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'It was a rite of passage': Sask. group comes together to save a nostalgic drive-in theatre

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One of Saskatchewan’s last remaining drive-in movie theatres will be opening this season after months of uncertainty. The threat of losing the nostalgic gem at Manitou Beach sparked a movement in the community to save it.

Burt Crawford holds an original concession sign, which displays the price of a hamburger at 30 cents, a hot dog for 20 cents and coffee or hot chocolate for 10 cents.

The sign is a throwback to the early 1950s when his dad ran the drive-in at Manitou Beach. His dad also owned the movie theatre on Main Street in Watrous at the time.

“He didn’t want to open a drive in, but he said I sure don’t want anyone else to,” Crawford told CTV News.

Crawford, now almost 89-years-old, put long hours into the family business in his youth, while going to university studying to be a geological engineer. He remembers a project he was responsible for where he had to install all the wires linking up the speaker boxes. Something that doesn’t exist any longer as audio is delivered through an AM/FM transmitter to each vehicle.

“I dug in all the underground lines to go to the speaker posts with a pick,” he remembers.

He moved back from Alberta with his wife when his dad suggested he was selling the drive-in in the late 1950s. He had a good job but wanted to try the family business.

He admits he made a deal with one of his bosses that if the drive-in didn’t work out, he could return to his job. But, he says, he never looked back. It was 1960, and moving back to a small town was going against the norm.

“Kids could not wait to get out of these towns and get to the big city,” he said.

With strong ties to the drive-in theatre he helped build, he is now happy to help a local group starting the theatre up again this year. It comes after a worrisome end to the 2022 season when a projector explosion put the whole operation in jeopardy.

“What’s going to happen? There were lots of questions around the community. It’s like any business or asset that we have here; nobody wants to see us losing any of those assets,” drive-in project organizer, Lane Manson told CTV News.

Manson’s interest in helping the icon stay afloat is personal, as he remembers his teen years at the theatre with friends fondly.

“When you’d get old enough to be on your own, it was a rite of passage. They’d have all nighters. You’d get lost from 9:00 or whenever your parents picked you up,” he says.

With those memories in mind, he didn’t want this treasure to close like so many others in the province, so he searched for help. His calls were answered by the community.

“We’ve got a partner to operate the concession, we can get movies and a projector, and I’m just sort of overseeing that,” he says.

June 9 is the proposed start date if everything goes well.

All those involved in the project realize that it’s the combination of attractions in the resort that make it thrive.

“The whole is worth more than sum of the parts. If we start to let these institutions fail, there’s just less for people to do and we become less relevant,” Manson said.

Crawford plans to lend his vast knowledge of the business and this particular drive-in to the project and be an advisor, feeling strongly that the show must go on.   

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