Drive ins and Theaters in Whitefish

  Carhops, milkshakes, juke boxes, pinball machines and bottle caps used for ticket payments are not only to be remembered from the last time Grease was playing on T.V. This 1950’s flair was standard at the Bay Point Drive-In, the first of its kind in Whitefish.

   1950 marked the birth of the drive-in movie theater in Whitefish, which was located near Whitefish Lake off of what is now Dakota Avenue. Edwin McKenzie, along with his wife Laura and their four young daughters—Faye, Susan, Nancy and Kona—were responsible for running the only place in town people could drive up and enjoy the big screen. 

   “The Drive-In was very popular. Many nights it was completely full. We would have 100 to 150 cars and we’d have to turn people away,” says Nancy Garrett, daughter of Mr. McKenzie.

   Of course, the movie itself wasn’t the only reason people came to Bay Point. While the movies were great, what attracted the masses to Bay Point Drive-In was the novelty in taking a break from hard work. For about a dollar per car a date, a family outing, or a night for parents away from their kids was easily found at Bay Point Drive-In Theater. 

   The McKenzie family also ran the Bay Point Drive-In Grill, complete with car hops and American diner fare. The McKenzie’s owned a small train to carry movie-goers to the Drive-In grounds, conducted lake tours on the old “Ranger” excursion boat, and rented out canoes, boats, and several cabins to visitors on the lakeshore. Ordering a 25 cent hamburger and chocolate milkshake at the Grille, taking a cruise around Whitefish Lake guided by Mr. McKenzie, then going up to the Drive-In was a great way to finish off a work or vacation day! 

   The Drive-In was originally the product of an imaginative New Jerseyite Richard M. Hollingshed, Jr., who coined the idea after nailing a screen to some trees in his backyard in 1932. Hollingshed was certainly on point—about 25 years later families, friends, and sweethearts couldn’t get enough of the popular pastime. Whitefish was no exception.

   “As I was growing up, [going to the Drive-in] was just part of life,” says long-time local Susan Abell.

   Movies played nightly during the summer, with at least three reels per evening. Nancy was in charge of switching the movie posters that the family displayed on Mr. McKenzie’s pick-up truck in town so that the community knew what was playing at the Drive-In.

   The Drive-In would have movie changes four times a week unless they were really special choices like The African Queen or High Noon, says Garret. Bay Point Drive-In opened the third or fourth weekend of May and would continue its entertainment until Labor Day. Without daylight savings, says Garrett, it was difficult to start the movies 9:30 at night.

   Intermission at Bay Point Drive-In was the perfect time to purchase favorite refreshments from the McKenzie sisters.  The movie-goers would flock to the snack bar in droves.

    “Intermission was just ten to fifteen minutes of just wild pandemonium. Popcorn was the big sale, with real butter,” says Garrett, who began working the concessions stand at 8-years-old.

 

   Other snack bar choices included Coke or 7-Up out of a fountain, coffee, ice cream cones, soft ice cream and many different kinds of candy bars. Sugar Babies were especially popular, but M and M’s had not yet been invented.

    In 1955 the McKenzie family leased Bay Point Drive-In and eventually sold it after Mr. and Mrs. McKenzie split up. Missing the dedication and community effort that the McKenzie’s brought to the business, however, the new owner failed to keep the Drive-In profitable. Whitefish locals and visitors alike can remember Bay Point Drive-In by visiting the current Drive-In in town. Without the classic pre-show milkshakes, the old-time locomotive, and little Nancy McKenzie working the concession stand, it’s hard to say if Whitefish will ever be able to recreate the magic of the original Bay Point Drive-In.