One of the pleasures of getting older is coming to the realization, however gradually, that being uncool is okay, that there are many worse things that could happen to a person than getting in touch with one’s inner geek, whatever that geekdom might revolve around. Of course, like anything, one really should have enough perspective to realize when one’s enthusiasm is crossing over into obnoxious behavior, and that not everyone, if pressed, is going to share that enthusiasm. Fortunately, this summer I’ve become a geek all over again in my enthusiasm for drive-in movies, and luckily, I happen to be surrounded by a bunch of very sympathetic friends, family and coworkers who all have their own personal histories with drive-ins on which to draw. They have been very receptive to, if not jumping whole-hog onto the drive-in bandwagon along with me, then at least coming along for some terrific nights of socializing and movies under the stars, even as the summer nights turn to the chillier desert nights of autumn. What’s gratifying is the level of enthusiasm that I have encountered among almost everyone I’ve talked to since becoming a member of the Southern California Drive-In Movie Society. There’s so much more interest in the experience of seeing movies at drive-ins than any of us expected to discover, including the owners and managers of these heavenly centers of cinema—almost everyone I’ve spoken to has expressed fond memories and a love of attending “ozoners,” and almost no awareness that, far from being dead, there is a very small, but thriving and (here’s the wonderful part) growing community of drive-in moviegoers whose entertainment budget is built around regular weekend visits to one of the four terrific drive-ins in the immediate Los Angeles area. And as the word spreads, it’s exciting to think about the possibility of that business increasing to levels significant enough that other drive-ins will begin to see the financial wisdom, as well as the treasure trove of public relations windfall, to be gained by following the trail being blazed by De Anza Corporation at the Mission Tiki Drive-In in Montclair.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 2005: MISSION (TIKI) ACCOMPLISHED
I NEED A TRIPOD: If my hand were steadier, everything would be clearer-- but at least you can see the moon above the Mission Tiki
About a month ago I put the word out at my office that I was intending to assemble a convoy of cars for a big night at the Mission Tiki Drive-in. The e-mails I got back expressing interest were a lot more plentiful than expected, and also a lot more excited about the idea than I thought would be the case. Unfortunately, a lot of people had to bail out when they looked on their calendars and realized that they already had others things (parties, art gallery openings, vacations) planned that would take up the night I had announced. So I promised that we would reschedule another trip for October, and the five of us who could make it would hightail it out to the MI on Saturday night, September 17, in the hopes that everyone would have such a good time that they would themselves want to return for the October event and talk up the Mission Tiki in between now and then. I found out too that it’s a lot easier to get five people to agree on a double feature than to convince 15 or more to see the same movie, the idea being that if we all stuck together, there’d be more of a block party, or at least family barbecue kind of atmosphere with everyone pulling out chairs, hanging out on tailgates and chatting, all the while enjoying the show. When Saturday night came, Paul, Andrew, Liz and myself headed down the 210 toward a little bit of Technalight paradise, and Michael drove up from Long Beach, where he was attending an art gallery opening (See? I wasn’t kidding).
I contacted the Mission Tiki’s ever-gracious manager, Jeff Thurman, and asked if, since it was getting darker earlier and I was bringing out a group of friends, it would be possible if we could come in a half-hour or so earlier than when the box office officially opened. Jeff had no problem with that. We all arrived just after 6:00, proceeded through the back gates and set up camp in front of our screen, which was showing The 40-Year-Old Virgin and The Skeleton Key-- two good movies, as it turned out, that were the perfect combination of raunchy laughs and atmospheric, cheap thrills for our group. We then met up with Jeff, who brought us all up to the projection booth to show off his Technalight beauties and give us a little glimpse into his routine as he prepared for a Saturday night crowd. All of us were, to a man (and woman), impressed with Jeff’s knowledge, his experience in the business, his friendliness and his generosity, and as we headed away from the booth—we probably yakked with him for a good half hour—everyone was feeling pretty special already, and the movies hadn’t even started. They would very quickly, though, so we hit the snack bar, fast and hard, in an attempt to make it back to our cars without missing too much of the movie. Liz, in particular, was a little stressed about missing the beginning of the movie, but I think she (and we all, to be honest) felt a little better about it once we decided to sit through the second intermission and watch as much of the second screening of The 40-Year-Old Virgin (late night start time: 11:45pm) as we’d missed the first time around. The group’s positive reaction to the Mission Tiki went even further when they saw the immaculate snack bar. We ordered a ton of food amongst us, and I don’t think any one of us spent much more than $5.00—for the princely sum of $3.75, I got a hot dog and the best double cheeseburger I’ve ever tasted at a drive-in-- $3.75! And without the specter of food poisoning rattling its chains in the back of your mind all night after you’ve finished off the chow! There are plenty of multiplexes where you’d be lucky to be able to park your car for $3.75, let alone make a serious run through a snack bar. And $3.75 would buy you just over a third of an admission price to most AMC and Mann Theatres in my neighborhood if you like to go to the movies at night. Is it any wonder that drive-ins are becoming the number-one movie entertainment option for many families? Then add to that the fact that the projection at the Mission Tiki is about as bright as what you’d see at any of these indoor theaters, and the bargain ($5.00 a person at the box office for a double feature!) becomes flatly undeniable.
From left: Liz, Michael, Andrew and Paul-- that's me behind the camera-- lounging amidst the firmament at the Mission Tiki
We popped the hatch on my minivan, dragged out the camp chairs and settled in for a grand time soaking up a terrific double feature under a full moon. The 40-Year-Old Virgin was hilarious—perfect, raunchy drive-in fare—and I think we were all surprised at how good The Skeleton Key turned out to be—its mixture of familiar thrills, creepy atmosphere and sharp pacing did the trick for each of us, and the occasional glimpse of Kate Hudson in black panties made 4/5 of our group even more glad we’d chosen to see it. When it came time to pack up, Paul, Michael and I were lucky enough to bump into Jeff one last time before leaving and thank him again for a wonderful night at the movies. And as we drove away, Paul and I didn’t even notice until we were on the streets cruising back toward the 10 Freeway that we could still hear the dialogue from The 40-Year-Old Virgin fighting a losing battle to ambient static as we moved further and further away from the movie’s low-wattage, FM-transmitted sound source. The soundtrack crackled and buzzed and finally gave way to the hiss and growl of several faraway signals crowding the same frequency, and Paul and I talked all the way home about what a fine night of entertainment it was. It surprised me to realize how happy I was to hear Paul say that he was looking forward to coming back in October.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 24: VINELAND FINELAND
The latest meeting of the Southern California Drive-In Movie Society convened a week later, Saturday, September 24, at the only operating drive-in left in Los Angeles County, the Vineland Drive-in, on Vineland Avenue off Valley Boulevard in the City of Industry. I missed the group’s dinner meeting thanks to hellacious traffic on the 210 going through Sierra Madre, so I proceeded right to the theater, where I was first in line at the box office gates at about 5:50 p.m. I climbed out of the van and walked around, took a few shots of the lot and screens, and then headed back to keep an eye out for others who I knew were coming that night. But before I caught up with the faces with which I was familiar, I got a little taste of the fact that the Southern California Drive-In Movie Society has become, in its own small way, somewhat of a known entity in the local drive-in world at large. A man who I observed shooting videotape of the grounds while waiting for the gates to open made his way over to my car and struck up a conversation.His name was Rick, and it turned out that he was a drive-in fan with knowledge of theaters, open and closed, all up and down the West Coast (and probably beyond). And literally the first thing he asked me was, “Are you a member of that Southern California Drive-In Movie Society?” (Holy schnieke, what did people starting groups like these ever do before the advent of that godsend, the Internet? Thank you, Al Gore!) Rick told me he’d been bringing his family to the Vineland for years and years, and though he knew about the Rubidoux Drive-in in Riverside, he was unaware of the Mission Tiki. But was he ever excited to find out about it! We talked for 15 minutes or so until the crew cleaning up after the swap meet finally started to get a handle on all the swirling trash on the lot and it began to look like the gates would finally swing wide and let us in. By the end of the evening, Rick and several others had become members of SoCalDIMS, and Rick was already making plans to head out to the Mission Tiki to check out Technalight. Wow, I hadn’t even gotten onto the property yet, and I’d already gotten to yak it up with a fellow drive-in fanatic. The evening was beginning to look a little brighter, and the ghastly experience of the traffic I endured to get out to the Vineland was becoming a fading memory. In addition to looking forward to hooking up with the core of SoCalDIMS again, I’d also invited some more friends out to experience the joys of outdoor cinema with me, and just after I got parked on the lot for screen #4, I saw them driving in. Paul was back, in the company of fellow buddies Steve and Michelle, and two other compadres, Kimberly and Fiontann, would arrive shortly after. They parked next to my van and started setting up the chairs while I headed in to meet up with the group and start putting up the SoCalDIMS posters I’d designed in strategic spots around the snack bar.
Our meeting nights are always fun, not only because we get to meet up with each other again and share each other’s enthusiasm for drive-ins, but because nowadays there are events to discuss and ideas to bandy about in preparation for things we want to do as a group to promote this marginalized but still vital aspect of American pop culture. And perhaps most exciting for me is simply standing next to one of the snack bar tables we commandeer as our center of operations, handing out sign-up sheets for the club, passing out some of Kathy’s terrific photo postcards of drive-ins she’s visited, drive-in-related articles from this blog and copies of the group’s mission statement, and most important of all, connecting with the many, many folks who wander into the snack bar looking for a popcorn and a Coke and end up talking to us at great length about what we’re trying to do and about their enduring love for their drive-in. This night was no different, and like the Van Buren and the Mission Tiki, this snack bar was processing people all the way through each feature. It’s nice to see that people frequent these refreshment counters as faithfully as they do, because that’s where the drive-ins are making almost all of their money—most of the admissions go toward the rental fees of the features themselves, and it’s not unless a movie hangs on for several weeks that the studios’ percentages of the take decrease and begin to favor the exhibitor. The Vineland’s snack bar is, fortunately, plenty vast, with tables and chairs on the inside, and while its food is not quite up to Mission Tiki standard (which is itself eclipsed by the spectacular carne asada grill at the Van Buren), they still pop a fine corn and pour a frosty carbonated beverage with the best of them, and really, that’s all a snack bar need do to be a welcome pit stop at any drive-in.
The Vineland is currently celebrating its 50th year of continuous operation, and many drive-in lovers, who watched location after location disappear from the Pacific Theaters advertisements in local newspapers like the Los Angeles Times during the ‘80s and early ‘90s, have assumed for a long time that the Vineland was the only game in town. Thanks in part to the efforts of the Southern California Drive-In Movie Society, it can now be said that that perception is beginning to change. But it is no one’s intention to take any of the spotlight away from the Vineland and its ability to survive the grimmest period in the history of the American drive-in movie theater, and emerge into the 21st century still doing the kind of sell-out business that it does 52 weeks out of the year. And after our group night at this vintage Los Angeles outdoor theater, it’s clear that one of the main reasons the Vineland continues to thrive is Pacific Theaters’ ace in the hole, manager Juan Gonzalez. Within seconds of meeting this man, his love of the drive-in business becomes clear, and he never wavered in expressing his appreciation of the efforts of SoCalDIMS to keep the flickering flame of drive-in love burning amidst some pretty breezy conditions nationwide. His enthusiasm after so many years in the business, and undoubtedly so many years of worrying when the bottom was going to fall out from underneath his baby like it had for so many other drive-in managers, was frankly awesome to behold. And, last but certainly not least, he couldn’t be a nicer, more affable fellow. He was very proud to show off the platter system in his sparkling projection booth, which is capable of running one print of a film on multiple screens—Juan could show Flightplan on all four lots if the situation ever called for it (I doubt if he, or anyone, would ever really want to, but that’s another story).Chris and the core membership of SoCalDIMS have always been pretty up front with Juan, however, about our main ulterior motive as regards the Vineland, and that is our mounting an effort to convince his bosses at Pacific Theaters of the wisdom of investing a relatively small amount of money to equip his four projectors with Technalight, the brilliant illumination system that has literally, over the course of one summer, changed the fortunes of the Mission Tiki and is about to do the same for the Van Buren. Juan himself is so excited about Technalight that he accompanied SoCalDIMS member Sal Gomez on a field trip to see Jeff Thurman’s Technalight fleet in operation at the Mission Tiki earlier that week. Jeff, of course, gave him the four-star tour and was very excited to be able to talk shop with another manager/projectionist, expressing just how important Technalight has become to the De Anza line of drive-in theaters in California and other states. If the Southern California Drive-In Movie Society could choose one concrete accomplishment to be able to brag about in the coming year, I’d have to think that playing a role in making Juan’s Technalight wishes come true would have to be tops on the list. And if Pacific Theaters could somehow be convinced, through the letters from our group and anyone else who has a stake in seeing the Vineland endure and improve and carve out another 50 years of unique movie experiences in Los Angeles County, that their business would see an increase comparable to that which Jeff and the Mission Tiki have enjoyed this year, I can’t imagine that there would be much hesitation at all to bring Technalight into Juan Gonzalez’s world, and to the faithful families and couples and groups of friends who pack the Vineland every week. (If you want to become a member of the Southern California Drive-In Movie Society, or if you’d like more information on how to get in touch with Pacific Theaters and let your voice be heard regarding the Vineland and Technalight, contact Society founder Chris Utley at email@example.com.)
From left-- Steve, Paul, Michelle, Kimberly and Fiontann enjoying an outdoor Exorcism at the Vineland (that's me behind the camera)
Even after all this activity, I was still able to join all my pals as we lined up the chairs behind our two vans and settled in for another great drive-in double feature—horror and action this time around, courtesy of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Transporter 2. It was quite a bit chillier this time around, so much so that even I, renowned among our group for being able to endure the nippy air at the Mission Tiki the previous weekend clad only in shorts and a T-shirt, had to break out the blankets halfway through the first feature. Not that The Exorcism of Emily Rose contributed any of the chills, however. It’s a watchable, rather literal-minded thriller that tries to split the difference between courtroom drama and grotesque horror, effectively diluting both approaches in the process. Seen at the drive-in, a place where snarky remarks and inappropriate laughter are less likely to bother fellow filmgoers, it went down just fine, but I could imagine that seeing it indoors might be just a little on the dull side. Dull is the last word I’d use to describe Transporter 2, which is just about as outlandish an action picture to have come down the pike in a long while. I enjoyed that outlandishness well enough, but I still couldn’t help feeling slightly let-down, my expectations having been raised so high by the marvelously exciting Jet Li thriller Unleashed, director Louis Letterier’s previous 2005 release. And to be honest, as well-made as Transporter 2 is, it’s somewhat less grounded in physical reality than was The Transporter (co-directed by Letterier and martial arts choreographer Cory Yuen), and therefore far less urgent and truly exciting. And perhaps most importantly, for me anyway, the filmmakers have traded away the lovely screen presence of Hong Kong starlet Shu Qi (So Close, Millennium Mambo), who spent a good portion of the original film in the trunk of transporter Jason Statham’s Audi, for a villainous, skanky-looking, 20-pounds-too-skinny runway model-type brandishing raccoon eye makeup and matching automatic machine guns. Again, good drive-in fare to be consumed amongst friends, but nowhere near as emotionally ambitious and technically skillful as Unleashed. And to top things off, we, of SoCalDIMS, did get a very nice couple of treats courtesy of Juan Gonzalez at intermission—first, an radio announcement of our presence in the snack bar along with an invitation to stop by and get more information about what we were going to be up to in October and beyond, and a very heartfelt expression of appreciation, for all four lots to hear, for our efforts on behalf of the Vineland and all the drive-ins of Southern California. And as if that weren’t enough, Juan laid some Pacific Theaters passes on us, for which I’m sure we can all find some very good use—who’s up for a return trip to the Vineland?
So what is on the drive-in schedule for the month of October? Well, my beautiful little girls have been bugging me for a month now, ever since our successful Sky High/Herbie: Fully Loaded double feature at the Mission Tiki, about when we’re gonna get to go back. Answer? This coming Saturday night! The classic car club Great Autos of Yesteryear will be gathering their collection of fine automobiles on one screen, and they’ve procured a brand-new, pristine Technicolor print (one of only two in existence, according to Jeff) of the 1966 20th-Century Fox feature Batman, the big-screen companion to the hit TV show to be shown off in all the incomparable fashion and splendor that Technalight can splash onto the screen. In fact, Fox is so protective of the print that they’re insisting Jeff sit at the side of the projector and baby-sit the film for its entire running time, lest the unthinkable happen…
Unfortunately, as much as I’d love to see the cheesy splendor of Adam West and Burt Ward crawling up the sides of buildings and being attacked by rubber sharks, as well as the entire back catalog of Batman villains, it’s an event for car club members only, and, unfortunately, it’s been a long time since I fired up the sewing machine in the butt-end of my old ’68 Volkswagen Beetle. So instead, the Mrs. and I will be enjoying Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were-rabbit with the girls amidst the luxury of throw pillows and blankets out the popped back end of our minivan. And since the show starts at 7:30 and the co-feature is the persistently unappealing Just Like Heaven starring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo, we’ll be able to head home at the relatively decent hour of 9:06 p.m., according to the schedule on the Mission Tiki web site. The first dance my wife and I danced together after we got married was to “Just Like Heaven” by the Cure, but even I’m not sentimental enough to think that that means I have to sit through that movie…
As for that projected get-together of coworkers for our second assault on Jeff and the Mission Tiki, it’s scheduled for Saturday, October 22. I’ll be sending out the e-mail for convoy recruits tomorrow in the hopes of not getting sabotaged by everyone’s social calendars this time around. But I’ll guarantee that, no matter how many end up coming, they’re very likely to have a great time. Just ask Paul!
And that’s not all, folks! The next meeting of the Southern California Drive-In Movie Society at the Mission Tiki has been on the books for Halloween weekend, Saturday, October 29, but recent developments have cast that date in doubt. Look for an update on this page when the date has been firmed up. But SoCalDIMS meeting or no, my best friend Bruce, another long-time drive-in enthusiast, as well as a fellow enthusiastic pursuer of his inner geek, will be in town for an increasingly rare visit, and it just wouldn’t be right, after all this hype, not to treat him to a night at the Mission Tiki. So we’ll be there one way or another. If you see us on that night, or on October 22, say hi. You’ll know us— we’ll be the ones sporting the mile-wide grins, giddy at the prospect of yet another night wrapped up in the firmament off-screen and on at the Mission Tiki.
To paraphrase something James Garner once said (and I heard him say it at the ozoner of my youth, the Circle JM), support your local drive-in!