Story and photos by Chris & Connie.
For one wondrous starry filled night, the Clearwater Drive-in Theatre, Kyle Saskatchewan, hosted the BIGDoer.com crew. We came, not to watch a movie, but to document a day in the life of this fascinating operation, doing it fly-on-the-wall style, recording what ever happens as it happens from the time the first employee arrives till the last car leaves. Six hours, two cameras, one honking big screen, and a giant popcorn bucket full of fun.
Outdoor cinemas like it were once commonplace all over the country – you must remember them – and it seemed nearly every town, big or small, had one. Major cities could have several. At the peak (early 1960s) there was hundreds of them. Today, they’re all long gone, most in the 1980s and 1990s, save for a few scattered holdouts here and there. The Clearwater is one of a handful left in ALL of Western Canada, qualifying it as a true anachronism.
Drive-in theatres died off for many reasons but it was the unprecedented growth in home entertainment that was a huge contributing factor in their decline. Those few that survived cater to a niche market. Business at the Clearwater Drive-in is pretty stable I’m told and actually is increasing slightly year to year. Even so many obstacles are faced. The short season is certainly one. The out of the way location does not seem to be however. The population of the place, at times, might rival that of Kyle, temporarily anyway.
The theatre opened for business in 1957. It’s named after a nearby lake and for a time I guess was called the Clearwater Lake Drive-in. It’s located on a secondary road just northwest of town, Kyle, a small community home to around four hundred people, give or take. That’s a pretty small population base but patrons also come from other small outlying communities, that nearby lake resort, and even far away cities. Operations run May to early September.
Show times are at dusk. This means a late start no matter what here in the far north, 10pm-ish, if you visit during the really long days of June! We picked a Saturday, typically the busiest day of the week. There is room for maybe three hundred cars. On occasion, like during the screening of a particularly popular film, that space can get taxed. This night the place was perhaps half full.
Lanes are separated by grassy ramps, allowing one to park at a nice angle in relation to the screen. The theatre went to radio broadcasting in the early 1990s but the old posts that used to hold the window speakers remained in place until recently.
The site is laid out simply. There is a small gate house at the far end, a concession stand with attached projection room smack dab in the centre of the grounds, and a children’s playground just below the screen. It’s a modest operation. The drive in is not surrounded by a fence or wall as might be expected. Biffies are old style pit toilets.
The original screen was destroyed in a wind storm back in the 80s. The current one came second hand from a closed drive-in found in another Saskatchewan town.
Film was used until the recently, first the old style (labour intensive and complicated), two projector “changeover” system and later a more advanced and simpler platter fed single projector set up. With film on the way out, the theatre made the switch to digital in 2013.
Denise and Ken own the Clearwater. It’s been theirs since the 1980s, bought from the original owner about the time the screen blew down (I guess that was his catalyst to sell). Gracious hosts, they allowed us an unobstructed free run of the place and were very patient as we continuously got in the way. Thanks guys!
Long before the show starts we meet with them below the big screen. We chatted for a time, on the history of the theatre, how things were going and so on. Managing and operating the Clearwater is but one job they hold down. Like it’s not work enough. Almost as if on cue, Ken gets called away briefly to help a motorist locked out of his car – they have a tow service. And own a laundry…and work at the post office. How do they find time to sleep? They mention wanting to “slow down” soon.
The sit down quickly ends. There are grounds to be cleaned (Denise mentions people litter less today than in the past – there IS hope for humanity), snacks to prepare, equipment to be warmed up and a whole list of other things to do. Later some additional employees would arrive to help with the pre-movie concession rush.
We simply wander about. Pay us no mind!
As the sun drops low, cars start arriving. It’s a trickle at first but soon builds, the line to get in extending for some distance down the road. Working out of the tiny gate house. patrons are quickly attended to. I squeeze in a for view (thank goodness for an ultra-wide lens) but in the end, all my pictures here were awful (believe me, this was a challenging shoot). Yikes! A spider! I’m outta here!
The movie is Minions, so nearly car has at least one kid in it. Some are packed with young ones. The films show here include lots of family oriented pictures. Cost are very reasonable.
The grounds fill. Children run to the playground, a large orange sun setting behind them. Some have brought mitts and play catch. The adults break out the lawn chairs and blow up mattresses – a good number of people will watch the movie outside their vehicles. Big speakers are set up so all can hear. Old blankets and sleeping bags are at the ready, as is the bug spray, which as it turns out will not be needed. The mosquitoes, which this area can be famous for, fail to show (thank you, thank you, thank you!).
Cars continue to roll in at a steady pace. The snack line builds and builds, the staff doing a fantastic job keeping up, handling it like seasoned professionals. The smell of popcorn fills the air. Music blares and its party atmosphere. Everyone is having a grand time and movie hasn’t even started yet.
Soon the sun sets – dramatic photo-op time – and the previews and lead-ins roll. They let us take a look at the projector, a wonderful high-tech piece of equipment in its own air conditioned room. It hums and whines and emits a bright and colourful laser beam-like light.
Across the road are some neighbours, but I doubt they complain much about the noise, bright lights or traffic. Those at the Kyle Cemetery are pretty easy going.
Classic cars at the drive-in seem like a natural paring. If one were to believe scenes from movies and TV shows, they show up all the time at these places (other drive-in cliches: teenagers making out, sneaking in via a trunk, that disturbing dancing hotdog and bun bit). Anyway, we were a bit surprised to hear they’re rarely seen at the Clearwater. But we’d LOVE one to include in our photo essay.
Let’s makes some calls…
Damn. no owners nor clubs contacted seemed the least bit interested, which strikes us as odd. I thought many would jump at the chance. Wow, we’re batting zero! That’s rare for us.
But wait, the drive-in gods are on our side. A hotrod makes an appearance! Pure random chance perhaps, but we’ll take it. Submitted for your approval, a late 60s/early 70s, El Camino SS. Photo-op!
Random thought: those car/truck hybrids seem an odd compromise.
The movie plays and we wander about unnoticed by those mesmerized by the screen. We pass like ghosts. A group of teenagers is passed hunkered down at the playground equipment, a large ghetto-blaster, cranked up to 11, filling the air with sound.
The stars come out and soon after the auroras. Nature puts on an amazing show of its own that rivals that on the bright theatre screen. It’s mind blowing and near perfect, an interesting subject matter with nature’s glory as a backdrop, fun and laughter, the human experience, photographic challenges, huge photographic challenges, fears of blowing it all, a huge overwhelming bundle of emotions. We stand there for a moment dumbfounded and overcome. “There’s no crying at the drive-in!” “But…it…it…it’s just so damn incredible!” Sniff. Click…click…click…
The old adage states “time flies where you’re having fun” What a freaken understatement! Before we know it the credits roll. It’s over. Cars quickly disperse, a stream of tail lights heading off towards the horizon. No doubt many of the kids are now fast asleep in the back seat. The screen goes dark. We’re the last ones here, save for the staff, who themselves will soon depart. We pack up our gear, marveling in the Northern Lights one last time, say our goodbyes to the wonderful people who hosted us, and we’re away.
There seems to be renewed interest in drive-in theatres, perhaps much of it fueled by nostalgia, the desire to relive the “good ol’ days”, a simpler time when things weren’t so damn complicated. Drive-ins that managed to survive are seeing an increase in business and now portable screens, set up in mall parking lots and the like, are popping up. Nothing, however, beats the real deal. Trust us. Places like the Clearwater is where magic happens.
The first drive-ins seen in Canada appeared after World War Two. One of the last built in this country, that we could find, was in the early 1980s, in Carlyle Saskatchewan. That one, by the way, is still in operation. They were the first drive-in we contacted when planning this article but turned us down. It happens. In retrospect, I think that was a blessing in disguise. We’ve not had this much fun in a long, long time (and recall, everything we do IS fun) and I think the accommodating nature of the Clearwater folks had a great deal to do with that.
We realize the irony of this article being released just as the place winds down for the season. Don’t worry it get republished over the winter and into the spring by many other media outlets. This is the BIGDoer version (kinda raw and unbridled), but there will be others out there, perhaps edited a bit, over time.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: August, 2015.
Location: Kyle, SK.
Article references: The Clearwater Drive-in,
BIGDoer,com had special permission to shoot at this location.