All but erased from the Southern California landscape decades ago, the drive-in theater is headed for an encore.
The Roadium Drive-In, which rose from an old cornfield in Paramount during an era when outdoor theaters stood tall, was known as the Paramount Drive-In when it faded to black in 1991. The property remained intact, however, and continued to be used for the outdoor swap meet that was launched in 1955.
Now, the son of the theater’s founder is planning to light up the screens again.
Independent movie house operator Glenn Bianchi hopes to have customers rolling into the refurbished Paramount Drive-In by early April to enjoy state-of-the-art digital projectors and an FM stereo radio sound system.
“People are surprised to hear I’m opening a drive-in theater,” said Bianchi, 64. “It takes them back in time.”
His guiding philosophy for bringing back the drive-in is probably not much different from what prompted his father to open the Roadium in 1947, when Rosecrans Avenue was still covered in farmland and dotted with dairies.
“People don’t want to stay at home on the couch all of the time,” Bianchi said. “They want to get out in the fresh air.”
Bianchi plans to spend $1 million to bring the old-school drive-in into the high-tech era. Along with two new 75-foot-wide screens, the 800-car theater will have an improved snack bar and walls that will block the ambient light from the neighborhood that now surrounds the property.
Bianchi, who will run the theater with his own son Beau, said he senses a fresh demand for family-oriented fare. The two already operate the 11-screen Bianchi Theatres on a corner of the drive-in’s 45-acre site, which is still used during daylight hours as a swap meet.
The only other drive-in still operating in Los Angeles and Orange counties is the Vineland in the city of Industry, according to an Auto Club survey. At one point there were 49 of them.
Experts say that the skyrocketing value of land contributed to the demise of Los Angeles-area drive-ins, with many being cleared away to make room for shopping centers and big-box stores. Others were simply converted to outdoor swap meets.
In the late 1950s, there were more than 4,700 drive-ins in the U.S. Now only 360 are left, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Assn.
“About 100 of those will not survive the switch over to digital,” predicted Glenn Bianchi. “They don’t want to make the $350,000 to $400,000 investment.”
Joseph Bianchi, the family patriarch who opened the original drive-in, came to Los Angeles after working as a chemist in New York City during World War II.
He wanted a “piece of Hollywood,” so he bought a cornfield that provided grain to the nearby dairies. Then he erected the drive-in.
Glenn Bianchi recalls that his dad put him to work in the snack bar, serving up popcorn, soda drinks and hot dogs when he was 15.
It was a fertile time for family films, with summer evening favorites such as “The Sound of Music,” “Planet of the Apes” and “Mary Poppins” drawing the crowds. By the time he graduated from Long Beach State, Bianchi was the manager, opening and closing each night.
But as the car culture that helped drive the business began to decline, and as television continued to improve, the outdoor theater became a relic. During the Paramount Drive-In’s final days, it was operated by Pacific Theatres and featured Spanish-language films.
“My dad was very worried about TV. It took 10 years for our household to see a color TV,” Bianchi said. “But people still like to get out of the house and take the family out.”
Paramount City Manager Linda Benedetti-Leal said she was glad to see the drive-in resurrected.
“We used to have two drive-ins,” she said. “They were fun and affordable for families.”
John Vincent, president of the Drive-In Theatre Owners Assn., said drive-ins may be making a wider comeback.
“We’re seeing one or two new builds a year,” said Vincent, who operates the 710-space Wellfleet Cinemas Drive-In in Cape Cod, Mass.
He said about half of this country’s remaining drive-ins have converted from film to digital and cited the new three-screen Coyote Drive-In in Fort Worth as evidence of a revival.
The grandson of the Roadium founder said he has his personal reasons for seeing the drive-in return.
“I don’t go to the movies as much as I did because I’ve got three kids,11, 9 and 5,” said Beau Bianchi, who at 37 was just a youngster himself when the original drive-in closed.
“As a parent, I’ll enjoy not having my kids being disruptive or talking and disturbing other theatergoers.”