What it was like to run a drive-in theatre in 1990

Tired of never having their summers off, two couples put their New Brunswick movie drive-in up for sale after 23 years.

Snack bar pulled in more than box office some nights

The economics of running a drive-in cinema

Digital Archives

31 years ago
A family-operated New Brunswick drive-in shows movies four days a week in the summer of 1990. 2:43

Anyone want to buy a drive-in movie theatre?

That was what the owners of the Sussex Drive-In in New Brunswick were asking in the summer of 1990.

The two couples who owned it, the DeLongs and the Alexanders, had been running the theatre since 1967, according to the CBC business program Venture.  

And after 23 years without a summer off, they were ready to take a break.

$10 per family

Reporter Ross Rutherford attended a Thursday-night screening of the movie Gremlins 2: The New Batch, to get a handle on how the New Brunswick drive-in operated. (Venture/CBC Archives)

Venture correspondent Ross Rutherford visited the Sussex on a Thursday in the summer of 1990, and it happened to be Family Night.

"Hi, kids. Want to see the gremlins?" asked Gerald Alexander as a car pulled in at dusk. Gremlins 2: The New Batch, a sequel to the 1984 blockbuster, was screening that night.

A carload of parents and kids cost just $10 (about $18 in 2020 dollars).

For the owners, every night was family night at the theatre — they were two couples, related by marriage. Rutherford said the Sussex was one of the few family-owned drive-ins left in Canada.

Snack bar secrets 

Popcorn is readied at the snack bar, where the night's receipts can outnumber the earnings from the box office. (Venture/CBC Archives)

"Inside the concession stand, Barb DeLong and Audrey Alexander — sisters-in-law — are making homemade burgers," said Rutherford.

It wasn't movie night without popcorn, and the concession machine was seen popping away.

On a good night, the snack bar brought in between $500 and $600. And with a profit margin of 50 per cent, it was often more lucrative than the box office.

Rutherford said at the peak of the drive-in trend, 15 years earlier, there were 300 theatres across Canada. Like every such theatre, patrons of the Sussex drove in, parked in front of a large screen, and attached a speaker to the car window.

Some drive-ins even had playgrounds where kids could burn off energy before settling into the car at dusk to watch the movie.

Night watch

Don DeLong and his nephew patrol the pool at the trailer park next door to the drive-in. (Venture/CBC Archives)

The Sussex didn't cost as much to run as other theatres, said Rutherford.

There was no private security force, for one thing. Instead, Don DeLong and his nephew walked the drive-in grounds.

"They're keeping an eye out for kids sneaking in from the fields," said Rutherford. "And the odd movie-goer who likes to wander to the pool at the trailer park next door for a little midnight dip." 

The theatre had also cut back its schedule to screen movies four nights a week rather than the former seven.

Rutherford said the younger generation in their family was "not interested in taking over," and the two couples were "seriously thinking" of selling the drive-in.

As of June 2021, the Sussex Drive-in is still in business.

Gerald Alexander counts the night's take of about $225. "Not too good," he said. "We get those." (Venture/CBC Archives)

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