Way back in the fall of 2001, Blaaagh and I set out on a modest three-day road trip on which we hoped to take in two or three drive-in movies. We set off up the 101 and stopped in Santa Maria, thinking that we might check out the Hi-Way Drive-in. But since the double feature was one of K-PAX and Driving in Cars with Boys, we decided it would be better to keep moving on up the road, get a motel in San Luis Obispo and take in whatever the offering was at the beautiful Sunset Drive-in, where we’d once seen an extra special double feature of the Sylvester Stallone disaster movie Daylight and the Pierce Brosnan volcano epic Dante’s Peak. Well, imagine our horror when we drove into town and took a gander at the marquee for the Sunset: K-PAX plus second big co-hit Driving in Cars with Boys! Providence was with us though, as it started to rain like hell, and there wasn’t a motel to be had in town, owing to it being Homecoming Night at Cal State SLO. So instead of soaking through that wretched twosome, we spent most of the evening driving up the 101 looking for a place to rest our weary heads. The next night we made it up to San Jose to the Capitol Drive-in and actually got to see a double feature—the only one we would on this aborted drive-in tour-- Shallow Hal and the execrable remake of 13 Ghosts. Ever since that fun but largely foiled attempt to make a drive-in run up the coast, we’ve talked about mounting another such trip.
And since this has turned out to be the summer of the resurgence of the drive-in into my consciousness and movie-going experience, maybe we’ll finally get there. Last Saturday night’s trip to the Mission Tiki for the first meeting of the Southern California Drive-In Movie Society was a big success. Founder Chris Utley has boundless enthusiasm for what he hopes to do with the group, in terms of organizing visits to the existing theaters in the greater Los Angeles area, San Diego, Barstow and even Las Vegas, but also in terms of the awareness he hopes to raise about the quality of the drive-ins we do have and just how much fun the drive-in movie experience can be. We met fellow club member Kathy Byers, a drive-in enthusiast with a camera and a photo album chock full of wonderful shots of drive-ins (dead and alive) from across the country—she also handed out DVDs of terrific video pieces she shot and edited on the now-closed Azusa Foothill Drive-in in Azusa and the Skyline Drive-in in Barstow (this one seems to have a spectacular setting, up on a plateau with the bright lights of Barstow twinkling behind the screen in the distance—Thanks a bunch, Kathy!)
It was also nice to meet member Sal, who shared memories of drive-ins of his youth like the El Monte in East L.A., and Linea, a member of the Los Angeles Conservancy, who was there to check out the drive-in, and the club, in the hopes of raising awareness of the plight, and the renaissance, of the drive-in within that historical preservation organization. And the whole group was treated to a tour of the projection booth courtesy of Mission Tiki manager Jeff Thurman, who couldn’t have be nicer, more patient or knowledgeable (he’s been in the drive-in business since the ‘60s) or accommodating to a bunch of drive-in movie nuts, who just happen to find the establishment he runs out there in Montclair to be a little bit of movie paradise. Jeff also told us that since the DeAnza Company (which owns the Mission Tiki, the Van Buren and the Rubidoux, as well as a multi-screener in San Diego and others) invested in the Technalight projection system and other upgrades to the lot and snack bar, business has doubled-to-tripled since last summer. Great news, indeed! There were also a couple of new members signed up at the tables we set up in the Mission Tiki snack bar, so hopefully those folks will be able to join us for the next meeting, this one at the Van Buren Drive-in in Riverside, California, on August 29. You can contact Chris Utley for more information at: email@example.com.
We even saw a good movie that night-- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory far exceeded my expectations, and the girls and I were having a great time sitting in the back of our van, pillows and blankets spread as far as the eye could see (or at least as far as the butt could sit), enjoying the show. Little Nonie, age 3, was particularly enthralled, and kept shouting, every time Johnny Depp flashed that dentured, disdainful grin, “Willy Wonka’s happy! Willy Wonka’s happy!” Wonka probably would have hated her, but she loved him! It was only when we got to the chocolaty fate of Augustus Gloop that things started going south. Emma, 5, found the sight of a pudgy Aryan youth drowning in melted chocky just a bit unsettling. By the time we hit Violet Beauregard’s blueberry bloat and Veruca Salt being attacked by squirrels and shoveled down a candy-colored garbage disposal, the jig was up. Nonie looked a little confused as we packed up during one of the dazzling Oompa-Loompa production numbers—she knew damn well the movie wasn’t over, but she accepted that, for some reason, we had to leave, and she was very good-natured about the whole thing (a lot more so than I was, selfish dad that I am.) Emma fell asleep less than a mile away from the screen that was reflecting those sugary nightmares, and as we drove home to Glendale I promised Nonie I’d take her to see it again in an indoor movie theater, news which she greeted with one of her inimitable mile-wide smiles. (We’re off to an 11:00 a.m. show Friday morning!)
One last drive-in note: In the afterglow of Saturday night’s meeting, I signed onto a Yahoo! drive-in movie discussion group populated by lots of enthusiastic “ozoners” from around the country, including Chris and Kathy, and one poster who goes by the on-line moniker MannyMoNHak. This MannyMoNHak turns out to be a feature writer for Entertainment Weekly who has been attempting to mount a story about the small-scale renaissance of the drive-in across America, and apparently he/she has had some success. He/she reports on Yahoo! today that the story will appear as a sidebar inside a larger article in the upcoming issue of the magazine (available this coming Friday) relating to the Great Movie Attendance Slump of 2005, or Why People Aren’t Going to Movie Theaters Anymore, or something like that. And according to information posted this morning by MannyMoNHak, one of the drive-ins that garnered specific mention is, indeed, the Mission Tiki. Congratulations to Jeff, owner Ralph Nardoni and the regular patrons of the Mission Tiki, who already know what hopefully a whole lot more people will soon find out, thanks to the Entertainment Weekly exposure—that the drive-in can be a great experience for family and friends alike; that the drive-in, far from being dead, is actually seeing a kind of resurgence, almost to the point that the novelty of the experience is comparable, for this generation, to what it was when drive-ins were introduced and became so popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s; and that the Mission Tiki is one of the great ones, in its own way, and in no small part, responsible for what will hopefully become a growing movement to bring back the drive-in in an even bigger fashion than before.