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10 West Kootenay Boundary drive-in theatres

Updated: Apr 23

Is anything more nostalgic (at least to certain generations) than a drive-in theatre? From 1947 to 2003, at least 10 of them operated in West Kootenay/Boundary. The peak era was the late 1950s, when six were in business simultaneously (among 32 in the province, including a few more in East Kootenay). Four survived into the 1980s, and the last two into the early 2000s.


Today the sites are home to trailer parks, a campground, and a Walmart, among other things. However, two screens, one sign, and a few outbuildings still stand. I have almost no information on a few of them, and would appreciate any additions, memories, or photos you might have.


They are presented here in the order that they closed, which is perhaps a strange way to do it, but it gets us from the one that opened first to the ones that lasted the longest.


BALFOUR DRIVE-IN (1947)

This appears to have been the first drive-in in our region, operated on the Balfour school grounds by Tom Hetherington, who later opened the Starlight Drive-In with wife Mary (more on that one below).

Hetherington, who also owned the Musicland Theatre in Kaslo, recalled in the Nelson Daily News of April 10, 1952: “We set up a small screen near the Balfour school with the loudspeaker on top of the schoolhouse. The showings were poor but they drew nice crowds. People came all the way from Nelson.”


The same films were also screened at the Balfour Hall, Procter Hall, and Kaslo Drill Hall. The ad seen here is from the Daily News of Aug. 13, 1947. It’s unclear whether this was the drive-in’s sole season, or whether it continued to operate until the Starlight was established in 1952.


CHRISTINA LAKE DRIVE-IN (1952)

This short-lived operation was mentioned in the Grand Forks Gazette of July 24, 1952:

A small drive-in theatre near Christina Lake Inn and resort has been established by Stanley Golinowsky of Penticton. A moving picture show is presented each Monday night during the summer months. The theatre is attracting the custom of many of the summer residents of the Lake.

The ad below is from the same issue.

The drive-in probably didn’t survive past that summer, as I can find no further mentions of it.


STARLITE DRIVE-IN, GENELLE (1954-56)

This short-lived theatre, with a capacity of 250, was at what is now 102 12th Avenue. When the drive-in opened, Genelle was barely a community, although it did appear in the civic directory without any residents listed.


The proprietors were Jack and Lil Horlick. According to a history of the Jewish community in Trail and Rossland published in The Scribe in 2003, the couple moved to Trail from Winnipeg in 1937, where they opened a fur shop at 954 Eldorado, and lived in two rooms behind the store.

Jack and Lil Horlick, 1950, from The Scribe, 2003


Jack was inspired to build the theatre at Genelle by the promise of road improvements. He built the screen and had the sound equipment installed while Harry Gordon built the concession stand. But they lost ground when the government improved the road to Fruitvale first, to the benefit of the Auto-Vue Drive-in (see below). Additionally, there were labour troubles, as spelled out in this Vancouver Sun story of July 29, 1955.

I don’t know how the matter was resolved. Jack moved his theatre equipment to Williams Lake in 1968 (it’s not clear where it sat for the dozen years after the Starlite closed) and his fur business to Prince George.

Without providing a date, Trail of Memories says “Harry and Kate [Crockett] bought land in Genelle, where the old drive-in theatre was and moved onto this land, calling it home for a while.”


The site of the theatre is now a trailer park, in the centre of which is a curious concrete building (seen below) that was reportedly the projection booth.


SUNSET DRIVE-IN, CRAWFORD BAY (1955-59)

According to Susan Hulland and Terry Turner in Remember When (2002), Herb and Toni Draper started this drive-in behind Herb’s Esso service station, near 16072 Highway 3A (the Black Salt Cafe and La Gala Jewelry).

Herb built a large screen using several sheets of white-washed plywood mounted on a sturdy, vertical frame. He mounted two large speakers on either side of the screen. The parking area accommodated about 50 vehicles. Herb then built a small ticket booth, which some patrons said resembled an outhouse. Herb would run the projector while Toni collected the tickets and then operated the refreshment stand in her Wooden Shoe coffee shop.

The Sunset had a deal with the Starlight at 12 Mile: after the Starlight finished showing a film, they sent it by Greyhound to Crawford Bay, where it would be dropped off just in time for the evening show — usually. Sometimes it failed to arrive, much to the dismay of those already waiting.


The drive-in was an instant hit and movies were shown Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. However, many people complained about the noise booming from the speakers up the valley.


The Bluebell Miner of Feb. 10, 1956, explained how this was rectified: “The Sunset Drive-In will install individual car speakers for the coming season. Circumstances permitting, Herb Draper hopes to extend his screen to accommodate Cinemascope this year.”


The last ads appeared in June 1959, after which the drive-in presumably folded.


ELK DRIVE-IN, CASTLEGAR (1954-63)

Brothers Nick, Andy, and Matt Shelefontiuk, along with Ed Hawryluk, all formerly of Saskatoon, bought the site of this drive-in in early 1953. It was 2½ blocks from Stanley Humphries high school, on what was formerly known as the Woykin property, now part of Millennium Park.

Elk Drive In, Castlegar (Rhonda Swetlishoff/Lost Kootenays)


Construction began in early spring of 1954. The drive-in was expected to accommodate 240 cars and open on May 24. However, it didn’t sit well with the then-village commission, according to the Nelson Daily News of April 2, 1954 (pictured here).


Two commissioners opposed the project, although they didn’t explain why. A business license had already been granted, but one commissioner made a motion to rescind it. Chairman Victor Jenks broke the tie by voting in favour of it. The second and third phases of the project didn’t come to pass: a 210-seat viewing auditorium and 24-unit auto court.


Intriguingly, given the large Russian-speaking population in the area, the drive-in sometimes screened Russian movies, including one in June 1955 called Symphony of Life with Marina Ladynina.


By 1959, the drive-in had a capacity of 300. Its location was partly its undoing though, as prior to the construction of the Hugh Keenleyside dam, the site would flood in the spring. There’s a good picture showing just how high the water came up in 1961 in Castlegar: A Confluence, p. 96.


In recent years, the footings and steel brackets from the screen were incorporated into the bike skills area. When the Friends of Castlegar Parks and Trails held a fundraiser for the bike park, Nick Shelefontiuk’s son Keith donated a watercolour he painted entitled Now Playing (pictured here) — which showed the original drive-in with a mountain bike film on the screen.


STAR-VIEW DRIVE-IN, GRAND FORKS (1954, 1956-61)

This drive-in was established on the west side of the city by Bill Nimilowicz, formerly of Cranbrook and Egisto Beggatini of Kelowna. All of the equipment came from a drive-in theatre in Enderby that closed in 1953.


Originally known simply as the Grand Forks Drive-in Theatre, it had its grand opening on Aug. 6, 1954 with a John Wayne film, Reap the Wild Wind. It could accommodate 350 cars.

However, at noon on Sept. 27 of the same year, a passing tourist noticed flames coming from the back of the snack bar. Although the drive-in was outside city limits, the city fire department responded.


The fire spread to the roof of the projection room, although it was fireproofed. (I’m not sure if they were part of the same building or separate but adjacent.) Firefighters managed to almost put it out, and one truck left the scene. However, the fire flared back up, and the remaining truck used up all of its water before the second truck could return.


The projector and other machinery were saved, but $3,000 worth of equipment was lost. Damage was estimated at $7,000 to the building, which was insured. The fire’s origin was not determined.


“Attendance was getting better lately,” Nimilowicz told the Gazette. “We will begin rebuilding right away to be ready for opening as soon as possible in the spring.”


The projection booth and concession stand were rebuilt in pumice block and new equipment installed, but the theatre did not reopen in 1955.


It took until June 7, 1956 for the theatre to resume screening films, by which time it had been sold to Matt Harrison of West Summerland, who also owned a theatre in that community. He leased it to Joe Altomare for one year. The first film shown was The Scarlet Coat, starring Cornel Wilde and Anne Francis.

On March 11, 1957, Harrison sold the drive-in to Peter Abrosimoff, owner of the Roxy Theatre in Grand Forks. He renamed it the Starview, or Star-View, first mentioned in an ad on May 2 that year. (I’m surprised that the name is not well remembered.)


The 1959 International Motion Picture Almanac says the Star-View had a capacity of 200 cars.


The drive-in continued to operate until the end of September 1961, after which no further ads appeared. I presume it then closed. On July 7, 1965, Abrosimoff took out the following ad in the Gazette, offering the equipment for sale and indicating the property would be subdivided for building lots.

The West Grand Forks mobile home park in on the site today, just off Highway 3 on North Fork Road, between 2nd and 3rd roads. Sue Adrain of the Boundary Community Archives kindly sent me the undated aerial photo seen here, showing the drive-in.

Below is a Google Earth image of the site more recently.


SUNSET DRIVE-IN, OOTISCHENIA (1969-86)

This was the last drive-in built in our area, but not the last to operate, the Sunset was established by Laura and Paul Strelaeff and John Kootnikoff on Rosedale Road in Ootischenia, overlooking the Kootenay River, east of Selkirk College. It opened on July 10, 1969 and initially had a capacity of 250 cars but later increased to 500 cars. According to Kootnikoff’s obituary, it was a “full on family affair; Mom cooking in the concession, his kids working the ticket booth, and spending nights in the station wagon.”


Photos taken by the Castlegar News in July 1969 as the Sunset was getting set to open. I don’t know who the person depicted in the projection booth is but the caption on the photo that ran in the paper read: “Opening tonight is the Sunset Drive-in Theatre located near the Brilliant bridge. Pictured here is the 72 x 32 foot screen and the building which houses both the projection booth and an up-to-date concession stand. The drive-in will accommodate 250 cars but owners Paul Strelaeff and John Kootnikoff, both of Ootischenia, say future plans will increase this to 400 cars. The concession building will over a wide variety of goodies to choose from, including fried chicken. Shows will run six nights a week with a cartoon at every showing.” (Selkirk College Regional Archives)


ca. 1972 program for the Sunset. (Lost Kootenays)


At first it was open six days a week and according to the Castlegar News of May 25, 1988, “The lot was packed [with] carloads of families, teenagers, and young couples ... It is arguably the most picturesque drive-in location in the world.” But as home videos became a thing, the Strelaeffs reduced their hours to a few days a week and weekends. Then weekends only. Then it closed in 1986.


The Sunset Drive-In and its roadside marquee are seen in May 1988, two years after it closed. (Castlegar News/Selkirk College Regional Archives)


In 1987, the Strelaeffs proposed to build waterslides and a campground on the site. The waterslides didn’t materialize, but the campground went ahead. Until recently, visitors to the Kootenay River RV Park could gaze in amazement at the old screen. A ticket booth also survives, repurposed as a tool shed.

The old screen of the Sunset Drive-In, seen here in 2018, towered over the Kootenay River RV Park.

Another view of the old Sunset screen in 2018.

Backside of the screen in 2018, which hadn’t seen a movie projected on it in over 30 years.

This former ticket booth is now a garden shed.


A billboard for the drive-in used to stand alongside Highway 3A.


UPDATE: Sadly, on June 27, 2020 a windstorm blew the old screen down. Three vehicles were damaged, but nobody was hurt.

Aftermath of the big crash. (Photos courtesy Ken Ascough)


STARLIGHT DRIVE IN, 12 MILE (1952-87)

Construction on this theatre on the North Shore began in April 1952 and the first showing was on Aug. 19 of that year, even though the snack bar was still roofless. Tom Hetherington said the theatre was designed by a Vancouver architect and pioneered the use of equipment that made daylight screenings possible.

This Art Stevens postcard dates to 1963 or later, judging from the bill for Four For Texas, which came out that year. The back of the card reads “Starlight Gardens and Drive-in Theatre offer the following facilities: two acres of floral display, children’s playground and swim pool, tea room service, etc. Theatre operates seven nights weekly. T. Hetherington, Manager. 10 miles east of Nelson.” (Greg Nesteroff collection)


“Movies had always been my main passion in life,” he said in 1998. “Drive-ins were just coming in then and I thought it would be an excellent thing for this area.”


However, he was annoyed with the movie he was provided with on opening night, a war flick called The Tanks Are Coming. “I was so mad because it was a B picture. It wasn’t a big one. I wanted to open with a big one, and we just couldn’t get one. But the people that came out didn’t seem to mind.”


The Starlight’s biggest night was in 1954 for The Glenn Miller Story. It also featured elaborate gardens and a swimming pool, built around 1961. It was described as an Esther Williams pool, so named for the actress and swimmer who endorsed them. It consisted of a plastic sheet set in the ground with a recirculating pump and filter attachment.

Another Art Stevens postcard, showing the gardens and tea room. As drive-in theatres went, you would be hard pressed to find another with such an elaborately groomed setting. (Greg Nesteroff collection)


Although construction of the bridge at Nelson in 1957 made the North Shore more accessible (previously there had been a cable ferry), business actually dropped by two-thirds at the drive-in due to the bridge tolls. When the tolls were removed in 1963, the Starlight regained its popularity.


The drive-in was leased to Odeon Theatres Ltd. in 1958 but I don’t know how long that arrangement lasted.


Rose Donaldson was a longtime employee, selling tickets and working in the snack bar from 1958 to 1977. In 1978, the Hetheringtons sold the operation to Frank and Shirley Price, who ran it into the 1980s. You can see an interior photo of the snack bar by clicking here.


The Starlight’s location was variously described as seven miles, ten miles, and 12 miles from Nelson — the shorter distances perhaps marketing ploys to make it seem closer to town than it really was. (On the site today is 12 Mile Storage. But Google Maps indicates it’s actually 10.5 miles from the bridge.)

The old Starlight sign is a delightful anachronism along Highway 3A.

The capacity was originally given as 150 cars, but later 288. The screen remained standing until sometime after 1998, but has since been removed. The highway marquee, however, is still standing. Another legacy is nearby Starlight Road.


VALLEE DRIVE-IN, CRESTON (1955-2002)

I don’t know much about the history of this drive-in, but it was at 410 33rd Avenue South. In 1959, the proprietors were T. and B. Tedford and L. Johnson.


The screen, ticket booth, concession stand, and projection building are all still standing, although the area is fenced off. On the site now is Old Drive-in Mechanical.

It had a capacity of 250 cars and was open May to October. At the end it was operated by Creston Valley Youth for Youth Society. Admission at the time it closed was $5 for adults, $4 for students, $3 for children, and under six free.


Here is the site as seen at right on Google Earth.


AUTO-VUE DRIVE-IN, TRAIL (1952-2003)

George and Evelyn Donish started this theatre in partnership with George Bergeron. The Donishes attended a drive-in movie in Spokane. After the show, they drove away with a speaker. After returning it, George had a long chat with the manager about the drive-in business.


The Donishes returned home and decided to start a theatre at what is now called Waneta Junction, on a former turkey farm operated by Jaharrn Godtfredsen. Kye Bisgarrd of Fruitvale helped build the 68-foot high screen. The Auto-Vue opened in the fall of 1952 but its grand opening waited until March 1953.


It was a hit. The capacity was originally reported as 350 cars. Employees with carts would walk around the field selling candy, pop, and ice cream. Rumour had it actor Steve McQueen visited it around 1960 while on holiday. The Donishes, with daughters Barbara and Beverly, ran the drive-in until 1968 when George was forced to sell it due to health problems.


By one account, five shareholders bought the drive-in in 1968 and then sold it the following year to newlyweds Sharon and Mike Radulovich for $120,000. (Mike quit his sawmill job to become a projectionist.) By another account, George Donish sold it directly to Radulovich and Tom Heatherington, the latter of whom ran the Starlight Drive-In on the North Shore of Kootenay Lake. In any case, the Raduloviches assumed management on March 1, 1969.


Tickets were initially 50 cents, and later 60 cents. The bill changed three times a week. The Raduloviches did well for the first decade — attendance was 100,000 per year.


“We had five people running the snack bar back then,” Sharon said. “That first year, we even stayed open all winter. I didn’t see Mike. He was plowing [snow in the parking lot] all the time … Half the time it started snowing and you’d see all these colours when the snow hit the screen.”


They loaned portable heaters to movie-goers and closed only on Christmas, New Year’s, and in the spring when it was too muddy.


The Raduloviches lived next door to the drive-in. Their daughter Janet’s bedroom window faced the screen. She saw Grease for two weeks straight.


On Saturdays and long weekends, the Auto-Vue offered a triple feature of horror movies. The popular bill did not end until almost 2 a.m.


The Auto-Vue had the distinction of being the first and last drive-in in BC to screen The Dirty Western, a 1975 porn film. It was one of their more profitable showings, but someone complained to the province’s film classification director that it was visible to youths and passing traffic.


The sound system was improved in 1983, with the speakers hanging on outside posts replaced with audio that could be heard through car radio systems — a huge relief because a typical night would see 10 speakers ripped off of their posts, many never to be seen again.


Things started to go downhill in the mid-1980s with the emergence of home video. Attendance declined. The drive-in cut back to weekends only. The Raduloviches took on running the Royal Theatre in Trail for 15 years as well, which subsidized the Auto Vue.

The Auto-Vue is seen in 2000. The property was for sale at the time. It lasted 50 years and was the last drive-in theatre in West Kootenay.


By 1992, when patrons paid $6 each for a double bill, the drive-in was likened in a Vancouver Sun feature to a cemetery: “The 20 cars in attendance are assembled like hearses, and the long rows of speaker posts loom like grave markers.”


Attendance was down to 12,000 to 15,000 per year and with Mike suffering from ill health, the Raduloviches put the drive-in up for sale in 2000. They didn’t think anyone would want to run it, but figured the land might appeal to a developer. Still, there were no takers.

Mike Radulovich died in 2001. His son Bill took over as projectionist while Janet sold tickets and Sharon ran the concession. Grandkids helped out. Attendance kept dropping, though, from 9,000 in 2001 to fewer than 6,000 in 2003.


At last, after 50 years, the end came. The final shows: Rugrats Go Wild and Laura Croft: Tomb Raider. The screen was demolished in June 2004, but would not go quietly. It refused to fall until a chainsaw and front end loader were brought in.


The property was sold to Walmart, who built their present store there. It was bittersweet for then-Walmart Canada public affairs director Andrew Pelletier, who grew up in Trail and recalled sneaking in to the drive-in as a kid. (Everyone bragged about sneaking in, Sharon Radulovich said. It was a wonder there were any paying customers.)


Sharon, who ran the theatre for 34 years, donated a collection of artifacts to the Trail Historical Society, including a speaker, car heater, film splicer, and a list of the last admission prices.

The Auto-Vue’s closure left only three drive-ins in BC, in Surrey, Enderby, and Prince George. Closer to us, but south of the border, is another Auto-Vue, just outside Colville, which opened in 1953. It closed in 2013, but reopened in 2015 with a new screen.


SOURCES

Balfour

Nelson Daily News, Aug. 13, 1947 and April 10, 1952


Christina Lake

• “Drive-in theatre at Christina Lake,” Grand Forks Gazette, July 24, 1952


Starlite (Genelle)

“A History of the Trail-Rossland Jewish Community 1927-68,” The Scribe: The Journal of the Jewish Historical Society of BC, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, 2003, p. 28

Trail of Memories, 1997, p. 217


Sunset (Crawford Bay)

Remember When, Terry Turner and Susan Hulland, 2002, p. 100


Elk (Castlegar)

Nelson Daily News, April 2, June 30, 1954

Castlegar: A Confluence, Karen W. Farrar, ed., 2000, p. 96


Sunset (Ootischenia)

Castlegar News, Feb. 15, 1987

• “Sunset fades into horizon,” Castlegar News, May 25, 1988

• Waymarking.com, Sunset Drive-In


Starlight (North Shore)

• “Reel big deal,”West Kootenay Weekender, Bob Hall, June 19, 1998

• Waymarking.com, Starlight Drive-In


Star-View (Grand Forks)

• Ads in Grand Forks Gazette, July 29 and Aug. 5, 1954

• “Grand Forks Drive-in fire loss set at $10,000 – to rebuild this fall,” Grand Forks Gazette, Sept. 30, 1954

• “Local drive-in re-opens June 7 after two years,” Grand Forks Gazette, May 31, 1956

• “Drive-in bought by Roxy owner,” Grand Forks Gazette, March 14, 1957

• Ad in Grand Forks Gazette, July 7, 1965

• Boundary Historical Society’s 17th Report, 2018, p. 105

• http://dukefilmography.com/british_columbia_movie_theatres_1945_to_1953.html


Valley View (Creston)

• Waymarking.com, Valley Drive-In


Auto-Vue (Trail)

• “The last picture show: Trail's Auto-Vue Drive-in is another doomed remnant of a more insouciant age,” The Vancouver Sun, Larry Pynn, June 27, 1992

• “Drive-in hits half-century mark,” Trail Daily Times, Tracy Gilchrist, May 29, 2003

• “Trail drive-in put on the block,” The Province, Bob Keating, Aug. 31, 2003

Trail Daily Times, June 10, 2004

• “The Auto Vue Drive-In Theatre (1953-2003),” by Sharon Radulovich, published in A Trail to Remember, John D’Arcangelo, ed., 2015, p. 91-93


Updated on June 27, 2019 to add the Christina Lake Drive-In and way more details about the Grand Forks Drive-in. Updated on May 15, 2020 with additional details about the drive-in at Genelle. Updated on June 17, 2020 with additional details about the Auto-Vue Drive-In. Updated on June 30, 2020 with photos of the remains of the Sunset Drive-In screen. Updated on April 18, 2022 with photos of the Genelle projection booth. Updated on Feb. 8, 2023 with photo of the Horlicks. Updated on Feb. 18, 2024 to add the Russian film at the Elk Drive-In and pool at the Starlight Drive-In. Updated on Feb. 25, 2024 with the opening-week photos of the Sunset Drive-In. Updated on Feb. 28, 2024 to add the 1988 photos of the Sunset Drive-In.

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Darrin S Konkin
Darrin S Konkin
Sep 27, 2023

A very good friend of mine worked at the Vallee Drive-In in Creston through most of the 70's.

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I honestly don't remember the Starlight Drive-In out by Balfour being open at all in the couple of years that I lived in Nelson and area 1972-74, but I loved seeing the sign yesterday when I drove towards the ferry to return home from a memorial in New Denver the day before. But then..., I didn't even have a car then either, so how would I have gone to one?! I miss the old drive-ins; there was one on Radium Hot Springs as well until quite a number of years ago now. Love the reference to the 'weiner jumping in to the bun' ad that was shown to get people to the snack bar during movie intermissions; I think t…

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afoxyking
afoxyking
Mar 18, 2019

When we use to come up to Salmo and visit my brother we all would drive to Trail and go to the Auto -Vue Drive Inn it was fun. I lived in Haney and we would call Drive inns "Passion Pits" Some teenagers never did see the movie

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I remember first movie our family saw at the Starlight Drive-in was The Fall of the House of Usher in 1960. Last one I saw there was Porky 3 (a very bad movie to end with). Also enjoyed the Auto Vu Drive in at Trail. There was a problem with people driving off with the speaker still attached to their car window. A funny thing at intermission was the cartoon encouraging people to get snacks -- there was a dancing hot dog which jumped in the bun, and you would hear honks from a few cars noting the sexual innuendo!

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rverzuh
rverzuh
Mar 17, 2019

Such great memories of youth for me. I didn't get to all the drive-ins, but the Auto-Vue and the Sunset were definitely favorite necking venues for many of us. Thanks again. Greg

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