A Final Curtain Call for Studio Drive-In

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Pummeled by two growling construction vehicles, the towering Studio Drive-In movie screen, long unused, swayed once before pitching forward and crashing to earth Monday, a defunct Culver City landmark demolished to make room for homes, a park and a school.

Like many other Los Angeles-area drive-ins, the days when families watched Hollywood's latest hits from crowded station wagons are long gone at the Sepulveda Boulevard site, and some residents say the 50-year-old screen had become an eyesore.

Nonetheless, when the stately 80-by-100-foot relic collapsed loudly into a heap of steel Monday, onlookers expressed their nostalgia.

"It's been ratty a long time, but I hate to see it go because it's been here so long," said Martha Tolkien, who has lived nearby since 1945 and remembers when the drive-in site was a celery field. "It was just something to do if you had two kids and no baby-sitter."

"And then our kids went there themselves, and God knows what they did," said Woody Tolkien, her husband, who recalled evenings spent watching movies with friends who lived immediately adjacent to the drive-in, whose homes were equipped with speakers for listening to the movies.

The nine-acre drive-in, formerly operated by Pacific Theaters, has been empty since 1993, except for a ticket booth, concession stand and the movie screen, said Margaret Liu of the city's redevelopment agency.

But by year's end, the Lee Group developers will begin construction on a project that will include 57 single-family homes and a 10,000-square-foot park.

The former drive-in lot will also hold a 38,000-square-foot campus for the Educational Resource and Services Centers, a local school serving students with learning and developmental disabilities in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The Lee Group and the school shared the $7.3-million cost of buying the land from the city redevelopment agency.

Bill Reid, a 33-year resident who served on a residents committee that once examined possible uses for the property, walked over Monday to witness the drive-in's noisy curtain call.

"That's the way she goes," he said as the 50-ton structure buckled.

Reid said he was satisfied with the developers' plans, which he thought would have minimal impact on the surrounding community.

Others, such as artist James McDemas, wished the movie screen could have remained.

"I think there could have been a reuse for it, especially in Culver City, which is the 'Heart of Screenland,' " said McDemas, referring to the city's official nickname.

Culver City has no movie theaters, although plans for a downtown entertainment and retail center are moving through the city planning process.

There are fewer than a dozen drive-in screens still standing in Los Angeles County, according to officials at the Los Angeles Conservancy. Only four of those--in Azusa, Pico Rivera, La Puente and South Los Angeles--still show movies.

"It's a bittersweet day," said Julie Lugo Cerra, a lifelong Culver City resident who is the city's volunteer historian and served as a consultant to the new project's developers.

Cerra said she remembers childhood trips to the Studio Drive-In in her pajamas with her family, as well as going there on dates as a teenager.

"It's with great sadness that I see part of my youth go away," Cerra said as contractors' equipment tore at the fallen steel hulk. "But you can't mandate people to go into businesses that will fail."

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