Things were looking up in 1958 – literally. In that year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was formed, passenger jet flights were a new thing and the Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow made its maiden flight.
And as far as looking up, more people were under the stars staring at drive-in movie-theatre screens in 1958 than at any point in history. According to Drive-Ins.com, an industry compendium, there were about 5,000 drive-ins in Canada and the United States at that time. The numbers have dropped radically since. Most of the original concession-stand hot dogs are still around, but there are less than 50 venues in Canada still in the bumper-to-bumper film business.
The resilient drive-ins remaining are prospering, though, especially when the weather is good. One of the survivors is the Brackley Drive-in Theatre, the last place left in Prince Edward Island where popcorn-happy patrons can still enjoy a double bill by the dashboard light.
“We’re profitable,” says Bob Boyle, owner of the Brackley Drive-In in Brackley Beach, just outside of Charlottetown. “The drive-in has supported my family for 26 years.”
It was called the Parkview Drive-in when it opened in 1959. Boyle and his parents bought the facility, lock, stock and five-storey screen in 1992. Boyle’s parents have since retired but still work there, along with more a dozen other part-time staffers.
There are obvious drawbacks to watching a film in a parking lot, compared with an indoor movie theatre where modern comforts and surging technology make for an almost sci-fi experience. But in an age of cellphones and streaming services, Boyle and his fellow drive-in operators offer a more communal place for film watching.
“People come for the whole experience, not just the movie,” Boyle says. “Some of them come every weekend. They relax, sit in lawn chairs together, and no one is looking at their smartphones.”
Is that because of the poor cell reception? “That might be part of it,” Boyle admits.
Drive-in owners make more of their money from snack bars than ticket sales. The most exotic treat at the Brackley is the “ice cream poutine,” a concoction that involves French-fry-shaped funnel cake and avoids most of your major food groups.
Boyle has created a distinctly retro vibe at his drive-in, particularly in the snack bar. And while he understands the nostalgia for the 1950s and ‘60s, he also senses a certain “respect” for the bygone era.
“When you look at the designs and decor back then, there was a sense that anything was possible,” Boyle says. “We were shooting for the moon. And maybe people miss that.”
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