Jeffrey Fritz paid little attention when the Tillicum Outdoor Theatre came down in 1982 to make way for Tillicum Centre.
But now, the 57-year-old would love to have it back. In fact, he’s pretty ticked off it isn’t around. And he’s got the shirts to prove it.
The Esquimalt resident grew up in Victoria and like most people, took in movies at the Tillicum drive-in.
Two summers ago he came up with the idea to put an image of the old theatre on a T-shirt. It’s turned into an ongoing adventure that evokes the happiest of memories from everyone who recognizes it.
“Every time I talked to people about it they’d get excited, everyone loves it,” Fritz said. “I was getting nostalgic for things, I got thinking about, geez, I’m not employed, I can’t have any fun in the summer, and I can’t even go to a summer movie.”
Funnily enough, making the T-shirts wasn’t as easy as it sounds. To start, the history on the theatre is scattered. Most of the searchable images online are aerials. There is a 1970s shot of the Outdoor’s iconic ‘skylon’ that rose 60 feet high on Saanich Archives, but even that is from a ways down the road.
After 25 hours of searching, Fritz finally found a photo of an old matchbook that has the graphic of the theatre’s skylon, screen and marquee. It was on an American blog about drive-in theatres.
“It had this cheesy silver printing, it took a couple weeks to get it to a point it could go on a T-shirt,” he said.
On his first shirt design, Fritz put a 1971 Riviera in front of the theatre image. Sales were slow until he met a classic car owner from the Cadillac Car Club.
“This fella told me to put a ’55 Cadillac on there and he’d buy three, so I did, and I sold a pile of them, I made $355,” Fritz said.
Since then Fritz has produced shirts with a classic Thunderbird, Chevy, Corvette and Mustang.
According to trusted Gorge-Tillicum historian Dennis Minnaker, the Outdoor opened in June 1951 and accommodated 620 cars. There was outdoor seating in Cape Cod-style chairs, plus an indoor viewing room.
Seventy-year-old Bob Painton still lives in the Tillicum Road house he grew up in and remembers sneaking into the theatre and taking shelter in the viewing room.
“Taking your gal to the Outdoor was about the coolest thing you could do,” said Painton, the proud owner of a Fritz Outdoor Theatre T-shirt and a hot rod collector. “When I was about 14 or 15, we would take boards out of the fence behind the screen to sneak in. Once we were a little older and we had cars, two or three of us would hide in the trunk to sneak in.”
Painton recalls waking up in the early morning, in the last car at the theatre.
“That would have been on a really good night.”
For Fritz, the energy and excitement created by the T-shirts has him dreaming of bringing back another outdoor theatre. If he can get the financial backing necessary to start a Kickstarter campaign, he will, all in the name of creating another drive-in theatre.
“I’d say Bullett was one of my favourite movies there, with Steve McQueen, but everyone has their favourites,” Fritz said. “When people see the T-shirts, they applaud it, they love to talk about it. I’ve met a lot of cool people [because of it].
“People say there isn’t a demand for drive-ins but Mayfair mall just held a weekly drive-in night for six years, and there was a drive-in night in Esquimalt.”
Fritz T-Shirts available online at tillicumshirts.com or at Style ’N’ Print, 2639 Quadra St. Other Tillicum T-Shirts are also available at Style ‘N’ Print, as well as Cavity Curiosity Shop (556B Pandora St.) and TurnTable Records in 107-3 Fan Tan Alley.