Last Picture Show for L.A.’s Drive-Ins
It’s getting near twilight for the drive-in theater in Los Angeles.
The decline in open-air cinephilia has been gradually underway since the phenomenon peaked in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But locally, the closure rate for “ozoners” has accelerated alarmingly over the last year. Notably, this movie summer will be the first since the 1930s without a single drive-in left open in either Orange County or the San Fernando Valley, two regions whose suburban landscapes once were dotted with the huge, sky-hugging screens.
Pacific Theatres closed the venerable Hi-Way 39 in Westminster earlier this month and shuttered the Winnetka in Chatsworth in January. These followed a rash of closings last September, when four area drive-in complexes went kaput the week after Labor Day.
The loss of the Hi-Way 39 “was pretty upsetting, actually,” says former patron Diane Taks, an Anaheim mom who’d made a ritual of taking her 5-year-old daughter there every Friday. She found out about the closing only after getting a disconnected message when she called to find out what was playing.
“It had never occurred to me that they could close. I’d seen it packed just about every time we went, and there was always a line when we got there. I thought they had plenty of business.”
In fact, they did. But the Wal-Mart that’s scheduled to replace it will have plenty more, it’s safe to assume. In fact, most recent local closings have less to do with depreciating numbers of patrons than appreciating land value. Like the dinosaur in popular myth, urban drive-ins may finally be done in because they’re just too big.
“The drive-ins that we do still have do very well,” says Chan Wood, executive vice president of Pacific Theatres, which first built its business on California drive-ins and operates three of the five left standing in Los Angeles County. “But these are very expensive, valuable pieces of property. When you have a drive-in sitting there all day long with no income till the nighttime, that’s not a very profitable use for a 20- or 25-acre lot.”
“The drive-in was built on the outskirts of development,” said Edwards Theatres Chairman James Edwards Sr. a week before his death late last week, “in order to get land that will support the size of the site that is required--15, 20, 25 acres, which you don’t find downtown. But as the years go by, downtown comes up to where your site is, and the land becomes more valuable for other uses.”
Edwards held onto just one drive-in--the Azusa, a favorite among local nostalgists--which is likely to survive into the next millennium largely by virtue of being in an area with a high commercial vacancy rate.
Many operators have turned to swap meets as a way of generating daytime income. But that’s scant competition for the cash cows that tend to supplant drive-ins altogether--namely, malls, multiplexes and massive combinations thereof. Two of the recently vacated sites, Pacific’s Winnetka and Century’s Stadium, are both already well under construction by their respective chains as epic-scale retail/entertainment mixtures, with 20 and 25 state-of-the-art indoor screens, respectively.
Despite dedicated patrons like Taks, “we haven’t had any negative comments” about the closings, Pacific’s Wood says. “I think people realize what’s happening, between the value of the properties and the sophistication of the presentation in the walk-in theaters. People have come to want and expect the improved sound systems and projection and other niceties and amenities--and we’re gonna give it to ‘em.”
Still, there are those holdouts whose idea of the ideal amenity isn’t Dolby digital but rather a wide-open tailgate and sleeping bags, or unfettered access to an ashtray, or free admission for kids under 12, or the ability to small-talk and/or smooch without fear of prying ushers. Suddenly, anyone in the Valley or West L.A. or Orange County who wants to experience these old-fashioned in-car delights is in for an awfully long drive.
And then there were five, at least as far as L.A. County goes. Pacific still operates the Vineland in the San Gabriel Valley, the Fiesta in Pico Rivera and the Vermont in Torrance--though the last of those is destined to give way to an indoor complex at some future date. Century Theatres has only the South Bay 6 in Torrance. And, most beloved among drive-in fanatics, Edwards said he expected to keep open the Azusa Drive-in “for a good many years yet.”
Across the Ventura County line, a phone message promises the independently owned Simi will reopen for the summer. So will Pacific’s three-screen 101 Drive-in in Ventura, the only one of three area drive-ins the chain closed “for the season” last Labor Day that actually will live to see another. The other two--the Los Altos in Long Beach and the Van Nuys--got lost in a permanent winter and are being shopped by Pacific’s real estate division.
“I’m surprised about the number of drive-ins Pacific has closed over the past year,” says aficionado Sam Graham, who runs an Internet site (www.driveintheatre.com) that offers the Web’s most up-to-date state-by-state list of both open drive-ins and “graveyards.” “For a while, they seemed to be one of the last chains still standing behind drive-ins. I guess they’re handing the business over to the mom-and-pop operations, which are largely thriving these days.”
The chains that are trading their remaining passion pits for hardtops feel they can’t afford to be too sentimental. Wood even got his start at Pacific running a drive-in, but says the current developments represent “just another era passing.”
Nancy Klasky, vice president of marketing at the San Francisco-based Century chain, says, “There is a very definite segment of the population that loves to go to drive-ins, and the Stadium was very well-loved.” For the eight-plex’s closing night, it advertised a lineup of the same films the drive-in had opened with more than 20 years prior--partially to pay proper homage to its passing, partly to publicize the complex that’s going to replace it. “We’re respectful to the patrons . . . but also respectful to the needs and desires of the community and [the city of Orange’s] redevelopment agency,” she says.
“But we are still dedicated to having drive-ins as part of our theater mix,” says Klasky--though, since most of the 14 ozoners Century still operates are in the Bay and San Jose areas, that’s of little comfort to local aficionados.
In L.A., there may be one real hope for a lonely survivor. And it’s right on Route 66, albeit a pretty out-of-the-way stretch for most Angelenos.
“I think our Azusa Drive-in will stay open for a good many years yet,” said Edwards of his company’s one remaining holding in the east San Gabriel Valley, a classic single-screen behemoth facing an optimistically oversize lot. “It’s not on the same high level of attendance that it used to be, but the drive-in still has a place with a lot of families. And the fact that there are fewer gives a greater opportunity for survival for those that are left.”
Plus, of course, it makes a hell of a swap meet.
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