The Amazing Spider-Man,” in the car, while the girls sat front and center on their lawn chairs.

The opening credits hadn’t started, but Heikkila already knew it was worth the drive. She said it’s not just the show that makes the drive-in so much fun.

“It is the whole experience,” she said of being outdoors and underneath the stars.

The Pokrzywinski family of Warren, Minn., and their dogs are regulars who like the drive-in for its family-friendly atmosphere.

“In a small town, there is not that much to do,” Rolland Pokrzywinski said, and after working all week, “it is relaxing and enjoyable.”

Pokrzywinski said that back in the day, drive-ins were not always as friendly as the crowds were much rowdier. “It was a lot of teenagers and drinking.”

Pokrzywinski said he likes indoor and outdoor theatres and remembers when the Warren Theatre shut down.

“To this day, I still miss it,” he said.

Another challenge

Despite Sky-Vu’s recent turnaround, drive-ins and small theaters over the country face another challenge. By next year, theaters will have to upgrade from 35-millimeter film to digital projectors, which run from $20,000 to $80,000.

It’s a price Sky-Vu Drive-in Theatre intends to pay.

“People do not want the place to close,” said Steve Novak. The community has made suggestions to help cover the expenses. But no matter how the money is accrued, the drive-in does not plan to raise food and ticket prices.

“We know that our customers appreciate that they can bring a $20 bill and still get in and have a good time,” Tom Novak said.

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