The Starlite Drive-In Theatre in Jasper Place

“A $160,000 project, the drive-in was highly successful. Its advertising noted that customers should bring their family…come dressed as you please… enjoy a good show in the comfort and privacy of your car.””

The concept of a drive-in theatre was first experimented in 1933 in New Jersey, though it soon spread to Canada and became a popular entertainment venue. Closer to home, Western Drive-In Theatre Ltd. was established by five Calgary entrepreneurs. In 1949 they opened Chinook Drive-in Theatre, where Chinook Centre Mall is located today.

A month later, the Edmonton region’s first drive-in theatre was built by the same company, the Starlite Drive-In. A $160,000 project, the drive-in was highly successful. It’s advertising noted that customers should “bring their family…come dressed as you please… enjoy a good show in the comfort and privacy of your car.”

“it’s here Doc! Opens tonite! Starlite Drive-In Theatre.” Accessed December 6, 2020 from http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/59278

The Post-Second World War period saw the emergence of movie theatres as new entertainment centres for Jasper Place residents. The first movie theatre “The Tivoli Theatre,” opened in 1949 on 149 Street and accommodated 450 customers. It was designed by Fredrick MacDonald in the Moderne Style. In addition to the Tivoli Theatre, the Starlite Drive-In Theatre was opened by Western Drive-In Theatre Ltd. and had a 50-foot screen and space for 650 cars.

“Drive-In Theatre Planned For City,” 8 February 1949. Image courtesy of the City of Edmonton Archives.

On opening night at the Starlite Drive-In Theatre, the movie “Time, The Place, and The Girl” was screened. Described in the trailer as “A Holiday of Hilarity,” the movie follows the story of a manager of an opera singer named Vicki Cassel and her uncle who, through various efforts, attempt to close down the next door night club. The owners of the nightclub, Steve and Jeff, offer to host a Broadway show staring Vicki to keep the club open. The trailer features large musical numbers, lush costumes, and snippets of musical features from the movie. The trailer also depicts a musical number played by an actor in black face reflecting the prevalent racial attitudes of the 1950s.

“First Drive-In Theatre Will Open Here In June,” Edmonton Journal, 28 May 1949. Image courtesy of the City of Edmonton Archives.

Jasper Place during the 1950s was an independent town, separate from Edmonton. During the decade, Jasper Place saw exponential changes in their commercial sector, especially since the town allowed for a later closing time for businesses than neighbouring Edmonton. Edmonton imposed an early-closing by-law of 6:00 p.m., whereas Jasper Place stores and businesses were allowed to remain open till 9:00 p.m. The inexpensive property, low taxes, and easy accessibility to downtown Edmonton drew residents to Jasper Place, and housing demands skyrocketed during the 1950s.

Welcome to Jasper Place sign which boasts of the town’s night shopping, 1960. Image courtesy of the City of Edmonton Archives, EA0275-323.

In addition to late-night shopping, the Starlite Drive-In Theatre was a popular entertainment venue that brought in visitors from outside Jasper Place. By looking at aerial pictures, it is clear that the drive-in theatre was a prominent figure in what would become the Lynnwood neighbourhood, even prior to housing development.

Aerial photo of the Starlite Drive-In Theatre, 1949. The Drive-In was located at 156th Street and 87th Avenue. The prominent roads in this image are 87 Avenue to the north of the drive-in and 149 Street to the east, Image courtesy of the City of Edmonton Archives.
Aerial photo of the Starlite Drive-In Theatre and the developed Lynnwood neighbourhood, 1969. Image courtesy of the City of Edmonton Archives.

The Starlite Drive-In Theatre was an exciting new venue to watch movies and served as a vital community space for Jasper Place and visiting Edmonton residents. However, the drive-in was demolished on June 22, 1971, to make room for the development of the Whitehall Square apartment complex, all in the “name of progress.” When pulling down the screen, birds and eggs were thrown, and neighbourhood children worked tirelessly to save the disheveled birds.

“No more home movies,” 23 June 1971. Newspaper clipping depicting the demolition of the Starlite Drive-In Theatre and the disruption to birds and nests.

Drive-In Theatres were a major success in the Edmonton region during the 1950s, 60s, and by the 1970s, Edmonton had the most drive-in theatres in Canada, boasting nine drive-ins. However, drive-in theatres began to disappear as land became increasingly valuable to developers who hoped to build shopping malls and housing complexes. In addition to the pressure to develop land, movies went digital, and the $80,000-100,000 price for the required projector became a significant barrier and thus marked the end of the popularity of drive-ins.

Starlite Drive-In Theatre, 3 June 1949. Image courtesy of the City of Edmonton Archives, EA-600-2489b.

Despite this end, drive-in theatres remain nostalgic for many and serve as remanent of cultural life during the 1950s and 60s. Recently, we have seen a return of the idea of drive-in theatres, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, as watching movies from cars offers the required social distancing. Perhaps we will see drive-in theatres make a firmer return due to the love of retro that has revived other past entertainment and cultural experiences like record players, cassettes, and old fashion trends.

Allie Quigley © 2021

References:

Dan Barnes, “The show might go on: Edmonton entrepreneur aiming for drive-in revival,” Edmonton Journal, August 23, 2015, https://edmontonjournal.com/news/edmonton/alberta/the-show-might-go-on-entrepreneur-aiming-for-drive-in-revival

Donald Luxton and Associates Inc, “Jasper Place Historic Resources Inventory,” The City of Edmonton, 2019, https://glenwoodcommunityleague.wordpress.com/2019/06/05/the-history-of-jasper-place/

Starlite Drive-In. (n.d.). Retrieved December 06, 2020, from http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/59278

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