Drive-ins roared into L.A. County, but only one remains
In the annals of low crimes and misdemeanors, Guy Douthwaite may be the only person ever arrested on a charge of operating a loud drive-in movie theater.
The year was 1935 and Douthwaite was the owner of California’s first open-air cinema, which had sprouted in a former bean field the previous year at the corner of Pico and Westwood boulevards in what is now Rancho Park.
The concept was so new — the only other outdoor movie showplace was in Camden, N.J. — that the Pico location was called simply the “Drive-In Theatre.”
Some neighbors had unkinder names for it.
The problem was that, initially, the theater’s “sole audio system” was “a large speaker on top of the screen,” wrote Kerry Segrave, author of a history of drive-ins.
The Los Angeles City Council, citing noise complaints, passed an ordinance banning amplification systems that could be heard 50 feet or more from the property line.
Soon after, the cops got calls from four residents — one of them a doctor — claiming that the sound could be heard a mile away.
Douthwaite was arrested, found guilty and fined $250, a sentence that was suspended on condition that he not commit a similar offense within the next year.
He solved the problem by spreading out the sound via 460 smaller outdoor speakers, each arranged so “that the sound enters a car via the radiator,” wrote the Times’ Philip Scheuer. (It wasn’t until the 1940s that RCA invented in-car systems.)
The zealousness of the City Council and the police on this matter probably could be traced to the pressure they felt from the movie studios. The moguls feared that the independently owned drive-ins might take business from the indoor theater chains that the studios then owned.
Actually, entrepreneurs like Seth Perkins, who founded the San-Val, San Fernando Valley’s first drive-in, in 1938, said they were reaching out to the “non-theater-going public.”
They were targeting folks who perhaps disliked dressing up — “Leave Your Girdle at Home” was one ad slogan — or had physical problems, or didn’t want to leave the kids with baby-sitters or were smokers or drinkers or had “a fear of contagious diseases picked up in any sort of enclosed buildings,” Perkins said.
To allay fears about the gadgetry involved, the Vermont in Gardena and other drive-ins held open houses, at which customers were shown “how to drive in, pull up to a speaker, put it in the car and adjust the sound,” Segrave wrote.
California was blessed with mild weather, but the theaters were ready if rain threatened.
On drizzly evenings, some had workers wipe motorists’ windshields with a glycerin solution that they said would allow viewers to watch a film in the rain without activating the windshield wipers.
One theater applied “wet Bull Durham tobacco sacks” to the windshield, Segrave wrote.
Patrons could also buy the “Rain-A-Way” visor, which supposedly carried off the rain while keeping the windshield dry.
The outdoor theaters “reached the zenith of their popularity during the suburban boom of the 1950s,” Auto Club archivist Morgan Yates wrote in Westways magazine. “Piling the kids in the car made for a cheap family night out, and drive-ins were a favorite hangout for teens who’d recently gotten driver’s licenses.”
The activities of the teenagers prompted another nickname for the theaters — “passion pits.”
Workers, meanwhile, were learning to spot evidence of non-ticket-payers being smuggled in.
“One guy came in with four bags of potato chips, two six-packs of beer, two foot-long hot dogs and he’s by himself and his car’s just about scraping the bottom,” an operator told Segrave. “We let him see us, then we park next to him and wait for the pounding from the trunk. Eventually, those guys want out of there.”
Drive-ins became such a part of the culture that some had movie roles themselves.
In “White Heat” (1949), gangster Jimmy Cagney careens into the San-Val to evade the cops. In Peter Bogdanovich’s “Targets” (1968), a mass murderer goes on a rampage in the Reseda Drive-in. Bogdanovich later said the plot was his way of saying he disliked drive-in movies.
He was not alone. By the 1970s, the biz was in decline.
“The competing lures of shopping malls and television, and the increase in land values brought on by encroaching development, spelled the end for most outdoor theaters,” Yates wrote. The later arrival of DVDs and cable didn’t help.
The long-rumored technological breakthrough that the industry dreamed about — a screen that could allow movies to be shown in the daytime — never developed. Like Dracula, the drive-ins were consigned to the night.
The original Pico theater original moved west in the 1940s and became the Olympic Drive-In before closing in 1973.
A Landmark Theaters indoor complex now stands at the first location, the corner of Pico and Westwood.
A recent Auto Club survey found just 19 drive-ins showing movies in California on a regular basis, only one of them in Los Angeles County, the Vineland in City of Industry.
Many of the others have become the sites of swap meets. Perhaps in one of them you may even find a “Rain-A-Way” visor.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.