Remembering the days when the drive-in theatre was king

A look at what became of some of Vancouver Island’s old outdoor theatres

R. Wilson of Courtenay asked:

I have vague memories of two different drive-in movie theatres somewhere along the Old Island Highway in the Merville area. I think one was the Stardust and the other Miracle Beach. How long were they open, when did they close and is there anything left of them?

Here’s the answer:

According to an article by Rebecca Michaluk in the Aug. 8, 2014 edition of the Comox Valley Echo, there were indeed the two drive-ins between Courtenay and Campbell River.

She noted, “it turned out to be a niche in the social fabric of the Comox Valley, for the kids who had no place to go.”

The Valley’s drive-ins were part of a larger cultural phenomenon that reached it’s zenith in the 1950s and early 1960s, according to the National Post, “with close to 5,000 theatres in the U.S. and Canada combined.”

Michaluk wrote that unique features of the two Island drive-ins were gravel parking lots and the feeling of being surrounded by the forest.

She added in the early years, speakers were attached to posts with wires that could be moved into cars, later it became possible to tune in via FM radio. A projectionist manually changed reels of film every 20 minutes. It took about 90 feet of film for one minute of action.

The Miracle Theatre Drive-In, located just north of the Black Creek bridge, was owned by the Dzini family, then the Kirk family and the Rolinski family. It opened on June 30, 1967, and advertised itself as one of the year’s top 10 attractions.

The Stardust Drive-In was owned by two generations of the Bickle family, and operated at the boundary between the Comox Valley and Campbell River near Williams Beach Road and the Old Island Highway.

It opened its gates on Sept. 14, 1967 but the grand opening was set for a day later. One of the features of the Stardust was its 34’ x 80’ screen made of crezon plywood, which was designed to stand up to a wind velocity of 92 M.P.H. and a wind pressure of 40 pounds per square foot.

The Miracle Drive-In lasted 17 years prior to closing in 1984. The Stardust lasted a little bit longer and closed in 1987.

There are not many physical markers left of either location. A few years ago, it was reported the Stardust’s projection bar and snack bar was still standing and a few pillars of concrete and steel supports are left behind at the site of the Miracle Drive-In.

According to Cinema Treasures, other Island driveways included:

  • The Duncan Drive-In, located on the Trans-Canada Highway in the Duncan area, was a single-screen facility with room for 305 cars. It closed in the early-1980’s and sat vacant for several years before being redeveloped.
  • The Starlite Drive-In was operated by Famous Players in the Nanaimo neighborhood of Wellington opening on August 24, 1950. The Starlite Drive-In had one screen with a capacity of 400 cars. It closed after the 1973 season and its site has since been redeveloped.
  • The Cassidy Drive-In opened in May 1954 and closed in 1992. Its site, on the Island Highway immediately south of the Nanaimo Airport near Ladysmith became the location of a flea market.
  • Port Alberni’s Valley Drive-In opened in the early-1950’s at the corner of Beaver Creek Road and Pierce Road, with one screen and a 300-car capacity. It was a seasonal operation, running from about mid-April to the Labor Day weekend in September. Famous Players, which owned the Valley Drive-In, closed the theatre in 1981 due to trouble with rowdiness by some teenage patrons.

There is just a handful of remaining drive-in movie theatres in Canada – primarily in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and B.C.; the closest operational one is the Twilight Drive-In Theatre in Aldergrove.

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