Welcome to the Mustang!!
We are open NIGHTLY during the summer!
Gates open at 7:30 PM
Movies begin at 8:15 PM
Playing August 26 – September 01 , 2016
Long live the Mustang: How one Ontario drive-in theatre has stayed alive, while changing with the times
After you’ve driven out along Prince Edward County Road in Picton, past the vast wineries and bed-and-breakfasts, from Belleville or Trenton or one of the other towns nearby, and after you’ve pulled into the grass-and-gravel lot and found a space among 500 hatchbacks and station wagons and tricked-out pickup trucks, and after the sun has set, and you’ve bought a bag of popcorn and a bottle of Pepsi, and after you’ve finally settled in – that’s when the honking starts.
Honk honk honk honk honk honk honk honk. Such noise! It’s like an overture. You’ll never see a movie at the Mustang Drive-In without first delighting in this vehicular symphony.
A drive-in is by its very nature a monument to tradition, to the obstinate indomitability of the antique and passé, so it’s hardly surprising that it has traditions all its own. But the honking is more like Mustang lore. It all started during the chrysalis of the FM radio system, when the theatre introduced a transmitter that could pump a movie’s soundtrack into every car in the lot over the airwaves – if only it would work properly, which at first it never seemed to. It got so bad that every screening would devolve into a furor of outraged honking. So one night the Mustang’s owner, Paul Peterson, understandably fed up with the whole routine, stood in front of a lot full of cars with a microphone in his hand and said, “Look, you’re going to honk at me anyway, so you might as well do it now.” The place erupted like a wedding convoy. “They did it and they loved it,” Paul told me. “Every night since then we’ve honked. It was kismet.”
Paul is the second thing you want to tell everyone about after a night at the Mustang. Paul, 60 this July, is a big, wild character, a hippie dynamo with shoulder-length grey hair and a goatee that looks as though it’s surging over the rest of his face to form a beard. He looks exactly the same as when I went to the Mustang as a child 20 years ago. Affable, garrulous and charismatic in an understated way, and though he likes to downplay his authority, making jokes about his maladroitness and bone-deep nonchalance, you can tell he’s the leader, the lord of the Mustang manor.
“I talk to the customers every night, I try to make them laugh, I have a whole ongoing dialogue that never ends,” Paul says. He’d never say so himself, but that’s essential to the drive-in’s appeal. It’s Paul’s pliability, his total willingness to change with the times, that’s kept this monument to tradition in business. The years pass, and Paul adapts.
How Paul Peterson came to own a drive-in theatre in the middle of Picton is a story I suspect he’s told a thousand times before. (The man is a natural raconteur.) One afternoon in the summer of 1988, Paul, then working as a counsellor for young offenders and youth in crisis, drove to Port Dover with his wife, Nancy, and happened to take a shortcut through the County. They spotted the Mustang, not in the best condition at the time – “the word ‘abandoned’ would be appropriate,” Paul says – and noticed it was for sale. Paul stopped the car, looked the place over, and said to Nancy, “Wow, that’d be cool, let’s buy it.” So they did. “That was our whole business plan: that’d be cool,” Paul admits. “It wasn’t exactly Cinema Paradiso.”
Paul is just the sort of person you’d expect to change his life on a whim, investing everything into a foundering business with the notion that he’d make something of it, for the simple reason, he says, that he “thought it seemed fun.” There was the small matter of expertise and experience, of which Paul and Nancy had neither. “I didn’t know sh-t from dead air about how to put a movie on or any of the technical side of things,” Paul says. “But I was smart enough to have kids who were smarter than me, and they could learn it, and then they dumbed it down for dad.” Together the family got things running smoothly and the Mustang, at least in technical terms, was off to a fine start.
Oh, but the problems weren’t merely technical. Drive-ins, remember, were a product (or maybe a symptom) of the post-war automotive boom, when the sudden confluence of free time and economic prosperity in America ushered in a surge in the popularity of cars among teenagers, for whom vehicles were synonymous with freedom. And in those days, the teens weren’t flocking to the drive-in for the robust sound or crisp picture. There’s a reason these institutions came to be known as “passion pits” or, more colourfully, “finger bowls,” an appellation I’m not at liberty to explain in a respectable newspaper. If things seemed licentious in the late 1940s, oh boy, were they ever worse in 1988. The drive-in Paul inherited, to hear him tell it, was a regular Gomorrah.
And as Gomorrah it had been unabashedly run. Teens would roll into the Mustang drunk out of their minds, hooting and cavorting through the show, until things would inevitably get out of hand, and the police would descend upon the place. When they took over in 1988, Paul and Nancy endeavoured to reform the carnival, repairing fixtures and keeping the premises clean, and promoting a more sensible attitude. But they couldn’t put an end to the partying.
“Then one night,” Paul remembers, “we had a kid there, leaning up against a speaker pole, looking totally out of it. He’d arrived, his friends told us, after drinking a bottle of rye and dropping acid. I had to rush him to the hospital. That was it. I said to Nancy: no more. On the one hand, at my day job I’m trying to help troubled kids. And at nighttime I’m creating an atmosphere that isn’t helping them at all.”
The next morning Paul took out an ad in the local paper: “The Mustang Drive-In now has a zero tolerance policy for alcohol,” it plainly announced. Before this new edict was instituted the Mustang was receiving audiences of something like six or seven-hundred a night, streaming in by the carload for the usual debauched double-features. Paul’s prohibition put an end to that.
All at once, the very day the grounds went dry, the Mustang’s regulars resolved to stay away. And that’s not all. “Not only did they stay away,” Paul says, “they would drive by and heckle us. They’d hang out the windows of their cars and yell, ‘Hey, nice drive-in, jerk!’ Only that wasn’t the word they used.” Gomorrah had burned to the ground overnight, which suited Paul’s ethos. But it’s hard to make money on a pile of embers. “That first year, we looked at each other and said, well, we just lost like $6,000.”
The reformed Mustang might not have been to the taste of the area’s libidinous teens, true, and the people who had called themselves drive-in regulars for years no longer wanted anything to do with it. But what Paul quickly realized, as cars made the trek through Picton once again and attendance began to rise, was that all sorts of other people welcomed the change.
Eventually these viewers and their families more than outnumbered what the drive-in had lost. The Mustang had officially become family-friendly. Paul started programming all-ages content. He welcomed little kids. He even put up a playground in front of his enormous silver screen, where, I fondly recall, I spent hours upon hours gallivanting as a child.
The reformation is a good example of the kinds of changes Paul has ushered in and embraced. And naturally the Mustang has gone on to change a great deal since then. Paul erected a second screen on the grounds in 2004, after the area’s insatiable demand for Spider-Man 2, of all things, drove anyone who’d already seen it completely mad. (“We were in our sixth week and making serious money, getting 500 people every night, but people would call up, pleading, and say, ‘Please, no more Spider-Man!’”) Paul also went online, and now manages a Mustang Drive-In Facebook fan page whose subscribers number nearly 10,000. (“It’s crazy. Al Gore hadn’t even invented the Internet back when I bought the place.”)
Most recently Paul was obliged to go digital. The Mustang Drive-In projected its last 35mm print last year. Tragic, yes, and film purists will no doubt mourn the loss, but it’s frankly astonishing that the Mustang held out as long as it did. Most theatres, even hardcore repertory houses, were impelled to make the switch years earlier, at the behest of the major studios back in 2009. The Mustang, Paul says, was indeed pressured to upgrade, mainly because distributors could no longer be bothered to physically deliver 150 pounds of celluloid to the middle of Prince Edward County every week. And for Paul it didn’t much matter either way, so long as he was getting new releases on time.
So the Mustang bought new projectors – more than $120,000 for the pair. “We paid more for the two projectors than we did for the drive-in,” he says. Not that Paul would let anybody but himself and Nancy pay for the damn things. “A lot of small-town drive-ins went to customers to sort of wind it up, you know,” he says. “Oh, we’re gonna have to close, blah blah. I’m not doing that. Either the business is viable or it isn’t. If I go to you with my hat in my hand saying, ‘Oh, pity me, I’m just a little guy,’ as soon as I buy a new truck it’s like, ‘Oh really Paul, you’re on hard times, eh?’ So we did that and tried not to raise popcorn to $30 a bag.”
Of course the business is viable; people still come out to the drive-in by the carload, hundreds at a time, a full lot most nights, even 60 years to the summer after the Mustang was founded. (It was born in 1956, same as Paul.)
Yet it’s a shame that success is so astonishing. Why shouldn’t such an evocative symbol of the moviegoing experience continue to not only endure, but triumph? Why shouldn’t a fellow like Paul – so resilient, so amenable to change! – continue to be a success? Well, Paul, good sport that he is, has heard the note of surprise sounded before. In fact he’s often been hounded about it.