It had been a long time since I’d sat in the backseat of the family station wagon, wearing pajamas and laughing to Son of Flubber, which played on the massive screen of the Starlite Drive-In Theatre near the summer town of Grand Bend, Ontario, a 20-minute drive from my family’s cottage on Lake Huron.
This time, I was in the drivers’ seat and it was my pajama-clad daughter who’d convinced me to leave the cottage and take her to the Starlite for the most recent animated remake of The Jungle Book.
The drive-in had changed, I discovered, and the etiquette was unclear. For one thing, a heavy speaker no longer hung over my car window to deliver sound. Instead, I tuned the radio to a certain frequency to hear Mowgli and Baloo and the gang. Having little sense of how my car worked, I fretted throughout the film that my battery would die. Was it okay to occasionally turn on my vehicle to check that it would start?
And what about these people setting up lawn chairs in the back of their pickups? Was that acceptable drive-in etiquette? And the dogs lifting their legs to pee on tires? Was that okay?
What about outside food? Could I have packed a cooler with pop and freezies?
Yes, yes, yes, and, well….
The drive-in is a mostly live-and-let-live environment, as long your living doesn’t block another’s view of the screen, according to some longtime drive-in operators across Canada.
Batteries do occasionally die. Which is why Tara Hayden, who, for a quarter century has worked for the Jubilee Drive-In in the summer resort town of Manitou Beach in Saskatchewan, doesn’t leave until she’s sure nobody needs a boost. But take note: It isn’t the radio that runs down the battery, says Allan Barnes, owner, together with his father, of the Starlite near Grand Bend. “One tiny little fan blowing nice gentle cool air during the movie is 100% guaranteed to kill your battery by intermission,” he says. Like Hayden, he’ll give a boost to whomever needs it.
As for the pickups with the lawn chairs, they’re encouraged to park along the back rows so they don’t block the view of cars or smaller vehicles. “Station wagons have evolved into minivans or pickups trucks,” says Bob Boyle, owner of the Brackley Drive-In in Brackley Beach, P.E.I. “We ask that they don’t obstruct the view and most people are quite considerate.”
And dogs? Drive-ins are perfect for dogs, says Barnes. When we spoke, he was getting ready to show The Secret Life of Pets 2 and was anticipating more than a few canine movie lovers. “Bring your dog,” he says. “Take him for a walk, there will be all sorts of kids who want to pet your pet. The kids win. The dog gets exercised and petted a lot. Everybody’s happy.” But, he says, “keep them on a leash.” It wasn’t clear if he meant the dogs or the kids.
As for outside food, though some drive-in operators say they look the other way, others charge a “permit” fee. Given that most drive-ins sell snacks at a price that will transport you back to 1959, etiquette dictates that you support the drive-in and purchase snacks there.
Though some Canadian drive-ins didn’t survive the switch to digital a half-decade ago, there are still roughly 35 drive-ins across the country, many in summer communities.
I’ve been back a few times since being reintroduced to the Starlite. We load up the kids, the pets, the booster cables and, to watch under the stars, the lawn chairs, blankets, and bug spray.
The rules might have changed slightly but the pleasure of watching a movie in your pajamas is as awesome as you remember it.