No More Flicks on Route 66?


The 1958 sci-fi thriller "The Blob" ends with "The End" melting into an unsettling question mark. This sequence, projected through a steady drizzle onto the screen of Los Angeles County's last old-style single-screen drive-in, pretty much sums up the beleaguered theater's predicament.

The property is in a prolonged escrow with Azusa Pacific University, the private Christian school that flanks the 19-acre drive-in. The school has purchased the land for redevelopment as part of its campus. The latest date set for transfer of the property is April 2002, but since the Foothill operates seasonally, movie screenings are likely to end as summer does, if not sooner.

Still, Azusa Mayor Christina Madrid warns not to count out the 40-year-old drive-in just yet, not while it is still "gasping for life." Madrid is hoping that the support of the Los Angeles Conservancy, an architectural preservationist group recently drawn to the theater's defense, will lend some weight in the effort to preserve the drive-in, the only operating outdoor theater on historic Route 66 between here and Oklahoma.

Madrid believes that the Foothill could become a significant anchor of Route 66 tourism. If residents realize "how the El Capitan and Egyptian theaters [in Hollywood] were restored," she says, "they might understand that this doesn't have to happen here, that our theater really can be upgraded to become a real jewel and tourist destination."

Don Baldaseroni, 52, who has come to the special showing of "The Blob" from Burbank in a custom '55 Chevy, is ambivalent. As a teenager he spent "hundreds of nights" showing off his wheels at various open-air theaters. The outings continued after he married. "Every week, we'd pile the kids and blankets in the back of our '68 Volkswagen," he says. "This is a beautiful site, and it'd be worth preserving the history, but you really have to look at the dollars and cents of these things. It's not simple."

Near the concession stand is a huddle of second-generation drive-in aficionados and members of the Conservancy. Kathy Hummer believes there could still be local support for 11th-hour activism. "There's hardly any opportunity for community experience in Azusa," she says. "No bowling alley, no skating rink, no large park. This drive-in is the perfect place for that experience if people want it."

If the notion of movie-going as a communal activity seems odd, you may be a stranger to the drive-in experience, which at times resembles a collective tailgate party, complete with folding chairs and Frisbees. Up until the early '80s, many drive-ins, including the Foothill, had small playgrounds where restless kids had pajama parties. Older kids have their own traditions, says theater manager Leo Aceves. "Sneaking in, that's part of the whole teenage thing. If I catch them doing it more than once, I'll take action," he says, "but otherwise " He dismisses the issue with a good-natured wave. After all, Aceves' position is more custodial than entrepreneurial.

When it comes right down to it, drive-ins on their own almost universally operate in the red. With the Foothill, as with many others, weekly swap meets keep the operation afloat. Swap meet manager Jorge Magallanas says his Sunday meets bring in $7,000 in entrance fees alone, not counting booth rentals and concessions.

The nightly screenings are another story. Aceves says the 850-car lot is rarely filled to more than a 10th of its capacity in summer, and in winter he has screened films with just two vehicles in attendance. Besides the locals, however, Aceves says he gets a surprising number of vacationers retracing their roots. "I've had people from Canada come with their kids to show them where their parents met."

Aceves has worked at the theater for nine years, but Jay Swerdlow, executive vice president of Pacific Theaters (which owns the Foothill), has been in the business since the drive-in's heyday. When Swerdlow started in 1969, Pacific, which for a number of years was the world's largest drive-in company, owned roughly 100 open-air venues. By then, the theaters had switched from schlocky film fare to mainstream blockbusters. "The Exorcist" and "Jaws," Swerdlow says, drew huge and enthusiastic crowds. "Every time that shark ate somebody, we'd sell more pizza," he recalls.

While development of the site awaits the close of escrow--delayed while Pacific Theaters searches for another location for the swap meet--in addition to fund-raising, plans are to build student housing and various offices on the site, says Cliff Hamlow, vice president of university projects. "It's basically an island between two properties we already own. On the east we just completed our $13-million event center as well as an $8-million library." On the other side are athletic fields and parking lots.

Hamlow says the university has "agreed in writing to memorialize or build a replica of the Foothill's marquee." But Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Conservancy, finds that unsatisfactory. "Putting up plaques is an empty gesture compared with preservation and reuse." He hopes for a "win-win resolution" like that "worked out recently with Pacific Theaters over proposed alterations to Hollywood's historic Cinerama Dome."

Azusa Pacific's conservative orientation, Bernstein points out, could dovetail neatly into the drive-in's traditional role as a family-friendly form of theater. "I have two kids and think it would be great to be able to take them to a nicely restored drive-in showing family films."

However, most Azusa residents, Madrid says, are unaware of the debates and more generally indifferent to the significance of Route 66 and its landmarks.

"It doesn't mean it's not important; it means we are detached from our origins," she says. "In this country we're not as concerned with what's preceded us. We're living and changing at a faster pace--we're living in nanoseconds."

Of course, speed and leaving a troubled past in the rear-view mirror were always two of the essential kicks Route 66 promised. Staying true to that old-fashioned vision of forward thrust is a mission charged with contradictions, something as amorphous and troubling as any man-eating blob from outer space.

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