It May Be Curtains for Old Drive-In
The gaudy neon-trimmed marquee of the Azusa Foothill Drive-In will continue to glow. But preservationists and Azusa Pacific University don’t agree on anything else about the last remaining drive-in movie theater on historic Route 66 west of Oklahoma.
The fate of the closed drive-in’s giant screen, remains of its concession stand and other artifacts is more uncertain than ever since the Azusa City Council last month approved the evangelical Christian university’s ambitious $550-million expansion plan.
The university has agreed to preserve the drive-in’s V-shaped marquee, now used for campus announcements in English and Spanish, but it has shown little willingness to preserve the other structures on the 17-acre property at 675 E. Foothill Blvd.
According to the university’s general counsel, Mark Dickerson, the school will spend up to $50,000 to restore the battered marquee. However, Dickerson said the university desperately needs the rest of the property for classrooms, dorms and other facilities to serve students.
But for Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy, the drive-in is an important landmark, with or without official status. The playground, sound system and other features are already gone, and Bernstein is passionate about saving what remains.
“We’re trying to reach a compromise that retains a semblance of the theater experience while allowing campus development to proceed,” Bernstein said.
Dating to 1961, the midcentury modern drive-in was the only single-screen outdoor theater in Los Angeles County when it closed in 2001. “There were once about 225 drive-ins around the state, and most of these have been demolished,” he said.
The battle over the drive-in began in earnest four years ago, when the conservancy nominated it for listing as a California historic resource shortly before the university bought it.
Once a magnet for families and privacy-hungry teens, the outdoor theater had been struggling to stay open by hosting swap meets as well as showing the occasional movie. Azusa Pacific officials had been eyeing the property, just west of one of its two campuses in the city, as an ideal site for expansion. The school bought the drive-in in 2001 from the Edwards theater chain for $6.1 million.
Founded in 1899 as the West Coast’s first Bible college, the school moved to Azusa in 1946, where it held classes and tent revivals. Dubbed Azusa Pacific University in 1981, it has grown to occupy more than 80 acres at two Azusa locations, called the east and west campuses.
A major private employer in town, the school has been adding new programs and its enrollment has doubled over the last decade, to 6,000 students, university officials said. With the motto “God First,” the university offers undergraduate courses in more than 50 disciplines, more than 20 master’s programs and doctorates in six fields, including ministry, leadership education and nursing.
In response to the conservancy’s nomination, the California Historical Resources Commission declared the drive-in eligible for inclusion on the State Register of Historical Resources in 2002, over the objections of the university and the city of Azusa.
Because its owner, the university, objected, the drive-in was not actually listed on the register. But the theater’s eligibility meant that the university had to seek alternative uses for it and take other pro-preservation steps before demolition.
In its heyday, the theater accommodated 1,600 cars. It was one of the last to retire the classic drive-in sound system -- the kind whose squawky speakers hooked over a car window and often went home with absent-minded customers.
Drive-ins are “quintessentially Southern Californian and the ultimate expression of our automobile culture,” Bernstein said. One of the last local examples of the drive-in as building type, the Azusa Foothill Drive-In is as significant, in its modest way, as the grand historic movie palace, he said.
But the university has never wavered in its contention that it needs to dismantle most of the drive-in, now used as a parking lot. Expansion would help accommodate 2,500 more students, school officials said.
The university has never pretended to love the drive-in. Dickerson described it as ugly. And in a petition the university filed this year in Los Angeles County Superior Court objecting to the theater’s register eligibility, attorneys for the campus wrote that the drive-in “is nothing more than a nostalgic icon of recent popular culture that lacks important historic or architectural significance
That petition, which is still pending, also argues that being forced to preserve the drive-in violates the rights of the university as a religious institution under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, or RLUIPA.
That act limits the ability of government to interfere with a person or religious organization’s use of its property for “religious expression.”
Often, the mere threat of a religious land use claim is enough to intimidate government bodies and keep them from bestowing landmark status on religious properties, enforcing zoning regulations or otherwise forcing compliance, said Elizabeth Merritt, associate counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
But the religious land use act , Merritt said, does not give religious organizations “a blank check” to ignore land-use regulations.
“It does not mean [that a regulatory body] can’t say no or has to do whatever they want,” she said.
Neither the university nor the city notified the conservancy that a vote on the university’s expansion plan was imminent, Bernstein said. Nevertheless, he said, “we would like to continue the discussions we thought we were having in good faith” with Azusa Pacific officials.
He said the conservancy had been meeting with Dickerson for more than a year, trying to hammer out a compromise to turn the marquee and the screen into “campus amenities.”
Dickerson said negotiations with the conservancy had stalled months before the Azusa City Council unanimously endorsed the campus expansion plan at its Sept. 19 meeting.
Working pro bono at the conservancy’s request, an architect has come up with ideas for reusing the marquee and the 120-by-50-foot screen as part of a new campus quadrangle, Bernstein said. The university could then use the screen to show outdoor films.
Dickerson said he had asked to see any further proposals the conservancy has on utilizing the screen on campus. He said he would take those suggestions to campus leaders and “go from there.”
Meanwhile, Mark Ades, an Azusa planning commissioner and a past leader of its cultural and historic preservation commission, is thrilled that the Azusa Foothill Drive-In’s marquee will continue to shine.
“It’s going to be restored to its neon splendor at its present location, along with a historic plaque describing the entire drive-in,” he said.
As to saving the rest of the theater, Ades said, “we lost that opportunity years ago, when it was sold.”