Aug. 14: Starlite Drive-In Theatre, Grand Bend ON

The main screen tower at the Starlite Drive-In

Photo from the Starlite Drive-In Facebook page

It’s Day 226 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. It was time for me to begin a few weeks’ journey through the many drive-ins of eastern Canada. Starting from Dearborn MI, I drove up to Port Huron, crossed the Blue Water Bridge, then continued on to the Starlite Drive-In Theatre, a few miles east of Grand Bend ON. It took only about two hours, not counting the time at the border.

For the story of the Starlite, I turn in large part to the Virtual Museum of Canada. It says that Emerson Desjardine built the Starlite in 1955 after seeing several drive-ins in Florida during winter break. He chose the settlement of Shipka because it was partway between Grand Bend (5.5 miles) and Exeter (13 miles).

That original screen, 40×60 feet, was built of plaster. Desjardine told the local newspaper that this prevented the cracks that can become visible on wooden screens.

Those classic in-car speakers were a continuing problem. “Desjardine said that about three dozen of his speakers were stolen or broken each summer.” That problem was solved when the sound system switched to radio broadcast.

“One feature of the Starlite was the windshield washer. Desjardine said that young local boys were on hand to wash car windows. If his window boy took a night off, people would ask for him.”

Desjardine sold the Starlite to Allan Barnes around 1998, and Barnes added a second, smaller screen in 2007. The Sarnia Observer interviewed Barnes in 2013 about his plans to install digital projection for the 2014 season. He said he waited as long as possible so he’d get the latest technology, and I suspect the projector price went down too. “I’m pretty much the last hold out on film, which probably annoyed the customers a couple of nights ago when the film broke,” he said.

It was a jarring difference after the huge urban multiplex drive-in the night before, but the Starlite is a different kind of drive-in heaven. In the middle of nowhere (sorry Shipka), there’s not a lot of light pollution. Refills on soft drinks and popcorn are just a quarter, and they show their own cartoons before the movies. (I always thought that’s a good idea to keep folks entertained while twilight slips to full darkness so they don’t miss an early movie plot point.) They even have free wifi!

I had no idea that I would be faced so often with the choice between Dunkirk and The Nut Job 2. At some point, the prospect of seeing Dunkirk for the Nth time should send me over to the animated sequel, but not yet. This was only my fourth viewing so far.

Miles Today / Total: 117 / 27241 (rounded to the nearest mile)

Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: Dunkirk / 140

Nearby Restaurant: It was close to my motel (see below), but Aunt Gussie’s might be my favorite in town no matter where it was. For dinner, I ate a huge Hugger Cran salad with feta cheese, apples, and pecans. Then for breakfast I tried the gingerbread pancakes, with real Canadian maple syrup, of course.

Where I Virtually Stayed: Back to the kind of mom and pop motels that you find in small-town tourist destinations. The Blue Water Motel is a particularly nice example. My humble room wasn’t huge, but it had the full set of modern amenities including solid wifi. And it’s next door to one of the best restaurants in town for breakfast and dinner.

Only in Grand Bend: Grand Bend might be best known for the Grand Bend Beach, a vacation destination on Lake Huron. For more than a hundred years, the main beach has offered beach fans of all ages clean water, amenities, accessibility, water sports, and safe swimming with lifeguards on duty throughout the summer months.

Next stop: The Boonies Drive In Theatre, Tilbury ON.