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Storm destroys Long Prairie drive-in screen

Co-owner Dan Claseman cleans up panels from the ground in front of the storm-damaged screen at the Long Drive-In in Long Prairie. The drive-in was hit by the thunderstorm on July 17. (Kelly Humphrey|Brainerd Dispatch)

LONG PRAIRIE, Minn. — For 61 years, the towering screen at the Long Drive-In Theatre brought double features to life for generations of Minnesotans.

The stalwart steel structure met its match Monday, July 17, however, when a dangerous thunderstorm accompanied by strong winds marched across the region and left destruction in its wake. Now, it's unclear whether the local business considered a cornerstone of the Long Prairie economy can afford the repairs necessary to reopen.

"Right now I'd say I'd call it a nauseous waiting game," said co-owner Michelle Claseman. "We have insurance, but they're busy because there's been a lot of damage (in the area). ... And the insurance company has never replaced a drive-in screen. They're scrambling, trying to find their numbers."

Michelle shared the story of her family's deep roots at the drive-in Thursday inside the concession stand, which looks almost exactly as it did the day it was built in 1956.

"In 1956, this is what got parked here," Michelle said. "It's still the same floor, it's still the same popcorn maker, the butterer, the projector."

In view through the picture window, Michelle's husband, Dan Claseman, loaded crumpled steel panels scattered across the grass into the back of a pickup truck. The couple purchased the business in 2012 from Michelle's parents, who'd owned it since 1985. Before that, her parents both worked at the drive-in — Michelle's mother in the box office, and her father as the projectionist.

"I've been watching my mom and dad work their tails off out here for 30 years before we bought it," Michelle said. "I was trying to figure out why I was so emotional. Obviously, it's steel. But the thought that it's been here for 60 years, can you imagine its perch? Just looking over the drive-in and watching the cars change, the families change, the view. I guess that's where the emotions come from for me. It has a story to tell."

Friends of the Clasemans started a GoFundMe fundraising campaign for the drive-in. As of July 26, a total of $3,862 of the $5,000 goal was donated.

Without knowing how much the insurance will cover and how soon the screen can be repaired, the Clasemans are bracing for a stop to their income at the busiest time of year. Michelle said she knows of just one company in the U.S. building drive-in screens, and the estimated cost for a new one is $200,000.

Despite the challenge Mother Nature dealt the Long Drive-In Theatre, the Clasemans remained hopeful.

"We will go up with another screen, and hopefully it's here another 60 years," Dan said.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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