Big screens in the sky
Updated: Aug 14, 2019
Originally published September 30, 2004
Beginning in 1949 and extending through the 1970s, Edmonton had more drive-in theatres than perhaps any place on the continent. By 1977, Edmonton boasted ten drive-in theatres and, while they are all gone now, they were a fascinating chapter of life in this city in the 20th century.
They were commonly known as “Passion Pits” and yet, when you think about it, drive-ins and Edmonton didn’t seem a natural fit. In a winter city where temperatures frequently drop to bone chilling lows and summer nights don’t darken until well after ten o’clock, you might wonder about the logic of it all. But that didn’t stop drive-ins from becoming a phenomenon.
Edmontonians loved their cars so much that they didn’t want to leave them. They ate in them, watched movies in them and, yes, did other things in them that we won’t get into here.
The very first drive-in theatre in Edmonton was the Starlite which opened Monday, June 6, 1949. “Bring the family . . . come dressed as you please . . . enjoy a good show in the comfort and privacy of your own car,” proclaimed an advertising feature in that day’s issue of the Edmonton Journal.
The early ads touted not only the benefit of not having to find a baby sitter but also the freedom to smoke as you please. “Smoke cigars or your favorite pipe . . . talk or laugh as you please. You won’t annoy your next-car neighbors.”
The Starlite was developed by an Edmonton entrepreneur named Norm McDonald and a company called Western Drive-In Limited on a 15-acre site of what was then farmland at 156th Street and 87th Avenue, where Whitehall Square now resides. The $160,000 Starlite Drive-In Theatre boasted room for 600 cars and a screen measuring 57 feet by 45 feet, mounted on 70-foot towers. The screen was billed as the largest in Canada and the highest in North America.
Yet the venture nearly didn’t come to fruition. When McDonald told film distributors about his plan, they told him he was crazy to try. No one would go to an outdoor show anywhere in Alberta in the summer, they said, because the sun stays up so late May through August.
McDonald was certain the concept would catch on, but he hedged his bets just a little by installing bleacher seats for “nearby residents.” He didn’t need them. The first film, which
McDonald recalled was a “god-awful remake” of The Perils of Pauline, drew so many cars they had to be turned away at the gate.
The Starlite followed by just one month the opening of the first drive-in theatre in the province - the Chinook in Calgary. As Edmontonians fell in love with the “passion pit,” that was the last time Calgary was in the lead when it came to drive-in theatres. Just a few months after the Starlite opened, the Southside Drive-In commenced business, with stalls for 400 cars
The drive-in phenomenon got its beginning in the early 1940s when a farmer in the US draped a screen between two telephone poles. He used a foghorn for a speaker and charged a quarter a car. The Skyway, at Stoney Creek, Ontario, just outside Hamilton, became the first Canadian outdoor theatre in 1946.
As television caught on in the early 1950s, hundreds of indoor movie houses were quickly thrown into bankruptcy, but with buck-a-car admission prices, the drive-ins survived. In 1954, three drive-ins opened on the fringes of the city – the Sky-Vue, the Golden West and the Belmont.
The Belmont featured what was believed to be the first curved screen in Alberta. Built a couple of miles from the city limits in the middle of a farmer’s field, the drive-in didn’t have a ready water source and so water had to be trucked in to fill the 3,000 gallon storage tank.
The St. Albert Drive-In, with room for 550 cars, opened in 1955, giving the city a total of more than 3,600 drive-in vehicle spaces on any given night. In the early 1960s, Elvis Presley and James Dean flicks regularly filled the stalls. By mid-decade, action pictures were all the rage.
Then came the “Dusk ‘til Dawn” extravaganzas, where some of us would stay awake for all five films but most people caught a few winks somewhere in the middle. The concessions became famous for their popcorn and corn on the cob, slathered in buttery bliss.
Every car had its own speaker, which was hung on the inside of the car window and rolled up to keep the cool air out and the sound in. Invariably, there would be the warnings over the loudspeakers during intermission. “Please don’t throw corn cobs out of your car windows.
Doing so feeds the gophers and they’re fat enough already.”
There were always a few people who, when the movie ended, would forget to put the speakers back on their stands. They’d start their car and drive away, breaking the speaker wire or, in rare cases, the window itself.
The drive-ins extended their precariously short summer season by offering 240 volt in-car warmers. In 1970, the Twin Drive-In Theatre opened at the northwestern edge of the city, boasting a screen 100 feet wide and 40 feet high, making it the largest in North America at the time.
In the 1980s, as home video emerged as a market force and demographics and entertainment patterns shifted, drive-in business dwindled. Suburbia continued to creep ever outward and property that had been home to the drive-ins miles from the city was purchased for subdivision development.
The last of the big screens in the sky at the Millwoods and Twin Drive-In closed in 1996 and 1997. The two big screens at the Twin were finally demolished in 2002, bringing to an end to a glorious chapter of Edmonton history.
On those warm and clear summer evenings, as the sun sinks slowly in the western sky, the itch returns. I long to pop some corn, load the cooler with big bottles of soft drinks, pile up the back seat with blankets and pillows and point the car towards that big screen in the sky.
© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.