Saskatchewan drive-in closure sparks council controversy

The Manitou Beach drive-in, a community staple, most likely won’t be running this summer. 

Every summer for the last 65 years, the line for the drive-in begins two hours before the film even begins, with cars lined all the way to the highway. As the cars stream in looking for the perfect viewing spot, kids line up excitedly for popcorn at the concession. As one of the only three drive-in theatres left in the province of Saskatchewan, Manitou Beach’s drive-in has become quite popular over the years. The resort village of 314 people located 126 km from Saskatoon brings in tourists from all over the province.

An exploded projector light bulb is threatening the future of the drive-in, all while dividing the community. And the issue could be heading to court.

While many in Manitou blame the village council for lack of communication, the council blames poor previous management.

“The village feels that the past operator should be responsible for at least the insurance premium because twice there was some personal error in there,” said Mayor Poppy Peterson.

According to Peterson, the council is at least expecting the past owner to pay for the insurance, although they are still considering their legal options.

Currently, the village council owns the drive-in property and rents it out to other people to run the operation.

The drive-in was first founded by Burt Crawford, 65 years ago. He is worried at the possibility of a place so sentimental to him shutting down.

“I’m deeply disappointed in the council that made that decision,” said Crawford sadly.

 Crawford’s father had built the drive-in in 1955, and Crawford and his wife took over and ran it in 1962 up until a few years ago. Crawford expressed his concerns for the way the village is handling the situation.

There’s a group of people who don’t want tourists running around,” said Crawford.

Last summer, there were two different instances of projector problems. The first time, a fuse broke due to weather issues, but things were back up and running right away. The village council paid for the repairs. Shortly after, an exploded bulb halted movie screenings in mid-August. 

During the time of the exploded bulb, the leaser was Earl Hayhurst, a movie fanatic who was running the drive-in for a second summer. He returned to the drive-in after having worked there as a teenager four decades ago. He also owns and runs the Video Stop, a video rental store, in Watrous.

After the broken bulb, Hayhurst started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for repairs, but the fundraising effort was quickly shut down by the council.

“There was no tracking system that the village could use,” said Peterson.

 The repairs would cost around $8,234. According to the drive-in’s Facebook page run by Hayhurst, various people were reaching out to Hayhurst offering to do pancake breakfasts and concerts to try and raise money, but that fundraising was no longer an option. 

Statement from the village council on the fundraising, photo taken from the Village of Manitou Beach Facebook page from Oct. 5, 2023

Hayhurst has declined to comment on the situation, expressing that his mental health has been affected by the debacle, but that he has enjoyed his time operating the drive-in.

Currently, the drive-in has been put up for tender. This means that for the 2023 season, the village council needs another operator willing to fix the repairs themselves and then run the drive-in.

Before they can let a new owner run things, the council believes Hayhurst should pay for the damages, according to the mayor.

This has now become a legal situation between Hayhurst and the council.

“That’s probably for a court to decide at some point,” said Peterson.

Letter Hayhurst received from the council with his outstanding balance which threatens legal action, photo taken from the drive-in’s Facebook page

The aftermath of the exploded bulb created some tension with the council and drive-in staff.

“I think there are less answers now than there was a year ago,” said drive-in employee Vicky Sommers. “Nobody seems to know anything about what’s happening. The town hasn’t given any definitive answers other than they need someone to run it, but pay all the bills and do all the work, but (they) want to benefit.” 

Sommers pointed out that this incident with the council has led her to believe that the Manitou Beach village council is not interested in attracting tourists to the beach.

For the vast majority of the time, we don’t have much contact with the council, that’s pretty much the definitive fact of it,” said Sommers. “They don’t really take a whole lot of interest in anything that’s tourist-related.”

Sommers concerns about Manitou’s tourism suffering this summer without a drive-in are shared with Vickie Clarke, a former village employee who worked for the tourism department.  She is not the biggest fan of the way the situation was handled, and the way the village communicated with Hayhurst.

“They would talk to him about a lease agreement that technically wasn’t in place,” Clarke said. “Instead of saying, ‘this is a village asset and we need to work with you and try to get this thing back up and running,’ they turned the tables and basically sent a lawyer after him.”

Clarke said volunteerism is way down as more residents in the resort community are becoming frustrated with council decisions, like hiking water rates at the drive-in. She explained that the drop in volunteerism is due to a bylaw asking for criminal record checks for any volunteer position.

Photo of Manitou Beach by Halyna Mihalik

But Mayor Peterson refutes the idea her council doesn’t care about Manitou offering more than its saltwater lake. 

“It’s just strange to think that someone would think tourism isn’t a part of the village because it’s very obvious that the tourism is there,” said Peterson.

As someone who worked in tourism for the beach, Clarke is concerned with the way things are currently being run with the council.

“They are going through and trying to limit access to things like the drive-in, access to people being able to use the parks, access to people, being able to volunteer,” said Clarke. “Volunteerism in this village has done a deep nosedive in the last two years.”

Gerald Worobec, the previous mayor before Peterson, is also sad at the possible closure of the drive-in.

“When you see something like what’s going on with the drive-in, it’s a bit disheartening because so many people have put so much effort into moving forward in regards to tourism,” said Worobec. “It’s difficult to see it take a step backwards.”

During Worobec’s time as mayor, films weren’t available from movie companies on reels anymore. With the equipment that the drive-in had, they were only able to screen older movies. A company came in to set up a projector, which was able to screen newer movies. 

Worobec and the council raised $40,000 for the new projector and to be able to screen the newer films by fundraising with various public events.

Drive-in, photo by Halyna Mihalik

“I hope that they figure out a way to move forward with it and raise some money to get a projector and get it going again for the year because it’s important,” said Worobec.

Worobec recognizes that this may affect tourism for the beach. His home is located right next to the drive-in, and often will see the huge line-ups of cars eagerly anticipating the movie for that night.

“We quite often see the lineups, not a half an hour at a time, but two hours early,” said Worobec. “There’s people streaming into the drive and waiting to go to a show and they’re coming from all over the province.”

One of those people excitedly awaiting movies during the summer is Adelaide Bracewell-Stokes. Her family grew up in the area, and she has been coming to Manitou Beach every summer of her life, always looking forward to seeing films at the drive-in theatre.

“It’s really really sad because it has meant so much to me and to my summer experience and my childhood,” said Bracewell-Stokes.

Adelaide Bracewell-Stokes at the drive-in, photo submitted by Adelaide Bracewell-Stokes

The drive-in has experienced many phases over the last several years, with the types of movies screened and different forms of management, but Bracewell-Stokes has remained a diligent supporter of the drive-in through it all.

“Even through all its different generations, with different owners and playing different types of movies, it’s been such a constant,” said Bracewell-Stokes. 

However, this isn’t the first time the drive-in has been at risk of shutting down. The drive-in founder, Burt Crawford was ready to retire in 2014, leaving the state of the drive-in up in the air at the time.

The village council and the town’s mayor at the time, Eric Upshall, stepped in to purchase the drive-in and surrounding land, 11 acres in total. 

If the current council is planning to close the drive-in, it is a reversal of public policy,” said Upshall.

As someone who has saved the drive-in from closing in the past, Upshall doesn’t believe the drive-in should be closing yet.

“It would appear that the current council’s attitude is different than former councils in the way that former councils understood the aspect of keeping the uniqueness of Manitou Beach and expanding on it,” said Upshall.

Manitou Beach at sunset, photo by Halyna Mihalik

Local businesses in Manitou are also worried about what the potential drive-in closure could mean for them. Relics Arts and Antiques sees many tourists visiting their store while in Manitou specifically for the drive-in.

At Relics we do get a lot of families stopping in and the kids never having experienced a drive-in are very excited to see a drive-in movie,” said Relics owner Arnie Tiefenbach.

With this major tourist attraction at the brink of closure, Tiefenbach isn’t convinced that tourism will ever be the same at the beach.

“Some families in particular would probably consider a different destination without the drive in here and that would affect many different locations, businesses and restaurants.” said Tiefenbach.

Although the situation continues to remain unresolved, many are hopeful that a new leaser will take over and continue running the drive-in for years to come.

“I hope that the next owner promotes the village properly and all of the great things there are to do in Manitou, beyond the gates of the drive-in”, said Tiefenbach.

Featured Image: Manitou Beach drive-in, photo by Halyna Mihalik

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