June 20, 2013

Gone But Not Forgotten: Minnesota's Cottage View Drive-In

The Cottage View Drive-In’s iconic 1960s sign. Credit: City of Cottage Grove
The Cottage View Drive-In’s iconic 1960s sign

From its first showing of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on opening night in 1966 until its farewell feature of Grease in September of 2012, the Cottage View Drive-In served the southeastern suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul with good, old-fashioned American summertime fun (short as those summertimes may be). And while not all the movies it showed over its 46-year service had happy endings, each left the loyal patrons of the Cottage View satisfied. The same can be said for the theater itself.

“My mom and dad used to, on Sunday afternoons, go driving around looking for a location for a new drive-in theater,” says Gerry Herringer, the former owner of the Cottage View, “and they found this one. So my dad and I went down to look at it and figure out what we could do with it.”

At the time, the younger Herringer, then in his early 30s, had partnered with his dad in the earthmoving business after returning from the Army. It took the duo a number of tries to get the owners of the property to answer their door, but once they did, the Herringers bought about 90 acres of disused farmland on the site. Their intent was to open a drive-in to pay off the property tax while the value of the land appreciated.

“We didn’t really ever think anybody would really care what we built,” says Herringer, now 78.

Located in the town of Cottage Grove, the theater was, at the time, well outside of the population ring of the Twin City area, and as a result, struggled at first. Eventually though, the idea caught on and many of the theater’s 980 car slots would fill.

But by the mid-2000s a number of false starts on development in the area had created a reluctance to put money into the upkeep of the theater and contributed to a state of general disrepair. Add to that the film industry’s continued shift towards digital projection, a move that would have cost the theater as much as $100,000, and it seemed the time had come to act on the plan of selling the appreciated land.

The sign was given to local preservationist, Steve Bauer, who will restore and display it until the city finds a use for it. Credit: City of Cottage Grove
The sign was given to local preservationist, Steve Bauer, who will restore and display it until the city finds a use for it.

“Everything just kind of came together in focus where it appeared time,” says Herringer. “And then the purchaser showed up so it looked like we just had to pull the trigger and make the move.”

“It wasn’t easy emotionally, when you’re that much invested in something with your own blood, sweat, and tears kind of thing, it was really hard to see it go,” he says. “I’ve choked up more than once in interviews about the thing leaving.”

But while the closing of the theater might not have been the ending that everyone hoped for, there were a few silver linings.

A three-way deal was struck between Herringer, the town of Cottage Grove, and local preservationist Steve Bauer for the theater’s iconic 1960s sign. Bauer will restore and display the sign at the Little Log House Pioneer Village -- a restored village displaying numerous local and regional artifacts -- until such a time comes that the city wants it back.

The community also threw a farewell party for the theater during which there was a final showing of Grease, bouncing sing-along ball and all, and a costume contest where participants dressed up as their favorite characters from movies that had been shown there over the years (Marilyn Monroe was the winner). In all, the event drew over 800 cars full of past patrons and well wishers.

“The Cottage View had this spot in the heart I guess of so many people down there,” says Herringer. “The response was so fantastic. It was a nice run for us.”

David Weible was the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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