As a follow-up to a previous column on by-gone local movie theatres and vintage movies, this week’s will bring us ‘baby-boomers’ back to our teen-years/twenty-some years of the 1950s and 1960s and to the golden era of the drive-in cinema. The concept of ‘drive-in’ was the creation of an American, Richard Hollingshead, in 1933; but the invention was a bit ahead of its time since the 1930s were economically hard years; the concept only bloomed after World War II as young couples found employment, bought cars and purchased a typical bungalow in the suburbs; in the weekend, they would treat their kiddies (‘free admittance’) to an outdoor movie and homemade snacks on the back seat of the car.
It is reported that the first Canadian drive-in theatre opened in 1946 in Stoney Creek (now part of Hamilton), Ontario. Two years later, Ottawa saw the opening of its first two drive-in theatres, the first one located on Highway 17 at the intersection of Carling and Britannia; it is said that on opening night, more than a thousand cars jammed the fifteen-acre site and there was a backlog of traffic on Highway 17; three movies were shown with, naturally, an opening cartoon for kids! A few weeks later, the second one, the Auto-Sky, opened its gates: it was located at the intersection of Fisher Avenue and Baseline Drive which was still a rural area then. The peak popularity of drive-ins was in the 1950s-1960s era.
The 1970s experienced a steady decline of drive-in theatres, mostly because of the quality technology of television manufacturers and the more diversified programming offered by the providers. By year 2000, both original drive-ins had closed their doors and land sold to investors. At last count, there were only 37 left in Canada, of which sixteen are in Ontario, the closest one being located between Perth and Smith Falls.
According to DriveInMovie.com, ‘drive-in theatres have experienced something of a renaissance in recent years, as a romantic and nostalgic alternative to the traditional inside cinema experience.’
In the summer of 2020, drive-in movies made a come-back to Hawkesbury, as the Harden Plaza parking lot hosted an outdoor cinema, compliments of the town of Hawkesbury; the event had the objective to allow an enjoyable family outing while respecting social distancing. The events were highly popular, FREE, but on a first-come first-serve basis; LED technology allowed the viewing to start before darkness. Boomers may remember that Hawkesbury had a permanent drive-in theatre up to the 1970s: the BEL-VUE Drive-in; it was located in a vacant field across from where used to sit Rozon’s Supermarket and where stands today l’école secondaire publique Le Sommet; according to available advertising in local papers, its final and closing movie was Elvis’s ‘Viva Las Vegas’. What a spectacular exit!
A few kilometres south, Alexandria also experienced a drive-in revival last summer, compliments of the local Optimist club. The field where stood the former SKI-HI drive-in was still ‘as is’ although the original screen structure had been demolished; the event was a celebration of St-Jean-Baptiste for the francophone community.
As a closure to this column, if I may and if you will allow me to, I will conclude with this very deep and philosophical statement: ‘Please, please, please, Madam Mayor Assaly and Mister Harden, please offer us a repeat of last year’s, PLEASE!’