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Now showing: Petersons hand over reins after 30 years at the Mustang Drive In

Picton’s Mustang Drive In – Jordane Verner photo

By Olivia Timm
​​Kids on the playground, the sounds of car horns blaring for movies to begin, a near birth, and a wedding are just a few fond memories of the historic Picton Mustang Drive In. ​​Thirty years of memories – of challenges and triumphs – are now at the forefront of Paul Peterson’s mind as he and wife Nancy hand the reins over to new owners this month.
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​​​​It was the summer of 1988 when they spotted a ‘for sale’ sign at the run-down drive in on County Road 1 just outside of Picton. They were travelling a scenic route through the County on route to see family at Port Dover.
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Paul Peterson

“We had no intention of buying a drive in. I worked as a therapist, working first with youth-in-crisis. Nancy, my wife and business partner, was from Port Dover, so we were on our way there.

But they were compelled to stop, and take a closer look.

“I went, ‘You know, that would be cool.’ And that was pretty much our entire business plan – that would be cool. So we bought it. We didn’t know anything about how to play movies. There was no cinema paradiso where I’d always been interested, but Nancy and I had gone to the drive in as part of our dating experience, my parents had taken us as kids, so it just seemed like the right thing.”
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​​The first two features to hit the screen were ‘Speedzone’ and ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’.
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​​”I can remember the very first weekend that we ran movies. Back then, the ferry ran all night, and we were down there waiting to go home and we thought we were pretty cool putting on movies. The first night, we had 25 people in the audience. The second night, it was 45. The third night was the all-nighter and there were just three of us and our kids working, who were pretty young. We had 650 people that night, and it was like, ‘Wow, what’s going on.’ We weren’t expecting anything close to that. And that started the love affair.”
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​​Peterson said the Mustang was a pretty rough place when they first bought it.
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​​“It was a big party spot with beach parties every weekend. After an all-nighter, there would be around $40 in empties, which is around 400 bottles, so it was wild. It just wasn’t what we wanted it to be, and it’s funny how in a small town, you can change things. We took an ad in one of the local papers, and at the bottom of the page, it said, ‘The Mustang Drive In has a zero tolerance policy towards alcohol.’

“We got heckled! It was hilarious, and we went from 650 people at an all-nighter to 150. But we thought were we doing the right thing and we absolutely did. Word got out that we had cleaned the place up, and it was no longer this big party zone, and nice people – couples and families – started coming back. Since that moment, it’s been fantastic.”


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​​One of the biggest changes, he said, was navigating the old way of projection by using carbon arcs.

“It was like welding – it was pure light, and that’s why there were so many black outs back in the day at the drive in, because the carbon rods didn’t burn long enough to get through two full reels. It was a nightmare, but that’s where the horn honking started. It became part of our tradition.”
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​​Once the team made the transition from speakers to radio sound about seven years into running the drive in, it didn’t go as smooth as they hoped. He decided to hop on the microphone one night, and said “Hey, look, you’re going to honk anyway, why don’t you do it now and get it over with?’
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​​“People loved it! I knew people were there for the movies, but I did an opening monologue every night with some standard bits. I told everyone, ‘We start every night by honking, tonight is no exception! Put some heart into it!’ It truly became tradition. I felt that I needed to greet people, and lay it out for them, and I think people really enjoyed that,” he said.
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​​It was 15 years ago when they aired the second Spiderman movie and it played for six weeks.

Peterson laughed reflecting on the people that called in to leave messages to switch it up. That was the moment he and Nancy decided to purchase a second screen to play bigger movies for a longer period of time, while still bringing in new films.
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Screen two gets painted

​​“That was a really good decision. People were excited. I didn’t know a lot about the business, so I leaned on people like Bill Sullivan, who owned the Trenton Drive In. He was a wonderful man, he helped me so much and taught me a lot.”
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​​About four years ago, Peterson’s lively entertainment was at a standstill when he was in a near-fatal car accident, and wasn’t able to be as involved. Although his family and friends continued to run the business, they didn’t have the same eagerness to hop on the mic and entertain.
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Nancy at the canteen

​​“I really missed it. It didn’t happen for a lot of that season, and I thought it was missing because it was our trademark. The movies are movies, and it’s important, but we set a couple of trends. At drive ins, most people usually played the feature film second. I didn’t do that. If you play the feature second, you get a big intermission. We were really focused on getting families to come out, and I didn’t think families would be able to stay for two movies with kids who would likely fall asleep. We started playing the feature first, and now a lot of community drive ins do the same thing because the move has been toward families. I’m not gonna make you suffer through Speedzone to get to Roger Rabbit,” he laughed. “We had a huge canteen before the movie, and that made up for it anyway.”
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Paul kept the door open while loading movies so people could see the magic, and stop for a chat.

Those in the canteen were treated to a behind-the-scenes look.

“Back when we used 35 millimetre film, there was a mile of film for one movie. It was visually impressive putting together. I would leave the door open, and people would come over to chat and watch it unfold.”
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Working at the drive in at night was a chance for Peterson to clear his physic palate.

“During the day I worked with Drivers of Abuse, and some of that work was fairly intense. And then you’re at the drive in at night and kids are sitting on the hoods of their parents’ cars giggling to ‘Finding Nemo’, it’s hard not to enjoy those moments.”
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​​Peterson’s children became involved in the family business at a young age helping in the canteen, and the seeds of love for theatres were planted.
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​​”I’ve always said my greatest accomplishment was having kids – the smartest thing actually, was having kids who were smarter than me. They actually learned to run the projectors before I did and then they were able to dumb it down for me to figure out. They really did teach me how to run the equipment, and that was central to us pioneering ahead a bit because then we didn’t need projections and made it more economically viable.”
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​​Their oldest son Justin is a computer engineer who worked at the drive in throughout high school and when he would come home from university.

Jamie, the youngest son, owns a movie theatre in Gananoque that Peterson had started and he took that over.

“He loves it – it’s fair to say it’s in his blood. Hollie, our daughter, originally bought out the Napanee Theatre I had owned, which was a three-screen theatre. She then wanted to venture out on her own, and with her partner Eric, bought the Centre Theatre in Trenton. They’ve got a great business there, all to her credit.”

Paul’s dad used to work the box office on all nighters. Nancy’s mom was the lady in the ticket bus at the entrance for years.
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​​The Petersons also loved their extended family of people who came to see the movies, and ended up volunteering because they were so busy.

Tragically Hip front man Gord Downie was one of their regular customers.

​​“He would come in and chat. We talked music. It was wonderful,” said Peterson, who hosted a full-house in August 2016 to witness a live-stream performance of the iconic Canadian band on its final cross-country tour.

Peterson says he’s always had a sense of ‘the big picture’ and of being part of people’s stories through the drive in.

As a writer, he was always amused with the marriage proposals.

“Every proposal brought the guy to me, saying he wanted to propose to his girlfriend. So they nervously took the mic, had an awkward speech, and I always got a kick out of it. It’s a bold move to ask your partner to marry you when you’re not even near them!”
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​​A wedding – from the reception to the party – was held at the drive in and the group even watched The Princess Bride after their rehearsal party.
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​​First comes love, then comes marriage – but the birth of a baby fortunately, didn’t quite happen.

​​“A woman went into labour at the drive in, and I said, ‘You should probably go, but come back anytime to see your movie for free!’ She came back two nights later,” Peterson laughed. “We watched that kid grow up, and he comes to the drive in now in his truck with his girlfriend.”

Those kinds of transitions made three decades of life at the drive in for special for the Petersons.

“There are so many great stories of kind people,” he said, nothing that although running the drive in was business, it is so much more.
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​​“A business is about making money, but what a lovely way for us to have made a living. You touch people in ways you don’t expect. We took this sort of run-down drive in and we turned it into something that we were so proud of. Kids could hang out on the three playgrounds, and for a lot of kids, it’s their first time to be on their own to wander around a bit, and it was cool to see.

“We built the business by being just a little bit goofy. It was lovely – people would come visit each summer and we became part of their experience. We are now on our third generation of people visiting the drive in, and it’s incredible to see.”
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​​The drive in closed April 7th, and the new owners – Dawn Laing and Drew Downs – are getting settled while life in a pandemic sorts out.

In light of COVID-19, Peterson hopes that drive ins will make it through.

“In these times of quarantine and social distancing, it’s fine because people can sit in their cars. But of course, with the canteen, that will have to be worked out.”
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The Peterson’s didn’t have the drive in listed for sale, “but a couple had approached us asking if we’d ever consider selling it. I said to them at the beginning that I wanted it to be a positive process – I wanted everyone to feel good about it and it worked out great.”

Peterson said it felt like the right time.

“This would have been our 31st season. We were pleased that the new owners want to keep it as a drive in, and they share a love for drive ins. They have a vision that would take it to a new direction. They are ready to do it.”

As Paul stated at the end of every movie review he wrote over the years for local newspapers, and Countylive.ca, “The cheque’s in the mail and I’m out of here.”

Dawn and Drew hope they’ll be given the green light to open at the end of June and run movies through September.
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​​Peterson invites people to send in stories and memories of the Picton Mustang Drive In to his email at stormycinemas@yahoo.ca

 

Filed Under: Arts & CulturecheersFeatured ArticlesPaul Peterson

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  1. Mike Johnson says:

    You guys were the best. We had lots of fun there growing up.
    Carload nights were awesome and you had a blast seeing how many
    We could all cram in a car.

    Thanks for all you’ve done for this community
    I wish the new owners well and hope they are as fun as you were

    Mike

  2. old local says:

    I sure hope Paul told these new folks about all the transferable life passes he’s given out !
    And LARRY !
    Your sense of humour will linger on Paul.
    Thank-You and Job well done Folks.
    Welcome Dawn & Drew .

  3. ADJ says:

    Back in the day my friend drove a 59 Olds..the trunk on that car was like a small room and would hold 4-5 of your skinny friends. We’d load her up and cruise on in for the Wednesday “Buck”night. A carload for a dollar!! (and no tax) So you might end up with 10–12 bodies. What a hoot!
    Another time years later my wife and I took the mother-in-law to see the movie Exorcist. Needless to say it was a quiet ride home.

  4. Christopher Pryde says:

    Spent quite a few nights there – as a kid, and even once with my own kids.

    Thanks so much for the memories.

  5. Dennis Fox says:

    I would like to thank the Petersons for providing me and my family with many years of great memories. It was well over 20 years ago when my wife and I first went to the Mustang and just this past summer we took our eldest grandson to see Spiderman and one other about a huge man-eating crocodile during a Florida hurricane – just what a grandfather needs! Other than getting bitten alive by skeeters, it was a great evening of movies and food.

    Thanks again Petersons and wish you all the best for the future!

  6. Tsauce says:

    Plus, Kingston’s closed last year and will not be reopening leaving the market of Kingston ~100,000 to you. If you do decide to sell, work this fact into the price.

  7. Tsauce says:

    I believe that the Covid-19 crisis will bring more sales to the drive-in this summer! Do not worry, stay open and stay safe.

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