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Drive-in dons

Glenn Burmeister (left), current owner of the Verne Drive-In Theater in Luverne, laughs with former owner Walt Deutsch during a tour of the theater Wednesday afternoon. (Veasey Conway/Daily Globe)1 / 4
Walt Deutsch, a former owner of the Verne Drive-In Theater, gestures towards the theater's movie screen outdoors. Deutsch still works at the theater and lives next door. "I hope it's open yet when I'm six foot under," he said. (Veasey Conway/Daily Globe)2 / 4
Owner Glenn Burmeister explains movie projection technology while sitting in the Verne Drive-In Theater's projection room during a tour of the theater Wednesday afternoon. While the theater still uses analog film, it will soon be moving to digital projection. (Veasey Conway/Daily Globe)3 / 4
Cars line up at the Verne Drive In theater in Luverne.4 / 4

LUVERNE -- The two men stood there, leaning up against the building at the Verne Drive-In, telling stories.

One was the current owner. The other was a former owner who started at the drive-in during the late 1950s.

"There was a job application in the paper that they needed a projectionist," said Walt Deutsch, a former owner who owned the Verne Drive-In for two decades. "I put in for it. I worked for seven years. The owner wanted to sell, asked if we wanted to buy it. We bought it, and we enjoyed it."

Glenn Burmeister, a Luverne native, owns the drive-in now and is going on his 13th season.

"It brings families together," Burmeister said. "They are spending some time together. I've had parents tell me they love coming to the theater because it's some quality time with their kids when they spend time together while they're driving and at the movie. With some of the new technology, it's not one-on-one with each other."

As the two talked, the stories flowed.

"Walt used to sneak up on cars and throw five-gallon pails of water over the car," Burmeister said. "During 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,' he had a chainsaw, took the chain off and would go in back of a car, start it up and come out with the chainsaw."

"There were five girls in the car and when I ran that they piled out the other side," Deutsch said.

"They couldn't get out fast enough," Burmeister said. "I always remembered when Walt would throw water, and I think I was here that night when he did the chainsaw. They were screaming bloody murder."

That wasn't the only time he used scare tactics.

"One time, we had a spooky show and we had Dracula laying in a coffin out here," Deutsch recalled. "Two women came in, they saw him laying there, he got up and looked around and they didn't buy anything -- they left."

Deutsch bought the theater, which sits on U.S. 75 south of Luverne, in 1966.

He thought the first owners had the theater for 17 years before he took it over, meaning the origins of the Verne Drive-In date back to the late 1940s.

"It's in your blood," Deutsch said, explaining that he recently went to a drive-in when he was visiting his granddaughter in Virginia. "I live next to the ticket booth. When you live close, you pay attention a little bit more. I get along good with the people who own it now. Whenever they need help, I just go help them."

Deutsch still takes tickets on a regular basis -- the ticket building is a mere few feet from his garage -- and he and his wife walk around the theater twice a day.

For him, the best part is "getting along with the people. The people were great," he said. "I even take tickets out here yet now. I've been here a long time."

The second year he owned the theater, a large storm took down the screen, forcing a new one to be erected.

"It was a big heavy wind," he said. "I lived in town, and when I came out, I pulled into the theater and I know the screen was standing there. When I turned the corner, it was gone."

Now, the screen, which is 32 feet high and 72 feet wide and made out of corrugated tin, needs a new coat of paint in the near future.

"When I bought it from Walt I had to paint it," Burmeister said. "It's starting to peel some, so it's 13 years now. I'll probably have to paint it next year. It's a flat, white, outdoor paint."

That's not all that's changed. When Deutsch owned the theater, speakers sat on the car windows. In fact, he still has a set of four speakers by his garage.

Now, cars tune in a radio station to hear the movie. And there are more changes coming.

"One of the bigger hurdles for most theaters, and this is affecting the indoor theaters as well as the drive-ins, is we have to go digital projection next year," Burmeister said. "That's going to be about $75,000-plus. After this year, if a person is not digital, you will not be in the movie business anymore."

The projection room has two movies already loaded on reels for that night's showing. Burmeister had recently changed the bulb in his projector -- at a cost of $1,500.

Drive-in theaters got their start on June 6, 1933. They are credited to Richard Hollingshead, who first had a theater in Camden, N.J.

It wasn't long before the drive-in theaters sprouted up through the country. At the height of their popularity, there were more than 4,000 theaters.

Now, there are less than 500. The growing number of walk-in theaters and the rise of video rentals haven't helped the drive-in industry. Another reason for their dwindling numbers is the rising price of real estate, especially in larger cities.

But in Luverne, the Verne Drive-In is still going strong -- when the weather cooperates.

"This year has been a little slower because of the rainy weather we've had," Burmeister said. "We've had lots of rainy Fridays and several rainy weekends, and that affects numbers. Otherwise, the numbers have been good when it's not raining."

In their 80th year, drive-in theaters are a piece of American history.

"We've had some ladies who are close to 80 years old who have came from Sioux City, Iowa," Burmeister said. "They made a special trip -- they actually stayed overnight in Luverne and looked me up and just said, 'We wanted to tell you thank you for having this open, we used to go to them all the time and had fun, that's why we drove here again, to reminisce about when we were young and used to go to the theater and have fun.'"

And for a reasonable price -- and two movies per night -- the Verne Drive-In is introducing a whole new generation to the theater under the stars.

"There was probably a whole generation of younger people who have not had the opportunity to go to a drive-in theater because so many of them are closed," Burmeister said. "And I want to be able to give entertainment to young couples and affordable entertainment to young couples with young families."

It's not just a family affair for his customers.

Burmeister's daughter, Stacy Benner, and his wife, Julie, do a lot of work for the theater. He has even hired multiple members of the same families in the area.

"I have really good help," Burmeister said. "On some of the families, I'm on the third kid. It's multiples of the same families. If the brother was a good kid, then usually the other brother or the sister is a good kid."

The theater is open traditionally the first weekend in May for weekend showings and every night from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The shows usually start around dusk.

The concession stand serves more than just the typical popcorn. It has everything from pizza to chicken strips to french fries to cinnamon mini donuts.

It's not just a magical place for Burmeister and Deutsch, either.

"We have had two wedding proposals here," Burmeister said. "We have another one coming up. I got an email from a guy and he asked if we would do it. Usually what I do is I'm upstairs and I read it and it goes over the speaker system. The one guy, they were in a pick-up and they stood up and I read it. I asked, 'What if she says no?' He says, 'Then I'm embarrassed in front of a lot of people.'"

The Verne Drive-In is not the only one in the area. The Superior 71 Drive-In sits south of Jackson at the intersection of U.S. 71 and Iowa 9.

But as the country celebrated its birthday on July 4, there is still a little bit of American history left with drive-in theaters.

"It's a good, affordable place for families and teenagers and all people to go and spend time with their friends and have an affordable night out and see some current movies," Burmeister said. "You can sit there, you can be with your friends and you can still talk to each other if you want to. You're outside under the stars.

"Sometimes that's not a good thing, sometimes it rains, sometimes it's windy or cold," he continued. "Generally, it's a good experience in you're outside or you're in your own car. You don't have to rub shoulders with someone that you don't know."

Community Content Coordinator Aaron Hagen can be reached at 376-7323.

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