Missing the local drive-in

John Cairns

Summer at the movie theatres is not the same as it used to be.

These days, you search out the biggest, most air-conditioned multiplex you can find for the experience of watching a summer blockbuster on the big screens inside.

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Lately, though, I have been having pangs of nostalgia for the old drive-in theatres. You know the ones, where you would drive into the parking lot and watch a movie from inside the comfort of your own car.

It wasn't air conditioned, the sound from the speakerphone wasn't all that good and you probably had to fight off the mosquitoes that would get inside the car. But nothing could beat watching a movie underneath the stars -- and those screens they would project onto were big indeed.

I was reminded how much I missed the old drive-ins by watching some stories about the old drive-ins that were posted recently on the CTV Saskatoon website.

They profiled some of the long-lost drive-ins of Saskatoon, such as the Starlite, the Sutherland Park Drive In, the Skyway, the Southwinds and the Sundown.

The Starlite was Saskatoon's first drive-in, opening on July 19, 1950. The Sutherland Park, operated by Famous Players, opened two days later in what was then the pre-annexation Town of Sutherland.

Here in North Battleford, we got into the act too, with the opening of the North Park Drive-In Theatre along Highway 4 north beginning in 1952.

That theatre has been gone for years, but I still hear of people in the community who miss the old drive-in.

To their core, the drive-ins are essentially creatures of the 1950s. (I deliberately use the word creature, because "creature features" were a popular attraction at the drive-in in those early days.)

They capitalized on the obsession with automobiles in that post-war period, when going out in the automobile was a popular pastime, although it should be noted the first drive-in was built in New Jersey during the Depression era, in 1933.

By the end of the 1950s, there were some 4,000 of these "ozoners" as they were described, across the United States and Canada. The boom in the building of drive-ins came at a time when movie operators were looking for any kind of alternative to get people to turn away from the TV.

They were trying such things as 3D and wider screens to try to get people interested, so drive-ins fit right in.

Many of these were built outside the city limits where there was plenty of land available. That was certainly true for the North Battleford drive-in, located on the outskirts of the city in the north end.

The drive-ins were great places for families. You could take your kids to the movies and not worry about whether they would start crying inside the theatre. Some of the drive-ins would also have a playground set up where the kids could play before the main feature started.

I especially remember the playgrounds at the old Southwinds Drive-In south of Saskatoon in Grasswood, where my family would go to see movies starring the likes of Snow White or the Muppets.

We often went for coffee in the evening at the Voyageur restaurant across the street at the Esso station. On the way out there would inevitably be a popular movie playing on the big screen over at the Southwinds. I thought that was neat - it was like getting to see the movie for free.

The drive-ins proved a popular place for people to go out on dates. Perhaps they were too good, because they developed a reputation as "passion pits."

That gave the drive-ins a bit of a bad reputation. But another thing contributing to it was the types of movies that usually played at many of them - movies best described as "cheap junk."

Most drive-ins that were in business at the time were independently owned and operated, which usually meant they were out of the running for the "A" pictures from the major studios that would usually run in the indoor theatres.

These drive-ins existed on "table-scraps", playing second-run releases they could acquire at far more favourable terms than the "A" pictures.

By the late 1950s, a number of independent companies had set up in Hollywood. They realized these drive-in operators were being shut out of the action from the major studios and were desperate for movies to show. So they took advantage of that opportunity by releasing movies to them that were made on the cheap.

One of the most famous of these companies was American International Pictures, a company run by a couple of guys named Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson. That company got a reputation for producing cheap movies marketed heavily to teenagers. The belief was that teenagers were this great untapped market that were more likely to go to the movies than adults, who preferred to stay home to watch the new medium of TV. They believed the major studios were basically ignoring them.

The end result was movies made in the 1950s that were aimed at a younger audience. Teenagers were flocking to the drive-ins in the '50s and '60s to watch movies from independents such as AIP.

Movies released by AIP included titles such as I was a Teenage Werewolf, High School Hellcats, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine and things like that. This company also released the Beach Party movies that featured Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in the '60s, as well as various other imitators.

They also churned out horror movies - many featuring the scary Vincent Price - and a car-racing movies, usually involving drag racing. They also released anti-establishment "biker" movies that were popular in the late '60s, with titles such as The Wild Angels.

The director of that latter title was one of AIP's more famous directors, Roger Corman, whose pictures included The Fast and the Furious, It Conquered the World, Little Shop of Horrors, Attack of the Crab Monsters and many others.

He later founded the company New World Pictures that would heavily cater to the drive-in market in the '70s. The title of his autobiography was How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime" which is a revealing statement about how lucrative the business for drive-in pictures could be if you did things right.

The one thing these drive-ins proved was that you could release a movie in the summertime and attract flocks of teenagers as customers, and make a pile of money. Starting in the late 1970s, the major studios started to follow that exact same strategy: they would release their big blockbusters in the summertime in the cinemas and multiplexes, and start marketing to younger audiences. And that would define the movie business to this day.

A number of factors did in the drive-in business by that time, including the changing nature of technology with the arrival of VCRs and direct-to-video releases. One thing that was always a real issue was the weather. It must have been frustrating to own a drive-in movie theatre anywhere in Canada, knowing you would have to close for several months every winter just out of necessity due to the freezing cold.

A worse nuisance was those big thunderstorms that could blow the screen to pieces. High winds blew down the North Park Drive-In screen and it was not rebuilt. An actual tornado blew down another screen at the Sundown Drive-In in Saskatoon in 1996. The movie that was booked there at the time was none other than Twister. (The screen was eventually rebuilt.)

The main thing that drove out the drive-ins was real estate prices. The value of the land went way up. The owners of the drive-ins were better off selling their lots for millions of dollars so the properties could be converted into shopping centers and supermarkets.

It should surprise no one that Sobeys and Tim Hortons now stand on the property where North Battleford's old drive-in once stood - a typical fate of drive-in properties all over the continent.

Today, there is very little left of the old drive-ins, especially around this neck of the woods.

The few that remain open in Saskatchewan are all in small towns and are basically tourist attractions now. The drive-in in Wolseley is still alive and kicking, saved from closure by a fundraising campaign to allow it to convert to digital projection. There's another one down near Carlyle, and the nearest one to North Battleford is way down around Kyle called the Clearwater Drive-in.

The drive-ins harken back to another era, when life was simpler and more innocent, and when the things that frightened you the most were the monsters, werewolves and giant crabs that were shown outdoors on the big screen.

© Copyright Battlefords News Optimist

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