Sweeping down Highway 20, May 20 1996 storm left trail of destruction
Today the Can-View Drive-In on Highway 20 stands desolate, a ghost from a bygone era when such open-air theatres were pavilions of entertainment, capitalizing on the cult of worship of the automobile. Its 84 acres are currently for sale, listed at $10.8 million dollars.
Back in the 1960s, drive-ins numbered in the thousands across North America. Today a just over a dozen remain in Ontario. They were a cheap night out for young families, and front-seat passion pits for amorous teenagers. For kids, they held an aura of magic, replete with neon lights, flickering images on a mammoth silver screen, and the smell of popcorn and French fries wafting in the air.
Some in Pelham may not be aware of the Can-View’s brush with international fame back in May of 1996, when a tornado howled across the landscape and shredded one of the movie screens, on an evening when the Hollywood hit Twister, starring Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, was slated to play.
At first blush, it was a pretty simple story of the power of Mother Nature. That is, until the media and human nature intervened.
Early factual news stories of a single movie screen’s destruction quickly morphed into a tale of a tornado flattening a drive-in, while the blockbuster movie was actually playing, sending people fleeing for their lives.
The incident, which happened on Monday, May 20, was widely reported by news media, fueled by the testimony of purported witnesses. Though discredited by numerous sources, including internet fact-checker Snopes, the urban legend mushroomed.
A 2016 short documentary produced by Jay Cheel for The Atlantic magazine, entitled “Twisted,” detailed the distorted and exaggerated claims. Even drive-in employees Ann Atamaniuk and Sonny Tutti maintained that the theatre closed early when the weather hit well before sundown, and that no movies were screened that night at all. In fact, the movie Twister was never even scheduled for the particular screen that was destroyed by the tornado.
Atamaniuk said that the screens were engineered to withstand 190 kilometre per hour winds.
Brock University psychology professor John Mitterer, interviewed for the Cheel documentary, discussed the imperfect recollections of drive-in patrons.
“How do you know that a memory that you’ve had is, in fact, a true memory?” he asked. “We are natural storytellers, about our lives and our histories, both as individuals and as a culture. Stories get elaborated over time, especially if you’re being rewarded for telling a more interesting story. There’s no doubt that repetition, with a tendency to embellish, can produce tales that get pretty flamboyant over multiple tellings.”
So there we have it. Memory is fallible, truth can be subjective, and human storytelling has enduring power.
“I think most people will continue to believe whatever stories support their beliefs and narratives, and question everything that challenges their ideals,” Cheel told The Atlantic, in discussing his documentary. “And when truth depends upon memory, things seem to get very complicated.”
As reported by the Associated Press at the time, the storm followed a weekend of severe thunderstorms and flooding. Environment Canada spokesman Phil Chadwick said at least one tornado occurred locally, with one demolishing two barns housing 30,000 chickens, and tearing the roof off another containing a collection of vintage cars, destroying two of the vehicles.
The storm took a path down Highway 20 and up through North Pelham. Mayhem followed.
Wade Daboll still lives on his ancestral bicentennial farm in Ridgeville. He was 35 years old when the twister roared across his family property, decimating some 600 trees.
“We had a willow tree that was 55 inches in diameter lifted up by the roots,” said Daboll. “My dad had a massive pile of logs after the storm, and ended up going out and buying a sawmill.”
The clean-up evolved into a custom woodworking business, which Daboll maintains to this day.
“At that time, I had a pizzeria in Pelham near the old HoHo’s Chinese restaurant,” he said. “I thought there was a freight train coming down Highway 20, the noise was incredible. I thought that the front window of the restaurant was going to blow in.”
Daboll recalled that Kremble Automotive, located in an industrial mall on Highway 20 across from Pleasantview Cemetery, lost its roof, and the Barrett family barn on Metler Road was destroyed and scattered across a wide area as the storm reached its peak around 8 PM.
Asa Hansler, a Pelham author and historian, was at his home on Highway 20, down the street from Clare’s Cycle, when the twister swept through, tearing limbs off majestic willows on the property close to his house.
“The storm took out buildings in the area and uprooted huge trees that were probably 200 years old,” he said. “It sounded like a giant freight train when it went through here. The sky was very dark, and I ran outside to herd the animals into the barn. The air was completely calm, there was no wind before it hit, and then it just blew straight through like a wind tunnel. It was a very scary experience.”
Such storms happen once every century in Pelham, said Hansler.
“My great-grandfather Asa P. Hansler, who came through a tornado here in 1896, told me that every 100 years or so Pelham gets hit. Historic records indicate there was an earlier twister in 1792. My great-great-great-great grandfather, George Hansler, came through that one. He was living where Bissell’s Hideaway is now, and lost a lot of trees.”
That was Canada’s first recorded tornado, and “Hurricane Road” was built along part of its path and named after it.
Coverage the next week by Pelham Herald editor Carolyn Mullin captured local reaction.
“I could see a storm coming, but never expected anything like this,” said Greg Beamer, whose parents Don and Nancy owned Beamer’s Market, now a thrift store on Highway 20 near the 406 interchange. Nancy Beamer is now a DSBN Trustee.
Pieces of the roof at the market were sent flying, and two Scoops ice cream hut employees, Shanna Maher and Leigh Au Coin, huddled in fear in the gazebo-like structure as a funnel cloud appeared down Highway 20. Deafening winds shook the hut, and broken glass filled the air.
“I thought we were going to die,” Au Coin told Carol Alaimo of the Standard. “Kids were screaming, picnic tables were flying. It was like something from The Wizard of Oz.”
Rural roads were washed out, power lines were downed and transformers blown, and tree debris was everywhere, especially in North Pelham, prompting then-Director of Operations for the Town, Jamie Hodge, to declare it “nearly a disaster area.”
Hydro workers were on the job repairing power outages during the night, and then-Mayor Ralph Beamer was on the job as soon as the tornado passed, surveying the damage, listening to stories from residents, and pledging help.
Niagara Regional Police reported that tractor trailers on Highway 20 had their roofs ripped off.
“Two-ton trailers were smashed to smithereens,” Sergeant Sandy Race told the Standard. “The wind tossed them around like toys.”
Ed Luska, who owned a recreational vehicle business on Highway 20, told the paper, “I’ve never seen a storm like this,” and noted that several of his trailers had been toppled and crushed by the storm, and truck caps blown into nearby fields.
Glen Gordon’s massive 27-ton steel granary located near the drive-in was crushed, a $170,000 loss. “It was an unbelievable sight,” said Gordon.
Hail fell along with the fierce winds and thunderstorms, which stretched from Lake Erie up to Georgian Bay and across central Ontario.
Terry King, customer operations manager at the Ontario Hydro district office in Beamsville, told the Standard said the storm cut power to between 4000 and 5000 customers in Pelham for about 16 hours. Power went out just after 8 PM Monday and was restored shortly after noon the next day.
Pelham was not the only Ontario community to be hammered by a tornado 26 years ago.
It was the Spring of the Twister in Southern Ontario in 1996, as two tornadoes touched down in Grey, Wellington, and Dufferin counties on April 20, resulting in significant property damage and injuries to nine people. ◆