That twister visit during Twister
BY JOHN CHICK
Special to the VOICE
This much I know. On May 20, 1996, the television program “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” broadcast its series finale. I know this because I eagerly anticipated the episode. There was no streaming or on-demand TV in those days—if you missed a program, you missed it, and were left to wonder when and how, if ever, you’d eventually watch it.
So, imagine my consternation when the power to my parents’ house blacked out during a heavy downpour just after its 8 PM start time on NBC. Amidst a staccato of my own adolescent swearing, I looked out my bedroom window to see a suddenly green sky, and at almost the same moment, the 50-foot-tall blue spruce tree on the lawn across Strathcona Drive bend sideways—practically diagonal to the ground —from a massive gust of wind.
“Tornado!” I heard my dad shout from elsewhere in the house.
Yet before anybody could actually panic, it was over. Within a minute or so, the sky appeared normal again.
Venturing out into the neighbourhood despite my mother’s concern, I eventually located a friend with a driver’s licence and a car—Matt DeCiccio. With the power out in Fonthill, we mostly drove around aimlessly, past a few downed trees, until we ended up at the corner of Niagara and Quaker in Welland, where a small crowd had gathered outside of a strip plaza.
It was there, from bystanders, that I first heard the legend of the tornado-striking-the-drive-in-while-the-drive-in-was showing-“Twister”-a-movie-about-tornadoes.
A near quarter-century later, this remains the signature story of the Can-View Drive-In, at the junction of the 406 and Highway 20.
With word this week that the venerable landmark just over the Thorold border is up for sale, it’s difficult to think of anything but the associated urban legend. In the wake of the 1996 weather event—no one’s ever confirmed it was an actual tornado that swooped through Pelham and Thorold that spring night—media everywhere had a field day with the disputed idea that a funnel cloud tore apart one of the four screens as it showed Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt chasing tornadoes. I swear to this day I saw the big local story covered on “Entertainment Tonight.”
Are you annoyed with the ubiquity of cellphone cameras recording virtually everything nowadays? Then pause, and consider how useful they would have been back then to prove whether this thing actually happened or not.
Instead, the best documentation of the incident comes from the 2016 short film “Twisted,” by Jay Cheel, which ran at the Toronto International Film Festival, and is still available to view on The Atlantic’s website. In it, drive-in staffers Ann Atamaniuk and Sonny Tutti maintained that the theatre went into shutdown mode as soon as the worst of the weather hit, and that “Twister,” while showing that night, was never slated for that particular destroyed screen.
Years later, the ‘90s might as well have been the stone age.
In a time now where one can find a way to watch almost every notable movie ever made on their phone, it’s difficult to see where a drive-in theatre fits into the culture (ironically, I think I eventually watched that final episode of Fresh Prince years later on YouTube). Hell, even couples driving around looking for a place to make out can probably find one without paying a cover charge.
According to the Saturday Evening Post, only 348 drive-in movie theatres remained in the United States in 2018, down from an estimated 5,000 in the 1960s. There are currently about 60 left in Canada; Can-View is the last in Niagara.
But there’s still a niche. In 2006, a man named Jim Kopp bought a decrepit North Carolina drive-in for $22,000 on eBay. He resurrected it into what’s now called the Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre, which is still in business today.
The Can-View site, on other hand, is up for sale for $12 million. It’s not an insignificant piece of land either. While it may presently be zoned mostly agricultural, it’s right at a major interchange, practically equidistant to Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and Welland—and, if one were determined enough, a highway or three from downtown Toronto.
I have no drive-in memories of watching movies in classic 1950s automobiles. Personally, the only flick I can recall ever seeing at the Can-View was the Ray Liotta vehicle “Unlawful Entry,” a few years removed from his seminal role as Henry Hill in “Goodfellas.” Liotta now sells the smoking cessation aid Chantix in TV commercials.
Still, in an era today when more and more people seek nostalgia —perhaps because the future gets more alarming by the day — there may be life for the local drive-in yet. It seems like it a good place to provide wholesome family fun, depending, of course, on the rating of the film being shown and whether there’s a couple going at it in the next car.
Time will tell what happens to Can-View, but whatever it is, memories and stories matter. Based on the tornado tale alone, it shall always remain legendary. ♦
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