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Lasalle Drive-in Sudbury historic photo
The Drive-in Theatre in Sudbury, Ontario opened on July 8, 1949 and was the second one built in Canada.

It was a landmark and a fixture in my neighbourhood while I was growing up: the Lasalle Drive-in Theatre in Sudbury. Its bright yellow facade stood out like a sore thumb from the residential streets and houses that surrounded it, so that you couldn’t help but check out the double features advertised on its marquis every time you drove by. It didn’t matter that it was only open for a few months each year, the drive-in had always been there. Until one day it wasn’t.

Lasalle Drive-in Sudbury destroyed
The Lasalle Drive-in was demolished in the 80s

By the 1980s, like so many other drive-in theatres in Canada, ours had become irrelevant. With the advent of VCRs for the home and multi-screen mega-cinemas with state-of-the-art sound and visuals, drive-ins were lost in the infatuation with new technology. And then there was the value of the real estate itself, which was worth more than the revenue that a seasonal business could generate. So our Lasalle Drive-in Theatre was bulldozed to make way for a mall.

The drive-in’s demolition signalled the end of an era, it seemed – that is, until this year. This summer, drive-in theatres are having a moment, and we have a pandemic to thank.

A Return to the Drive-in Theatre

Welcome Drive in clip art

Drive-in theatres in Canada are enjoying a renaissance in 2020, in part due to the Covid pandemic and the need to physically distance ourselves from others. (In fact, a nightclub owner in Toronto recently announced that he would be building a brand-new drive-in theatre in Toronto with a capacity of 250 cars where he will host live concerts this summer.)

But the popularity of drive-ins seemed to have already been on the rise even before this new need to ‘stay together, while apart’. Chalk it up to a younger generation’s love for all things retro, or a nostalgic look at the past during troubling times – whatever it is, the idea of the drive-in theatre is alive and well and more appealing than ever. And while we might understand why the drive-in theatre has become popular again this year specifically, what ‘drove’ its popularity in the first place? The answer is the automobile, of course.

History of the Drive-in Theatre

Motel and vintage car from Pixabay
The Age of the Automobile meant a new way to travel and a new lifestyle

The rise of the importance of the automobile in North American culture, especially during the 1950s and 1960s coincided with the popularity and proliferation of drive-in theatres. The automobile had already influenced how people travelled: cars meant more highways, highways meant more road trips, and road trips meant motels, motor inns and even drive-in restaurants that catered to a population that loved its cars. So why not watch a movie in your car, too?

vintage car at drive_in restaurant
Drive-in restaurants meant never having to leave your car!

The drive-in theatre concept dates back as far as the 1910s but it was Richard Hollingshead, an American from New Jersey who opened the first patented drive-in movie theatre in 1933. “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are” was his selling point. When his patent expired two decades later and new theatres weren’t required to pay Hollingshead royalties, drive-in theatres really took off. Then came the Baby Boomers, and the drive-in practically became a rite of passage, so that by the 1960s, there were more than 4,000 drive-ins in the U.S. alone.

Drive-In Theatres in Canada: Always a Summer Thing

Unless you lived in the southern U.S., drive-in theatres in Canada were definitely a summer thing, which is part of the reason why they had a unique appeal for Canadians. The theatres could only open once the weather was warm enough to sit in a car without freezing to death, and this made the opportunity to go to a drive-in both fleeting and special, just like summer itself.

That warm weather requirement also meant that mosquitoes might be a problem, too, for two reasons: one, drive-ins were usually located away from the city where there was plenty of space, trees, and mosquitoes; and two, the external speakers had to ‘hang’ onto your driver’s side window, and there was always a small gap where the mosquitoes could get in.

vintage-drive-in-movie-speaker *public domain
Modern drive-ins use apps and FM channels for audio. We had these instead!

By September the mosquitoes were long-gone, but the summer holidays went with them, and the closing of the drive-in theatre wasn’t far behind. By the end of October, our own Lasalle Drive-in would post their ‘Closed for the Season. Reason? Freezin!’ message on the marquis and the gates would close for another year.

The Appeal of Drive-in Theatres, Then and Now

As a child, a trip to watch a movie at a drive-in theatre was a rare treat for my family: we would all pile into the car, already dressed in our pyjamas and toting our favourite pillows and blankets. Once past the gate and settled into our spot facing the screen, we would get comfortable in the expansive backseat of our 1960’s ‘land yacht’ and look forward to staying up late – really late. It didn’t even get dark until 9:30 or 10:00 pm in July, so a drive-in movie was an indulgent excuse to break regular bedtime rules, even extended summer holiday ones. Not to mention having permission to wear jammies outside of the house. (This was way before ‘athleisure’ and Lulu Lemon became fashionable.)

FUN FACT: The introduction of daylight savings time in 1966 may have partially contributed to the demise of the drive-in theatre, as longer days meant later start times for movies, something which made drive-ins less appealing on weekday nights.

As a teenager, the appeal of drive-in theatres was obvious: raging hormones. Where else could you escape for hours to make out, all under the seemingly innocent guise of ‘going to a movie’. One look at all the steamy windows in the cars and you could guarantee half of the audience didn’t catch much of the movie playing. (Which was why you usually chose second-run movies that you’d already seen, just in case your parents asked what the movie was about.)

drive in scene from Grease
We all remember the scene from Grease and the song ‘Stranded at the Drive-in”

A Novelty…and a Way to Avoid a Novel Coronavirus

Today, the appeal of drive-in theatres is probably because it is seen as a novelty experience. A little kitschy in a fun, retro way for younger generations, a little nostalgic for grownups who remember their teenage memories, and an altogether alien thing for kids who are used to having a screen in their own hands, not two stories tall and hundreds of feet away.

But regardless of whether you come to relive memories or make new ones, a drive-in theatre is something that is definitely a summer thing, and something you might want to try in this ‘extraordinary’ summer of 2020.

Because I can’t think of a better way to avoid the coronavirus and have fun doing it.

List of Drive-in Theatres in Canada

PINTEREST_Drive in Theatres Canada

Today, there are about 40 permanent drive-in theatres in Canada that are still operating (the US has over 300), most of which are run by entrepreneurs who just seem to like the idea of keeping this tradition alive. Each theatre has its own rules when it comes to whether pets are allowed or not, whether you can bring in outside food, whether they accept only cash, etc. So it’s always a good idea to check the theatre before heading out. Here is a list of the operating drive-in theatres in Canada, by province. (with links to each)

TIP: Check with each theatre to see if you require an app to listen to the audio or your FM radio, as well as other details about ticketing, costs, rules, concession availability, etc. Also, capacity may be reduced because of Covid-19 restrictions.

BRITISH COLUMBIA
Drive-in Theatres in BC (3 theatres)

Starlight Drive-in Theatre, Enderby
Normal Capacity: 250 cars

Park Drive-in Theatre, Prince George
Normal Capacity: 300 cars

Drive-in Theatres in Vancouver

Twilight Drive-in Theatre, Langley
This is Vancouver’s last remaining drive-in.
Normal Capacity: 436 cars

ALBERTA
Drive-in Theatres in Alberta (1 theatre)

High River Sunset Drive-in Theatre, High River
On track to open July of 2020, this is a new one for the area! And a not-for-profit, to boot, using shipping containers to help build the screen. Check their facebook page above to follow the progress.
Normal Capacity: 180-200 cars

SASKATCHEWAN
Drive-in Theatres in Saskatchewan (4 theatres)

The Prairie Dog Drive-in, Carlyle
Normal Capacity: 300 cars

Clearwater Drive-in, Kyle
Normal Capacity: 300 cars

Jubilee Drive-in Theatre, Manitou Beach
Another great thing to do after floating in Canada’s version of the Dead Sea!
Normal Capacity: 250 cars

Twilite Drive-in Theatre, Wolseley
Normal Capacity: 225 cars

MANITOBA
Drive-in Theatres in Manitoba (3 theatres)

Big Island Drive-in Theatre, Flin Flon
This is the most northern drive-in theatre in Canada!
Normal Capacity: 250 cars

Shamrock Drive-in, Killarney
Normal Capacity: 150 cars

Stardust Drive-in Theatre, Morden
Normal Capacity: 200 cars

ONTARIO
Drive-in Theatres in Ontario (16 theatres)

Port Hope Drive-in, Cobourg
Normal Capacity: 400 cars

Can View Drive-in, Fonthill
A large one with 3 screens and plenty of space!
Normal Capacity: 2000 cars

Starlite Drive-in, Grand Bend
One of Canada’s oldest drive-in theatres.
Normal Capacity: 250 cars

Muskoka Drive-in, Gravenhurst
Normal Capacity: 320 cars

Mustang Drive-in Theatre, Guelph
(Note: there is another Mustang Drive in in Prince Edward County, and another in London, so don’t get confused!)
Normal Capacity: 350 cars

Hanover Drive-in Theatre, Hanover
Normal Capacity: call drive-in to find out

Lindsay Twin Drive-in, Lindsay
Like the name suggests there are 2 screens here.
Normal Capacity: 300 cars

The Mustang Drive-in, London
Normal Capacity: 800 cars

Skylight Drive-in, Pembroke
Normal Capacity: 200 cars

Port Elmsley Drive-in, Perth
Normal Capacity: 350 cars

Mustang Drive-in, Picton
New owners just took over this one in Prince Edward County.
Normal Capacity: 600 cars

Stardust Drive-in, Sharon
Normal Capacity: 900 cars

Starlite Drive-in Theatre, Stoney Creek
Normal Capacity: 500 cars

The Boonies Drive-in Theatre, Tilbury
Normal Capacity: 150 cars

Sunset Barrie Drive-in, Shanty Bay
Normal Capacity: 400 cars

Drive-in Theatres in Toronto

CityView Drive-in Theatre, Toronto
This new drive-in theatre in Toronto near Cherry Street will primarily be used for live music concerts this summer, but may add in movies as well. Check their website for upcoming events.
Normal Capacity: 200 cars

5 Drive-in Theatre, Oakville
This drive-in in Oakville is probably the closest existing drive-in theatre to Toronto, and it’s a big one with 3 screens for movies.
Normal Capacity: 1000 cars

QUÉBEC
Drive-in Theatres in Québec (5 theatres)

Cine-Parc Mont St. Hilaire, Mont-Saint-Hilaire
Normal Capacity: 1200 cars

Cine-Parc St.-Eustache, Saint-Eustache
This one is massive, with 5 screens!
Normal Capacity: 3000 cars

Cine-Park Orford, Sherbrooke
Normal Capacity: 1000 cars

Cine-Parc Belle Neige, Val-Morin
Normal Capacity: 300 cars

Cine-Parc Paradiso, Chandler
Normal Capacity: 400 cars

NEW BRUNSWICK
Drive-In Theatres in New Brunswick (3 Theatres)

Cine-Parc Satellite Drive-in, Bois-Blanc
Normal Capacity: check with theatre

Neptune Drive-in, Shediac
The only screen in Atlantic Canada that projects in 4K.
Normal Capacity: 350 cars

Sussex Drive-in Theatre, Sussex
Normal Capacity: 300 cars

NOVA SCOTIA
Drive-in Theatres in Nova Scotia (3 theatres)

Valley Drive-in Theatre, Cambridge
Normal Capacity: 400 cars

Cape Breton Drive-in, Sydney
Normal Capacity: 300 cars

Highland Drive-in, Westville
Normal Capacity: 500 cars

PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND
Drive-in Theatres in PEI (1 theatre)

Brackley Drive-in, Brackley Beach
Normal Capacity: 250 cars

NEWFOUNDLAND (1 pop-up theatre)

Mad Rock Pop-Up Drive-In, Bay Roberts
There are no permanent drive-in theatres in Newfoundland, but this is a pop-up one for summer 2020.
Capacity: 50 cars.

YUKON, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES and NUNAVUT (sorry, no theatres)

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