The Story of Baby-Boomers and Drive-In Theatres

By Jim Trautman

        The first drive-in theatre was opened by Richard Hollingshead in Camden, New Jersey on June 6, 1933. The admission fee was 25 cents per person and car. Much of life is based on events that become part of the myth culture of society. The story is that he founded the drive-in theatre for the reason that his mother was too large to be seated in a regular movie theatre seat. The first movie played there was a long ago forgotten Adolphe Menjou movie, “Wives Beware,” which ran 61 minutes.

        Ottawa, Ontario may have been the home to the first outdoor movie theatre, opened in 1896 by Andrew and George Holland. The movies were shown on an outdoor canvas screen at the West End Amusement Centre.

        Or, it’s possible that New Mexico may have had the first one in 1915 where one could reserve a space  for their car.

        Several other drive-ins opened in the 1930’s, but when World War II began, gas was rationed and this limited the use of automobiles.

        The history of the drive-in theatre from 1933 to the present day plays a large part in our love of the automobile and its impact on society. The drive-in came to be because of cars and cheap gasoline.  I can remember rows of gasoline pumps and an attendant for each one, as a kid.  And there would be gasoline wars to see how low the price could go. On Sunday’s, it was church in the morning, and then the afternoon family drive. A couple of decades later the popularity of drive-ins plummeted with the gas crisis of  the ‘70s  and the conversion to smaller cars. Boomers married and television took over for entertainment.

Mid 1970’s ad for the Northmain Drive-In theatre
 in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

        Going hand and hand with the drive-in theatres were fast food restaurants, another product of the Baby Boom generation.  The first A&W opened in 1956 on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg. By 1966 there were 200 across Canada. Kentucky Fried Chicken opened in 1953 in Saskatoon, as well as McDonalds, the Red Barn and others. Soon highways had fast food stores popping up everywhere, conveniently situated for travellers and commuters who were living further from city cores in the first stages of another newly conceived idea – the suburbs.  It was everyone’s dream to own a little house and an automobile.

        Canada was slow to open its first drive-in, but once World War II ended and the Baby Boom began it joined the United States in making the drive-in the place to go. By the late 1950’s there would be over 4,000 in the United States and 240 in Canada. The honour of opening the first drive-in theatre in Canada, on July 10 1946, belonged to the Skyway Drive-In, located in Stoney Creek, Ontario. The picture screen was 100 feet by 50 feet, and the sound was broadcast outside of the automobile, even though the individual speaker had been invented by RCA in 1941.

In- car speaker. The interior dates the car from another age.

        Other drive-ins opened in rapid succession. On July15, 1948, Ottawa’s first drive-in, which did not have a name, opened. It was operated by H.J. Ochs who also ran five of the ten in existence at the time in Canada. The line up was long and policemen were required to direct the 1,000 cars that entered. Others were turned away. Drive-in ushers, with their red flashlights, directed cars to their parking spots. As became common with all drive-ins, the car was on an incline, which prevented the car in front of you from blocking your view. (Oh, remember those days of the indoor movie houses moving from seat to seat to be able to see.) For the grand opening walkers were allowed in to sit in front of the cars. Eventually, the new single in-car speaker was employed and were used at every drive-in theatre. Announcements were made that if you accidentally tore a speaker loose, to please return it to the snack bar or box office.” My father was guilty of that offence one night. He was not the only culprit as I remember several other men in line with him. His defence was that he’d forgotten about the speaker being attached because we often ate at fast food restaurants with curb service where the waitress would come out and take the tray away as soon as you turned on the car to leave.

        Featured that first opening night was a cartoon for children while they were still awake, news of the world, and the Marx Brothers movie, “A Night In Casablanca.”

The Skyway Drive-In Theatre, Windsor, Ontario. Showing
“Battle At Apache Pass”. (1950).

        Many large cities had several drive-ins located on the edge or outside the city in what could be described as farm land. The Skyway Drive-In opened in Windsor, Ontario, on April 30, 1948. Two more would follow; the Windsor Drive-In, St. Clair Beach. All were owned by the Dydzak family. Most drive-ins would eventually be owned by companies or one family. A piece of trivia: the CBC television network owned by the National Amusement Company began as the owner of drive-ins across the United States.

The snack bar at the Skyway Drive In, Windsor, Ontario, 1950.
The Skyway opened on April 30, 1948. Pictured are the owners the Dydzak family. Photo courtesty of Lesley Rubin the granddaugher, whose mother is the little girl. 

        Cinema Park Drive-In opened in Calgary, Alberta on July 16, 1953. The movie featured Dan Dailey in “Meet Me At the Fair” and Johnny Weissmueller in “Captive Girl.”

        Drive-in theatres did not appear in Quebec until 1971. In 1927 there had been a major fire in a movie theatre and many children died. Quebec passed a law that children under sixteen were not allowed in a theatre. This carried into the drive-ins. When the law was lifted the vast majority of drive-ins were in French.

           A drive-in opened in Fort Gary, Manitoba on July 19, 1949. Capacity was 575 cars and the charge 25 cents per child and 60 cents per adult. The movie featured that night was John Wayne in “Red River”. Another opened Port Hope, Ontario, in1949. The fifth to open was the “Canadian” located in St. Catharines.

The Mustang Drive-In Theatre located in Guelph, Ontario, opened in 1960 and is still in operation. Its website claims it opens on March 26. Interestingly no outside food or beverages allowed.

        With the drive-in aiming for the family audience the question was how to entertain the kids. Families were encouraged to come early and enjoy the playgrounds and swimming pools some of the theatres added. In 1950 the Northman Drive-In in Winnipeg opened with mini-golf course, playground, mini train ride, petting zoo, pony rides and a monkey house. There was a large concession/snack bar, and a second floor with tables to eat at and if the movie started while you were eating, the windows faced the screen. The slogan became ““Come early to get a good parking spot closer to the theatre screen.”” Several had bottle warming stations and at a couple you could drop off your laundry and pick it up on the way out. “In the comfort of the wide seats in your own car, you could smoke, talk and relax, and enjoy a tasty meal or snacks.” If the kids weren’t already wearing them, pyjamas were packed and in most instances by the time the movie started the young ones were fast asleep. To amuse the men during intermission or just when things were getting dark, most cars had spotlights on the driver’’s side and groups would develop games to play with the lights on the screen.

        Drive-ins made about 70% of their revenue from the well stocked concession/snack bar. The menus consisted of hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken dinners, french fries, ice cold pop, buttered popcorn and peanuts – with a sign above that said ““don’’t worry about the shells.”” If it was chilly there was always hot coffee or fantastic hot chocolate. Pizza was a big seller and in some theatres that were close to the ocean there were fish or shrimp dinners available.  A visit to the concession stand was usually done by an older child with a parent since a flashlight was usually needed to find the car again and it was easy to get lost.

1950’s weekly ad for the Leamington
 Drive-In Theatre, Leamington, Ontario.

        Who can forget the famous Countdown Clock? It wasn’t the same at each drive-in, but between shows the ads for the concession/snack bar started along with the clock to tell everyone how much time there was until showtime. I sometimes wonder if an atomic scientist thought of the idea of the Doomsday Clock from the drive-in. “Ten minutes to show-time… five minutes to show time …

         Another thing that I remember from1950’s is the jeep driving across the theatre grounds creating a fog of DDT to kill bugs. Of course what it did to your food is open to question.

The famous speakers and love those cars.

        The drive-in theatre created its own movie industry. Hollywood studios did not allow their first run big budget movies into the drive-ins. They were interested in ticket sales and in a downtown theatre the same movie could be shown two or three times a day. The B movie industry moved in to provide entertainment. In the 1950’s flying saucers, aliens, Cat Women on the Moon, Women in Prison, monster movies and westerns were popular hits. In the 1960’s the movies changed when the theatres became known as “Teenage Passion Pits.” There were beach blanket movies, Hells Angels and other biker films, rip-offs of James Bond, like Girl In the Gold Boots, The Female Bunch and gangsters shows of all types. Roger Corman,an American film director, producer, and actor who is still alive at 95, has just sold all the B movies he made for $300 million to a Chinese company.

        In the 1970’s the drive-ins hit hard times that continue today. Movies became more violent and many dealt with sexual themes. There are no more gas wars and the land that many drive-ins were situated on became so valuable it was sold. Times have changed.  In doing research the Mustang Drive-In, Guelph, Ontario, which opened in 1960 will re-open on March 26, but no food or refreshments will be allowed in.
        Will the drive-in make a comeback? If not, it is there in our memory and was an important part of the Baby Boom after World War II.

In 1959 the REMCO Toy Company manufactured the Movie Land Drive-In Theatre.

        In addition if you have $200 you can purchase the REMCO Movie Land Drive-In Theatre. Made in 1959 it features a screen, six film strips, six, (as the tv ad says) “beautiful cars, a marquee and ticket booth.” The ad closes with “”Every boy want a REMCO toy,” and the girl wearing the ticket-taker hat adds ““And so do girls,”” and gives a left eye wink. It is a young Patty Duke who was featured in many of the company ads.

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