By Sue Bryant
Drive-in theatres have long been a popular summer pastime. While we are fortunate to still have the Twilight Drive-In in Aldergrove, there was a time not so long ago when Surrey was home to three such venues.
The first drive-in theatre in North America opened in Camden, New Jersey on June 6, 1933. It was billed as “the first theatre for the auto-bound.” The theatre was set up on an incline to allow for the cars to park at different levels so the whole audience could see the screen. It was, however, a new concept and there were challenges with the sound and picture clarity. It would be a few years before the idea gained momentum.
Developments made during the 1940s, including better lighting for the screen and individual speakers that clipped on to car windows, enabled the drive-in theatre to come of age. The improved experience, combined with the baby boom of the post-war era, meant that the drive-in was an inexpensive activity that a young family could enjoy together.
Land was also reasonable and available outside city limits. By the early 1950’s, there were several thousand drive-in theatres across North America. In the Lower Mainland, a few were developed in Richmond, Langley and Burnaby, in addition to the three locations in Surrey.
The Surrey Drive-In was the first to open on June 29, 1951. It was located in Newton at 471 King George Highway, which today would be roughly 82nd Avenue and King George Boulevard. It was operated by Sid Moskaluke and Bill Bonnar, owners of Gayland Amusement Co. Ltd. Moskaluke was a veteran of the Second World War who had begun his dream of owning a theatre when he started the Cameo Theatre in Whalley’s Corner. He sold out his interest of the Cameo to open Surrey’s first open air drive-in theatre.
The concept of a drive-in theatre was so new that the Surrey municipal council had to revise the bylaws in June, 1950 to accommodate Moskaluke’s plan.
The opening ceremonies were broadcast live by CKNW and dignitaries such as Reeve Charles Schultz and the Delta MLA Alec Hope attended. The ribbon was cut by well-known local businessman and Newton pioneer, Lew Jack.
“We have the largest Municipality in British Columbia. We have one of the largest organized, one of the fastest growing organized districts in the Dominion of Canada,” said Reeve Schultz at the ceremony. “The possibilities of the population that we might have in the next five or perhaps ten years are beyond our present imagination.“
There was room for 430 vehicles on opening night, but capacity would expand to 600 within the month, making it the largest theatre in B.C. at that time. They anticipated a crowd of up to 1,200 people every night and often sold out.
Besides the concession stand set in the centre, the open air theatre also had a large play area for the children at the front. The children could also take turns riding on Shetland ponies, a 26-seat merry-go-round or a 12-seat Ferris wheel. Admission was $0.25 per person and if you didn’t have a vehicle, you were welcome to sit in the outside shack.
With the family friendly atmosphere, it was often a full day affair. A typical summer day might be spent at White Rock or Crescent Beach with fish and chips for dinner, and then it was off to the drive-in for the evening so the kids could play in the playground while Mom and Dad watched the movie. Families would pack a picnic dinner to cut down on costs as well.
With the success of the Surrey Drive-In, Clayton businessmen Alfred Dainard and H. B. Blanchard made plans for a similar facility in their neighbourhood. They gained council approval for an outdoor drive-in theatre on five acres of Dainard’s property on the Trans-Canada Highway, two miles west of Langley Prairie. Hillcrest Drive-In Theatre opened in the summer of 1952 with a capacity of 550 cars.
Admission was $0.40 cents for adults, $0.30 cents for students, and children were free when accompanied by an adult. Wednesday was carload night, and admission was $1 a car. These nights became very popular as people packed as many into a car that they could in order to get the most out of the deal. Hillcrest was also well known for Bingo nights on Tuesday and Thursday.
Not to be outdone, Les Young applied for and received approval for his drive-in theatre in 1953. The Westminster Drive-In Theatre was located at the foot of the Patullo Bridge and King George Highway, and opened to the public in the summer of 1954. It was the largest of the three, boasting a capacity of 750 cars.
There was one other short-lived drive-in just outside of Surrey municipal limits. The North Star Drive-In opened in March 1953 just north of Fraser Highway on 248th Street. It was open only briefly before closing in late 1954.
Some recall finding a spot just outside the fence or up on the hill and watching for free. It was all part of the adventure. On Sundays, the drive-in lots converted into swap meets for the community to sell their wares and pick up a few gems from others.
As times changed and the cost of land increased, interest in the drive-in theatre concept began to wane. In 1983, the Surrey Drive-In was the first to close for re-development.
Soon after, in 1985, the Westminster Drive-In closed for re-development as well. The last to close in Surrey was the Hillcrest Drive-In, which shut its doors in 2003.
However, the final owners of Hillcrest Drive-In were fortunate enough to be able to move to a new location at Twilight Drive-In in Aldergrove and it continues to be a popular location.
Today, we see more and more pop-up movies on portable screens in local parks, such as Surrey’s Movies Under the Stars series, showing that the drive-in theatre concept is still a large part of our summer traditions.
Sue Bryant is an oral historian and a member of the Surrey Historical Society. She is also a digital photo restoration artist, genealogist and volunteers at the Surrey Museum and Surrey Archives.