GUEST COLUMN: When theatres and drive-ins provided the big picture

The air conditioned Park Theatre was located in what is now the Stones ‘N Bones Museum on Christina Street. Pauline Wetering photo

Nadine Wark

Recently, a grocery store on London Road organized an outdoor movie night in its parking lot. A creative endeavour for these pandemic times, it offered movies free of charge to employees and health-care and hospice workers.

It reminded me of the old drive-ins we used to have here, like the Star-Top on Plank Road, and later the Mustang.

A childhood spent growing up in Corunna didn’t prevent me from getting to Sarnia to attend one of its movie theatres. I’d just hop on the Chatham bus from the corner of Cameron and Highway 40 with my sister or a friend, and it was a quick journey to downtown Sarnia, where all the action took place.

Sarnia had four movie houses, though not all at the same time — The Park, The Imperial (not to be confused with the current Imperial Theatre), The Capitol (which is now the Imperial), and the Odeon. Those were the days when ushers used flashlights to escort patrons to their seats.

As the theatre filled up there was plenty of noise and anticipation about what was to appear on the big screen. It might be a Disney feature, like Old Yeller, where many cried, or a horror show starring Vincent Price (where some laughed).

Everyone juggled boxes of popcorn, candy and pop while trying not to spill. The ads and previews for upcoming movies seemed to take forever, and by the time the feature finally began the popcorn, for many, was already gone.

And of course, someone always needed to visit the washroom. You could only hope it wouldn’t come with a provoking kick to the back of the your seat.

Before, and sometimes after the show, we’d have lunch at Kresge’s or Tuffy’s fish ‘n chips shop. To our young minds those places, like the Corunna Restaurant, were first-class.

I remember some movie theatre queues stretching for several blocks and around the corner. In 1967, The Graduate starring a little-known actor named Dustin Hoffman appeared at the Odeon, and my friend Linda and I were forced to take the only seats available — in the front row. It was hard on the body, and the eyeballs.

Adults who didn’t feel like loading the kids and dog into the sedan and heading to a drive-in always had the option of staying home to watch Bill Kennedy’s ‘At the Movies.’ My Mum loved Bill’s movies.

Whenever I pass the Imperial Theatre downtown I still feel exhilarated, remembering the movies I saw there as a child decades ago, and later watching the building rise like a phoenix to become the gem of a performing arts centre that it is today.

Nadine Wark is a retired office administrator and freelance writer who lives in Sarnia