Just off Gravenhurst Parkway, down on Theatre Road, sits an iconic cement screen nestled among granite rock, surrounded by stately pines. Host to hundreds upon hundreds of films, this local gem is the Muskoka Drive-In and this year, it turns 70.
The Muskoka Drive-In has been a family favourite for movie lovers across the region since 1952. It’s changed hands over the years, but what hasn’t changed is the drive-in’s status as a beloved staple in summer entertainment. It’s one of Canada’s oldest drive-ins and it’s the only one still operating in the area. For current owner William Alexander, the magic of the Muskoka Drive-in comes down to the simple joy it provides.
“For me, it’s a business that I love doing,” Alexander said. “We just try to be the best we can and give people a night out where they’re smiling.”
The early years
The Muskoka Drive-In is the creation of Whitney Neil MacDonald. A lifelong movie lover, MacDonald worked as an usher at an Orillia theatre while still in school. He later worked as a projectionist in theatres across Ontario, starting with a theatre in Alliston, according to Barry Brock of the Gravenhurst Archives.
MacDonald’s parents lived in Gravenhurst and he married his wife Dorothy in town 11 years before returning to open the drive-in. He had it built after partnering with two of his in-laws to buy the property, according to Brock. The theatre opened for its first film at dusk on July 4, 1952. MacDonald continued to operate the drive-in until 1969 when he sold the business to the Babcock family and returned to Alliston to run the Circle Theatre, which he purchased in 1958.
Brothers Dave and Paul Babcock ran the theatre for just four years, selling the drive-in to Larry Baxter in the early 70s. They went on to run the Pen Twin Theatre in Penetanguishene, according to Dave’s daughter Stacey Babcock-Cox, before purchasing the Midland Drive-In and the nearby Roxy Theatre.
Baxter was working in Toronto in 1973 when a co-worker pointed out a newspaper ad for the Muskoka Drive-In. His colleague lived near the drive-in in Scarborough and commented on the seemingly endless stream of cars that visited, so Baxter went to see the property and ultimately decided to buy it.
Baxter takes on the business
After taking over the drive-in, Baxter wrote advertising content for local media regularly and drove around for hours every week to deliver show guides. Though it was a challenge at times, he enjoyed touring across Muskoka to visit Parry Sound, Gravenhurst and all the towns in between.
“I was writing stories all the time and then composing the flyers and having them printed and running around like crazy,” Baxter said. “It made for a full-time occupation for the six months or so that we ran every summer.”
Seeing his customers’ enthusiasm for the business is what kept Baxter motivated. He fondly remembers seeing the smiling faces of his customers while working at the ticket office and snack bar, and attendance numbers continued to climb.
He was always looking for ways to improve and promote the business, so in addition to making sure the popcorn was always delicious (an essential element, according to Baxter), he created silver drive-in dollars.
If customers used the drive-in dollars for admission, they could come back the following week and their drive-in dollars would be worth twice as much in the snack bar. The promotion tied into Baxter’s philosophy that drive-ins were a better value, offering double the fun with two movies for the price of one, and movie goers clearly agreed.
“Saturday nights were a challenge getting the people in because so many would come all at once,” Baxter said. “It would be lined up down the road.”
Building on his love for the theatre business, Baxter helped fix up a drive-in in Port Bolster during the 90s and bought the Lindsay Twin Drive-In in 2000. He ended up selling the Muskoka Drive-In in 2009 to focus on the drive-in in Lindsay, transferring ownership to current proprietor William Alexander.
A labour of love
Alexander bought the drive-in in 2009, and after a few years of twists and turns, he officially started running it in 2014 after moving up to Muskoka full-time. He’s spent much of his career doing work related to movies, ranging from jobs at drive-ins to roles in movie distribution and production. His affinity for films goes back to watching double features as a child.
“I just fell in love with movies,” Alexander said. “I would see movies over and over all the time and pretty much every weekend was spent in the movie theatres.”
A friend told Alexander that the Muskoka Drive-In property and business was for sale, so he took a trip to check it out. Originally growing up in Hamilton, he didn’t have a personal connection to the drive-in, but as soon as he saw it, he knew it was something special.
“When I saw the cement screen on top of the giant rock, I’m like, ‘Wow, this is unlike any other drive-in I’ve ever seen,’” he said. “It really sold me that this is a true diamond in the rough.”
When he took over operations in 2014, the drive-in had to be converted from film to digital. It was expensive, and the audience likely noticed just a slight improvement in picture and sound quality, but it had to be done, Alexander said. Part of his mission with the drive-in is to make improvements and additions every year while also keeping the traditions of the drive-in alive.
Early on, he talked about getting a portion of the rock removed because part of the picture is projected onto it. Customers pushed back, and he learned how much locals loved the rock being part of the screen. It taught Alexander about his customers as well as the history of the business and what it meant to “meet you at the rock.” He dropped his plans to remove the rock, but he still invested in other updates and renovations.
Updating a local landmark
In 2018, Alexander had a second screen installed at the drive-in, allowing them to bring in more movie titles. The drive-in previously had a nine-hole miniature golf course that’s going to be rebuilt into an updated 18-hole course in the near future. There’s an arcade area in the snack bar that he hopes to transform into a full-blown gaming room by next year.
He plans to continue adding different amenities while improving the ones they already have to make the drive-in the best possible experience for families.
“The goal is to always put back into the drive-in so that every year it just gets a little bit better in its presentation,” Alexander said. “Whether it be equipment, like projectors or sounds, or aesthetics to the drive-in itself, we’ll always keep trying to improve it every year.”
Along with improving the drive-in property and amenities, Alexander has welcomed a variety of events to the venue. The drive-in hosted a viewing party for the Raptors’ championship win in 2019. They’ve shown virtual concerts including Tragically Hip, Blake Shelton and the Muskoka Music Festival. Along with hosting smaller functions like birthday parties and Rotary Club meetings, they lend their property to the Gravenhurst Community Market on Sunday mornings.
Supporting local charitable causes is important to the team at the drive-in as well. They’ve had players from the South Muskoka Shield hockey team come out for a charity night. Alexander has donated passes to schools to help them raise funds, to couples to use for their stag and doe parties, and to families to raise money for medical bills. All in all, Alexander tries to make the drive-in whatever the community needs it to be.
“We’ve always tried to help as much as we can, because we’re a part of this community as well,” Alexander said, noting that in addition to Muskoka, customers come from areas like Orillia, Parry Sound and even as far as North Bay. “We hit a pretty wide range of people coming to this drive-in, and there’s not many of us left in Ontario, so we do try to do as much as we can.”
Keeping costs down and spirits high
Alexander tries to achieve that goal through the drive-in’s pricing as well. Affordability and entertainment value are key factors for families, he said, so for the fifth year in a row, admission prices will remain the same.
“I would much rather people come in and think they got value for what they have done during the course of that night and want to come back and support us even more because we’re supporting them,” Alexander said. “There’s a symbiotic relationship between customers and owners where we try to give them value; in return, they help keep us alive.”
Prices at the snack bar will increase, but only slightly. Alexander said they only raise the price on snacks when they absolutely have to because food sales play an important role in funding their operations.
Movie companies take anywhere from 35 to 70 per cent of the money made at the box office, and after taxes, it doesn’t leave much in profits. The money from the snack bar keeps the drive-in going while also covering the cost of annual renovations and additions, which is why they ask patrons not to bring in outside food or drink.
Between the lack of movies and the closures that affected drive-ins along with other movie theatres, the Muskoka Drive-In wasn’t immune to the impacts of the pandemic. Seeing kids back on the playground at the end of last summer while their parents talked and caught up before the show was a breath of fresh air for Alexander.
“The joy is when people come in and they’re smiling, they’re having fun,” he said. “People have been through a lot of doom and gloom, and last year, we started to see it towards the end of the season. More people started to smile when they came in the door, and that’s the whole point.”
More than a business
Alexander said that along with a great staff that’s been around for years, the Muskoka Drive-In has a dedicated group of customers. There wouldn’t be a drive-in without the movie goers, and Alexander thinks of them as family. The people who come in and talk to their team, whether it’s about movies, events or life in Muskoka, help make it more than a business.
“It makes it not a job anymore,” Alexander said. “It makes it a fun night when you get to share with people in the community. I have to say, they’re loyal and the customers have been incredibly supportive.”
With recent releases like The Batman and other upcoming blockbusters, Alexander is excited for the drive-in’s 70th season. He can’t open the drive-in until the ground firms up, so he’s currently aiming to bring movies back to their screens on April 29.
His 13-year-old daughter Elizabeth loves the drive-in, so he hopes that someday she’ll consider taking over the business. But no matter who is behind the projector, he’s proud to see the business reach such a milestone and he hopes the legacy will continue for decades to come.
“I’ll keep trying to run it as long as I can,” Alexander said. “Hopefully somebody in the family decides to keep moving forward with it, and as I say, I hope it goes for another 70 years.”
For ongoing updates on the Muskoka Drive-In, visit the drive-in’s Facebook page.