I moved to Southern California in March of 1987, and within approximately eight years I saw the drive-in movie theater all but disappear in the greater Los Angeles area. One after another they went down—the Studio in Culver City; the Centinela in Inglewood; the Van Nuys in (you guessed it) Van Nuys; the Sepulveda in Van Nuys; the Torrance in (yes) Torrance; the Winnetka 6; the Pickwick in Burbank; the Simi in Simi Valley; the 101 in Ventura; the Stadium in Orange; I attended them all with regularity in the waning days of my bachelorhood, and they all went dark in between 1987 and 1995. (According to Drive-ins.com, there may be as many as 70 or 80 others in the immediate area that closed before or around the same time that I never attended.) By the time my daughter was born in 2000, there were two drive-ins operating within driving distance (or so I thought) of Glendale—the Vineland in City of Industry, and the Foothill on Route 66 in Azusa. I took my wife and my then-three-month-old daughter to see Mission Impossible 2 at the single-screen Foothill, a pretty well-kept venue open only seasonally (from May to September or early October), and even shot videotape of the occasion in case drive-ins as a whole ceased to exist by the time she was old enough to watch the tape. When the Foothill closed its gates in September of 2000, that would be it—they would not reopen that following summer, and though I haven’t been out to the area lately, the word from the Pacific Theaters chain, which ran the Azusa through its final days, is that the lot was sold to nearby Azusa Pacific University to be used for campus parking or, perhaps, student housing.
Though I’ve been to drive-ins in San Luis Obispo (the wonderful Sunset Drive-in just south of town on the 101), San Jose (the Capitol) and Newberg, Oregon (the Super 99W) since 2000, I haven’t been back to enjoy an outdoor movie with my wife and daughter(s) because it’s just too far to drive to any of those locations and, although it’s celebrating it’s 50th year of operation this summer, the Vineland Drive-in was kinda shabby when I last went there around 1995, and I didn’t imagine things were likely to have gotten much better in the intervening years. But when my nephew arrived recently for a projected ton of movie-going fun, one of the things his mom insisted upon was that I take him to a drive-in movie. And since the only one I knew of that was still in operation anywhere nearby (at least according to the Los Angeles Times movie listings) was the Vineland, I started making tentative (and I do mean tentative) plans to revisit the theater. I looked up the site on Drive-ins.com to see if there were any comments from people who had recently attended, and though most of the comments were fairly enthusiastic, and tinged with just enough nostalgia to indicate the age of the commenter and the extent to which their drive-in experience and expertise reached, there were also enough comments regarding the condition of the lot and the inefficiency of the sound system to give me pause. It was then that I read a post from one Chris Utley, who began extolling the virtues of the Mission Tiki Drive-in in Montclair, California.
The first thing that grabbed me about information on the Mission Tiki were Utley’s comments regarding its projection system. He expressed hope that Pacific Theaters would keep the Vineland running strong for another 50 years, and that in order to ensure that success the chain should seriously consider investing in the Technalight projection system used at the nearby Mission Tiki drive-in. A little research revealed that Technalight is, according to the Robert Film Services website, which created the system, a combination of specially engineered lamps and reflectors designed to restore brilliance, resolution and clarity to the projected image, and that any lamphouse can be retro-fitted with the system without changing the projector’s existing main head. It’s used mainly in large-format theaters like IMAX and Omnimax, but enterprising drive-in theater owners and restorers are beginning to realize the excellent application of the Technalight system to their outdoor theaters. The system has been installed and operating at the Mission Tiki since the end of February of 2005, and manager Jeff Thurman and owner Ralph Nardoni have been getting rave reviews for its performance on drive-in web sites ever since.
Utley added that Thurman has been giving tours of the projection booth, showing off that new Technalight system.
Another drive-in fan, “Eric,” had this to say about the Mission Tiki: “Easily the cleanest and best maintained of all the Southern California drive-ins. The new projection technology really makes it hard to justify a trip to the local AMC or Edwards, especially at (admission prices) of five bucks for two movies! The tiki theme is coming together nicely. The toll booths are little grass shacks and the employees wear Hawaiian shirts. While the quality of the food was lackluster, like any movie theater, the prices are honest ($1.25 for a hot dog). It’s removed enough from the city to be its own little world, and the trains passing by add ambience. Sweet!”
And down below, at the very bottom of the page of comments for the Mission Tiki, was a very telling submission from Jamie Deiner and Misty Valenzuela who said: “(We) love working for the Mission Tiki Drive-in. It seems to be getting better all the time.” This place was beginning to sound too good to be true. A drive-in theater where the employees are going on-line to say how much they appreciate working there? Practically unheard-of!
I wasn’t even sure where Montclair was, but I was now convinced that scrapping plans to visit the Vineland and heading out to the Mission Tiki was an excellent idea. (And it just so happened that the double feature the nephew and I had planned on was also showing at the Mission Tiki!) So we drove 40 minutes from Glendale to the Indian Hill Road exit off the 10, made our way to Ramona Avenue, and spent the rest of the evening and well into the night soaking up the fun of the all-around best drive-in movie theater I’ve been to in years. The old Circle JM Drive-in of my youth in Oregon has a special place in my heart, but it was by no means a great drive-in (in fact, it was, by most indicators, a pretty typical drive-in, and fairly run-down in its waning years). And the Sunset in SLO and the 99W in Newberg are rich in atmosphere and history and ambience. But from the developing tiki theme to the immaculate snack bar and eating area (picnic tables outside, plastic tables inside), to the very helpful and friendly employees, one of which (Misty or Jamie, perhaps?) told me she loves coming out for a movie on her off nights, to the vast, well-kept lot filled with friendly filmgoers, to the believe-it-or-not brilliance of that much vaunted projection system, the Mission Tiki has simply raised the bar for what a drive-in can be. I even thought the snack bar food was far better than "Eric"'s description-- at $2 apiece, those were some pretty darn good cheeseburgers, folks. When was the last time you ever spotted a fresh tomato or pickle slice within the walls of a drive-in snack bar? And the popcorn was fresh and delicious too.
We visited with one family who had backed their SUV up into a spot and opened up the back, so everyone could sit out in the fresh air and enjoy the movie. The mother watched her two daughters playing in the front of the lot, directly under the screen, and told us that though it was fairly quiet that night (it was a Tuesday, and the lot ended up probably one-third full), on Friday and Saturdays, and sometimes even Thursdays, cars are backed up for a half a mile on Ramona Avenue trying to get in as soon as those grass-thatched box offices open, and those nights the lots usually resemble gigantic block parties for an hour and a half before the movie starts. It seems that, just like the Super 99W, the folks around the Montclair/Pomona area know that they have an increasingly rare privilege to attend a drive-in movie in a safe and friendly atmosphere, and they seem to be responding with the appropriate enthusiasm and appreciation.
For someone who thought until just last week that the drive-in movie experience was something that was going to have to be left for special occasions or very long drives, the revelation of the Mission Tiki Drive-in is particularly happy news. I can’t wait to get my daughters out there in their pajamas and show them a little bit of what my childhood was like. Hopefully it’ll become an important part of their childhood too. I was so enthusiastic about my experience there that I e-mailed Ralph Nardoni, the owner and designer of the drive-in’s restoration. He sent back a response that led me to his own Web site, which details his history in the drive-in theater business, as well as links to other drive-ins he’s restored. And darned if it doesn’t turn out that he’s got another one close by that he’s shepherded into the little drive-in renaissance he’s been mounting—the Rubidoux Drive-in in Riverside, California. There are plenty of photos on this page that suggest Nardoni may have another gem in his collection here, and I can’t wait to check it out in person.
For other drive-in enthusiasts who may be reading this, one way of doing just that might be to join Chris Utley for the inaugural meeting of the Southern California Drive-In Movie Society. Chris says the goal of the group this summer is to tour Southern California’s four remaining drive-in sites (the Mission Tiki, the Vineland, the Rubidoux, and the Van Buren Cinema 3 Drive-in, also in Riverside), getting tours of the operations and, I would imagine, preferred parking for the best spots on the lot, and celebrating the mini-rejuvenation of the drive-in movie experience that’s going on in Southern California, thanks to some committed drive-in owners and operators who seem to really understand the concept of maximizing the unique features and fun of outdoor cinema. I really appreciate being invited by Chris to attend that inaugural meeting at the Mission Tiki on Saturday, July 23. Unfortunately, that date coincides with another major cinema event of the summer, one for which I already have tickets—the kick-off to the Autry Museum’s tribute to Sergio Leone at the Alex Theater in Glendale, a one-night only screening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with a special appearance by Leone scholar Sir Christopher Frayling and a performance by Alessandro Alessandroni, who whistled the original musical theme for Ennio Morricone on the film’s soundtrack. So I hope Chris and company understand that I would love to be with them under the stars that night, but it won’t be possible. If joining the Southern California Drive-In Movie Society for their inaugural meeting sounds like something you’d like to do, you can contact Chris Utley directly at email@example.com for more information. (And when you do, tell him Dennis at sergioleoneifr.blogspot.com sent you.)
As a matter of fact, if there’s any of you who consider yourselves drive-in movie connoisseurs, or who maybe have never been to a drive-in and would love to go to a really good one, or who just haven’t been in years and would like to put together a little convoy to attend the next meeting of the SCDIMS, whenever that might be, I’d love to coordinate it. It could be a really fun evening out, and a chance to meet all kinds of new people who are afflicted with various strains of cinemania relating to watching movies under the stars like God intended. Let’s keep this string going—drop in and let me know if it’s something you’d be interested in, and I’ll contact Chris Utley and try to find out when that next meeting might be.
Fifteen years ago I would have never believed anyone could make this statement, but I’m really glad to be able to say, the drive-in’s alive in 2005! Hey! Ho! Let’s go!
There are lots of terrific places to go on the Internet to find out more about drive-ins, many of which are featured on the sidebar of this blog. But here's a link to a very good article by freelance writer Bill Thorness which invokes the necessarily sacred drive-in memories, but also a lot of stories about people who are doing great things with the exhibition format, giving encouragement to those who hope the mini-drive-in renaissance we're seeing now will continue to flourish and take root in the culture again.
UPDATE 7/23/2005: More encouraging news on the health of the drive-in, this one in Montana. News by way of Loxjet and the Billings Gazette.