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Remember This? The drive-in

Drive-in theatres were most popular in Ottawa back in the 1950s and '60s, but they're enjoying a renaissance during COVID-19.
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The old Britannia Drive-In Theatre on Carling Avenue. Photo/ Jacqueline Tremblay

OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.

July 15, 1948

The drive-in theatre was the trifecta of modern American inventions, combining America’s passion for the automobile, its love of movies, and raging teenage hormones. 

Investors quickly knew they were onto a winner. 

In the years immediately following World War II, the number of drive-in theatres exploded. 

By the late 1950s, there were more than 4,000 in the United States. Canada, too, embraced the new invention, with more than 240 erected in fields on the outskirts of cities across the country.

The idea of showing movies outdoors was not new. 

In Ottawa, Andrew and George Holland in 1896 used an early film projector called the vitascope to show short, silent films on an outdoor, canvas screen at the West End amusement park owned by the Ottawa Electric Railway Company. The site of the showing is now roughly the location of the Fisher Park Public School and the Elmdale Tennis Club.

But the drive-in theatre that the post-war generation came to know and love during the 1950s and 1960s was the creation of one Richard Hollingshead Jr. of Camden, New Jersey, who in 1933 received U.S. patent 1,909,537 for the idea. In his patent application, Hollingsworth wrote:

"It is contemplated from my invention to provide means whereby an audience, particularly in rural sections, may view a motion picture without the necessity of alighting from the automobile, and as a matter of fact, the automobile serves as an element of the seating arrangements."

The patent envisaged most of the features that became standard with drive-in theatres, including small ramps on which cars would park to allow for better screen viewing. The patent even thought of a device for deterring insects from passing through the projected beam of light.

If anything, the invention was a bit ahead of its time. 

Economic conditions were harsh during the 1930s, and disposable income was low -- not the most auspicious time to launch a new consumer product. Early drive-ins also had problems with sound quality, a shortcoming that was rectified by in-car speakers introduced by RCA in 1941. Many years later, sound was provided through car radios.

It was after World War II that things really took off. 

Young couples with money in their pockets were buying cars and moving to the suburbs. They were also having children, later to be known as 'Baby Boomers.' 

This was exactly the demographic that owners of drive-in theatres hoped to attract. Customers could drive to the movies in their shiny, new sedans, with the kiddies, often dressed in their pyjamas, tucked away in the back seat, thereby foregoing the cost of a babysitter. To encourage this, the little ones often got in free.

The first drive-in theatre in Canada opened in July of 1946 in Stoney Creek, now part of Hamilton. Called the Skyway Drive-In. It had an immense screen that measured 100 feet by 50 feet. Sound was provided by loudspeakers rather by individual, in-car speakers.

Ottawa had to wait two more years before the first drive-in theatre opened on its outskirts. 

At dusk on Thursday, July 15, 1948, the simply named Drive-In Theatre metaphorically raised its curtain for the first time. 

The new movie facility, which had a screen that was 48 feet by 36 feet, was located in a fenced-in, fifteen-acre site on Highway 17 (Carling Avenue), close to the Britannia crossroads. 

The managing director of the company that owned the theatre was H. J. Ochs who also ran five of the only ten drive-in theatres then in operation in Canada. The local Ottawa manager was G.F. White.

That first night was a great success. 

It was estimated that 1,000 cars filled the parking spaces set in semi-circles in front of the large screen. Courteous attendants showed drivers to their parking spots as they entered the field. Seven policemen were needed to control traffic that backed up down Highway 17. Many would-be patrons were turned away, disappointed. The fortunate parked their cars on slight rises that tipped them upwards to provide a better view of the movie. Each vehicle had its own loud speaker with volume control. There were also several hundred 'walk-in' customers who occupied seats in front of the cars. Naturally, a complete snack bar offered food and drinks to patrons, along with a free bottle-warmer for new parents.

Three films were shown that night, including a lead-off cartoon for the children, followed by a news reel that would put the children to sleep, and then the principal attraction, 'A Night in Casablanca' starring the Marx Brothers. The black and white, 1946 comedy was a parody of the famous Warner Brothers’ war-time film Casablanca featuring Humphry Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. In the Marx Brothers version, Groucho is hired to run a hotel in post-war Casablanca where a bunch of ex-Nazis are trying to recover stolen treasure.

Two weeks later, Ottawa’s second drive-in theatre, the Auto-Sky, held its own gala opening. 

This theatre was located at an eighteen-acre site at the corner of Fisher Avenue and Baseline Road. Six hundred cars packed with 1,000 people attended the inaugural performance to watch Gypsy Wildcat, starring Maria Montez. 

Upping the ante on the Drive-In Theatre, the adventure movie was filmed in Technicolor. Consistent with the vision expressed by inventor Richard Hollingshead, the owner of the Auto-Sky said to the Ottawa Journal that the drive-in was "intended primarily for the farmers of the Ottawa district, who could drive in after finishing their chores and watch a show with the family. For this reason, we let the kids in free of charge."

What is particularly interesting about this statement from today’s perspective is that the corner of Fisher and Baseline was considered rural. With the exception of the Experimental Farm on the northern side of Baseline, urban sprawl extends today many kilometres from this intersection. The site of the drive-in is now the location of the Fisher Heights neighbourhood.

The drive-in culture reached its peak during the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

Along with drive-in theatres there were, of course, drive-in restaurants, where you could eat in your car with a tray suspended from the car’s window. Both became closely associated with teenagers. Moralists began calling drive-in theatres "passion pits," owing to their popularity with teenagers and young adults eager for some date-night privacy.

By the 1970s and 1980s, both types of drive-ins were in steep decline, losing ground to fast food chain restaurants, such as McDonalds in the case of drive-in restaurants, and the proliferation of televisions and video cassette players in the case of drive-in theatres. Some drive-in theatres became tawdry, showing kung fu movies, slasher films, and soft pornography. 

The appeal for families dwindled. 

With land prices rising as cities grew up around them, it became more profitable to tear down drive-ins and develop the sites, rather than to keep them in operation, especially as many operated only during the summer months.

Here in Ottawa, the drive-in at Britannia lasted for 49 years, outliving virtually all of its competitors, though it changed hands several times through the years. In the 1970s, it was modified to become a two-screen, drive-in theatre. Indoor cinemas, called Britannia Six, were also built on the site.

In mid-August 1997, the old Britannia Drive-In showed it last film. 

On that final night, the parking lot was half full to watch Men in Black and Spawn. Management handed out balloons and cake to thank the audience for their patronage over the years. It was the end of an era, and the loss of a neighbourhood landmark. 

In its place, Famous Players built the Ottawa Coliseum which opened in July the following year, with the old Britannia Six torn down for additional parking. Today, the Coliseum has twelve cinemas, and is operated by the Cineplex chain of theatres.

The closure of the Britannia Drive-in left Gloucester’s three-screen Airport Drive-In located on Uplands Drive as the last remaining drive-in theatre in Ottawa. Also owned by Famous Players, the Airport Drive-in quickly followed the Britannia into history. It was converted into an offsite, airport parking lot.

After that, if you wanted to go to a drive-in theatre in the Ottawa area, you had to drive to Gatineau to the Cine-Parc Templeton Drive-In on Boulevard Maloney Est. However, the Cine-Parc too finally succumbed in 2019 with the retirement of its owners. Its equipment was sold off to a ski resort.

According to DriveInMovie.com, drive-in theatres have experienced something of a renaissance in recent years, as a romantic and nostalgic alternative to the traditional inside cinema experience. Especially with social distancing measures due to COVID-19, makeshift drive-in theatres have popped up in spots like TD Place, the Zibi site and Wesley Clover Parks.

At last count, there were thirty-seven lisenced drive-in theatres left in Canada, of which sixteen are in Ontario. At time of writing, the closest one to Ottawa is the Port Elmsley Drive-In located between Perth and Smiths Falls.




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