The growth of an economy or a community is like building a fire.
In an earlier time, one would start a fire by striking two elements together – flint and steel. In Eden Prairie’s case, two factors accounting for the city’s rise in the latter 20th Century were cornfields and cars.
Along came Otto
Among the people who could see the steel of the one and flint of the other was Otto Kobs.
In his hands, those two elements were struck in the mid-1950s to spark Eden Prairie’s one and only Flying Cloud Drive-in Movie Theater.
So, who’s Otto Kobs, you may ask?
Born to a German immigrant couple at the dawn of the 20th Century, Kobs grew up in Northeast Minneapolis. After his service in World War I, he found steady work with the Soo Line Railroad and then with Minneapolis Schools.
But the automobile was changing life in Minneapolis, and Otto could see it. More and more families owned a car, and more and more street corners were needed to fill up the gas tank and get an oil change. Seeing opportunity, Otto and a partner went for it in 1936; together, they opened the East Side Garage, a neighborhood service station in Northeast Minneapolis.
However, economic forces from the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II were unkind to businesses like Otto’s. Seeking more stability, he quit to become a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in the Bloomington and Richfield area.
At the time, that area was officially considered “rural” — as in mostly cornfields. But with WWII in the rearview mirror and the dawning of the “baby boom,” Otto could see the cars coming, and with them, young families, new houses, shopping centers, restaurants and movie theaters.
With both Otto and the country entering their (respective) 50s, Otto saw opportunity once again.
Drive-in movie theaters are a hot new trend
Forsaking his secure letter carrier job, Otto “bet the farm” and, in 1950, built the 430-seat Oxboro Movie Theater at 97th Street and Lyndale Avenue. It was a success, and Otto was looking to add to it.
Drive-in movie theaters were up and coming after WWII — getting their start in 1915 in New Mexico when summers get really hot! Not everyone had a TV yet (not with living color, anyway), and even fewer had air conditioning. For parents with young kids looking for fun on a summer evening, watching a movie from one’s car seemed the perfect answer.
Seeing the opportunity, Otto looked to open a drive-in theater, but he needed land to build one. The switch from farmland to houses and shops in Bloomington was accelerating, and Otto needed to move quickly.
But then came a bump in the road to opportunity.
The City of Bloomington decided that Otto’s plans didn’t fit with theirs; his request for a permit was turned down.
Looking west, he saw the cornfields of Eden Prairie.
From cornfield to drive-in movie theater
Like Bloomington, Eden Prairie was more farms than a city, but that, too, was changing.
For starters, Eden Prairie had its own airport. And it also had Martin F. Grylewicz (a.k.a. “Pappy Grill”), a farmer and local businessman looking to sell one of his cornfields.
“Timing is everything,” they say, and Otto’s timing was pretty good.
Otto and Pappy came to terms for Otto to buy 15 acres overlooking the Minnesota River bluffs along Flying Cloud Drive.
But once again, city hall objected. Early in 1956, the Eden Prairie City Council turned Otto down. But with Pappy Grill on his side, Otto rounded up public support from the mayors of several nearby communities where other drive-in theaters were operating. Based on that support, Eden Prairie’s council reconsidered and gave its approval.
On Aug. 11, 1956, the Flying Cloud Drive-in Theater was open for business.
The featured movie on opening day starred Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger in “Bhowani Junction.” For the kiddies, the theater also showed two cartoons!
In the first several years, attendance grew as Eden Prairie grew. It didn’t hurt to have an airport nearby, either. Many folks, having flown in from out of town, would make the drive-in one of their stops while visiting. In 1960, Otto added amusement park rides on the property to draw even more families.
Otto departs, but the shows go on
In life, all good things must come to an end. His success in the movie business notwithstanding, it was no less true for Otto. It was time to move on.
In 1964, Otto sold Flying Cloud Drive-in Theater to Eden Amusement, a local business. Like many other good Midwesterners, Otto cashed in and moved to Florida. He later passed away on Jan. 14, 1966.
The timing to exit the business proved just as fortuitous as it was when Otto entered it. In 1965, the movie screen suffered significant damage from a 100-mph wind storm. It happened again in 1973, right in the middle of the featured movie (people didn’t pay much attention to sirens back then).
Flying Cloud Drive-in Theater continued to operate until its final closure in 1988. It became a fixture in the Eden Prairie community, occasionally hosting community events, such as Schooner Days (sponsored by the Eden Prairie Lions Club), Sunday worship for local churches and even “the World’s Largest Rummage Sale” in 1970.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the public’s ideas about evening entertainment began changing. There was more competition for drive-in theaters to contend with from many venues, not least among them being the rise of amenity-filled, multiplex indoor theaters; the debut of daylight saving time didn’t help matters. Outdoor theaters began closing.
Eventually, the Flying Cloud Drive-in Theater met its fate in 1988. In 1989, the property was sold to Browning Ferris (“BFI”), which replaced the theater with facilities for its solid waste operations. Republic Services now operates the site.
Note from the writer: Deepest thanks to Steven Kobs, the grandnephew of Otto Kobs, for many of the facts and insights in this story. Having lived and worked in the Hopkins and Minnetonka area, Steven eventually retired and now lives in winter-free New Mexico.
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