Skip to main content

Backward Glances: Drive-In Theatres

A recent stop for coffee at Starbucks on Bernard at Pandosy [in Kelowna] provided some nostalgia on the significance of that intersection. After all, the main landmark in downtown Kelowna used to be Fumerton’s Department Store, across the street where Mosaic Books is now located.

Turning off Highway 97 onto Leathead Road the other day triggered a similar flashback to another significant landmark. Bannister Kelowna now occupies much of the property that was once the site of Boyd’s Drive-In Theatre. On warm summer evenings this was the go-to place for many people, some visitors but mostly locals, young and old. I think the Drive-In opened around 1949 and was operated through many years by a Rutland family, the Boyds.

My memories of evenings at the Drive-In go back to childhood days in the 1950s. My younger brother, Glen, usually went dressed in his pajamas and seldom stayed awake much beyond the previews and cartoons. After all these years I still harbour a small grudge against our dad who, shortly after dark one Saturday night said; “What a nice night, we should have gone to the drive-in…”.

Starlight Drive In TheatreDrive-Ins were only open during the summer and there-in lay a bit of a problem for other young kids just as with my young brother. It was often 9:30 pm or so before it was dark enough for the show to begin and that made for a pretty late night. I remember viewers anxious for the movie to begin, flashing their car headlights on the screen and honking horns.

When arriving drivers cruised the lanes trying to find the best possible spot for viewing, then manoeuvred until the car was at the optimal angle to the screen. The audio was provided by a corded speaker. Getting close enough to its stand for the cord to stretch to the driver’s window sometimes meant that door couldn’t be opened.

Drive-Ins provided wonderful entertainment but they were not without their challenges. For families or groups it was who got to sit in the front and see properly as those sitting in the back generally saw mostly heads, especially if you were a kid. Extra cushions were a good idea. If the weather turned chilly, invariably the windshield would fog up and it was impossible to see. We also had to listen to the endless inducements to “Visit the snack bar for our mouthwatering treats”. It was usually at some really critical point in the movie that Mr. Fox, the manager, came on the speaker in his gruff voice to announce: “The Snack Bar will close in ten minutes!”

As I recall, there were many couples, particularly in the back rows, who had little intention of watching what was playing and had rather more amorous intentions. It could be annoying to be parked behind them as their brake lights flashed from time to time due to feet inadvertently pushing the brake pedal. Remember the lyrics from the Everly Brothers’ song, “Wake Up Little Susie”?

As teenagers, a group of us usually made up of some combination of my cousins Trish [McCarthy], Cathy [McCarthy], Faye [Stowe] and Lynn [McCarthy] and friends Dave [McCoubrey] and Toby [Redecopp], would head for this favourite spot. Everyone paid admission so it was always a game to smuggle someone in “free”. Trunks sometimes had to be opened to assure no illegal stowaways but we had one trick that always worked. If we had the McCarthy VW Beetle, Lynn at under 5 feet tall, could just squeeze into the package tray behind the backseat under a blanket. I have no idea how so many of us could spend an evening in a car that now seems so tiny!

When the movie ended it sounded like a Grand Prix as drivers revved their engines to join the massive cue racing for the exit. It was at this point that the earlier warnings from Mr. Fox to replace the speaker on the post before leaving were sometimes forgotten, with dire consequence.

In later years, the Drive-In was owned and operated by a major theatre chain and the speakers on the posts had been replaced by audio received through car stereos. Despite these changes the days of drive-ins in virtually every town had pretty much come to an end. In 1986 the Kelowna’s Boyd’s Drive-In closed its doors. Vernon’s Skyway Drive-In met a similar fate. Today the only such facility that I am aware of is the Starlight Drive-In near Enderby. I miss these old landmarks and those wonderful summer evenings that provided my generation with so much pleasure.

Rich Gibbons, Okanagan Centre

Starlight Drive-In Theatre
Starlight Drive-In Theater in Enderby, BC

Editor’s Note: The Starlight Drive-In is still operating and its season opening is this weekend, May 15th, 16th, 17th, 2015, featuring the movies Home and The Longest Ride. For more information check their website. Starlight Drive-In in Enderby, BC





Leave a Reply