Friday, November 18, 2005

DOOM, DEVILS AND OTHER DRIVE-IN DELIGHTS: A SECOND SEASON AT THE MISSION TIKI



Even though I’m approaching my 18th year as a citizen of Los Angeles, California, I’m still an Oregonian by birth and by temperament. I still wear my Oregon Ducks gear proudly (though I have found that they do much better on the football field if I remain ignorant of the standings and don’t follow the games too closely), and I still believe, even after having finally seen the Grand Canyon, the Hawaiian Islands, New York City from the top of the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center, and London after midnight, that the 300-mile stretch of highway between Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River, and Brookings, a few miles north of the California border, runs along perhaps the most beautiful place in the world-- the Oregon Coast. There’s never a doubt, whenever my thoughts turn to my home state, where I feel like I really belong, where I still call home in the deep recesses of my heart.

That said, there is something to be said for this Southern California lifestyle, and for me it can be summed up by one statement, after 18 years-- drive-in movie season lasts all year round! ( I recognize the previous statement as ridiculously reductive and not even close to being absolutely true, but I’ve retained it because hyperbole is like Brylcreem-- a little dab’ll do ya—Ed.) Being an Oregonian, I’ve got plenty of memories of sitting through movies while the summer rain came down, both in sprinkles and showers. And when I moved to Eugene to go to school, I discovered that the drive-in season ran a little bit longer even than the short summer season (late May to early September) I was used to at the Circle JM Drive-in in my hometown of Lakeview. A strange fact, that, considering the amount of rainfall that Eugene typically registered in a calendar year, but nonetheless, the five drive-ins that were in operation there in 1977 (the Motor Vue, the North End, the Eugene, the West 11th and the Cascade) ran either very extended seasons or, in the case of the Eugene, were year-round operations.

JANUARY 26, 1980: WATCHING IN A WINTER WONDERLAND

In fact, Blaaagh and I decided to endure a Dirty Harry triple feature at the Eugene Drive-in during a particularly cold snap in January of 1980—my recollection is that we were the only citizens who made that particular decision that particular night, but even if my memory is tricking me on this count, I’d still wager the lot’s car count was well under 10. We were in my 1968 VW Bug, which, as ‘60s-model Bugs tended to, had a heater that would operate only when the engine was running, and we realized it was not gonna be practical to idle that little sewing machine for approximately six hours. Our only option was to bring as many blankets and pillows as would fit in the car, because in order to keep the windshield from completely fogging up, we would have to keep the passenger windows cracked slightly, inviting all that biting Willamette Valley air inside.

Well, about 20 minutes into the first movie we decided that this was not an option for survival. Blaaagh, being much more experienced with big-city drive-ins than I (he being from Portland and all), noticed that at the base of the speaker pole was an electrical outlet, which meant that the possibility existed the drive-in might have a heater for rent which we could plug into the pole and set inside the car, rendering ourselves relatively toasty. One inquiry to the very underpopulated snack bar later, Blaaagh came back to the car holding a very rickety, very UL-reject-looking contraption that bore more resemblance to a spelunking tool, or perhaps the very first Easy-Bake Oven of the Industrial Revolution, than a device to deliver salvation from creeping hypothermia to our various extremities. But hum with electricity and heat it did, and we made it through the rest of Dirty Harry in relative comfort, making sure not to bump our toes or ankles on its white-hot housing or let any stray hot dog wrappers or napkins come anywhere near its glowing, occasionally sparking, coils.

It was during the opening minutes of Magnum Force, if memory serves me, when the snow began to fall. It fell well past Magnum Force and into The Enforcer, by which time we were practically hoping to get snowed in, so the story would have a really great ending. But this was, remember, Eugene, renowned for its rain, but relatively unfamiliar with blizzards. The snowfall was never anything more than very light—there were no drifts in the drive-in lot when the projector went dark, just a very picturesque dusting which would probably last for only a few hours past daybreak. But when the white flakes began to stick on the windshield of my Bug during the second movie, all Blaaagh and I could do was laugh at our good fortune and take it as a sign that the memory of this night at the drive-in would be sealed for us forever as a great one. It was like the perfect capper, turning what was previously just a ridiculous whim—seeing a triple feature at a drive-in during an Oregon winter—into a ridiculously giddy stunt of almost no significance except to the lucky two who got to experience it together.

OCTOBER 22, 2005: DOOMED AT THE MISSION TIKI

Seeing a movie at a drive-in during a Southern California autumn and winter has a distinctly different appeal. Sure, for those whose blood runs a little thinner than what percolates through the average Oregonian’s bloodstream (and who would consider living through the aforementioned triple feature a sure symptom of madness), going outdoors for your October-November-December drive-in fix usually means just making sure to bring a big jacket or a blanket, whether you’re sitting indoors or spreading the chairs out in front of the car under the big night sky. But for many, it’s an opportunity to extend the joys and the sensibility of summer well past the official repeal of Daylight Savings Time, and even in October, unless it’s particularly cold, you’ll see lots of people at drive-ins in Southern California dressing accordingly—that is, in the shorts and T-shirts that are the preferred evening wear of the ozoner cognoscenti.

October 22 was the night I managed to coordinate the biggest turnout yet of friends and coworkers to descend on the Mission Tiki-- we got six cars and about 15 people out to see Doom and Serenity, on paper a pretty good drive-in double feature. Or so we thought. Whenever I get one of these drive-in caravans together, those who are going to come cast votes for what double feature sounds best—majority doesn’t necessarily rule, as anyone is perfectly free to see anything they want, of course, but the idea is to get as big a group as possible on one lot so as to maximize the opportunity for socializing before, during, and even after the program is concluded. My pal Steve cast his vote for Doom/Serenity right away, and some of those participating, including drive-in party veteran Paul, cast their votes early along with him. And for a while it looked like there was gonna be a pretty even split between those who wanted their drive-in gore and sci-fi and those who wanted to take advantage of a pretty felicitous pairing-- Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were-rabbit and Corpse Bride. My instinct was to go for the animation, but I was willing to be flexible. So was PSaga, who was the first one to say so in an e-mail to everyone. From there on, the previously militant Wallace & Gromit contingent decided to migrate, not without some pretty audible grumbling, over to screen #3 to see just what the Rock, playing the marine sergeant leader of a ragtag band of interstellar monster killers, was cookin’. (Just as a side note, Steve, who got the ball rolling on Doom to begin with, pulled an 11th-hour turnaround and decided not to attend, sealing his reputation as a villain with at least 50% of those who did show up.)

We all had a great time milling about the snack bar, telling stories of drive-in experiences past and marveling at the cleanliness of the whole drive-in and the cool tiki patterns on the snack bar walls that had recently been painted. Manager Jeff Thurman says those patterns are already due for an overhaul, and plans for a lighting and décor design to make the snack bar look more like the Tiki Room at Disneyland will soon be implemented. Jeff also took PSaga, Rachel, Kimberly and I up to the projection booth for a tour of the mighty Technalight-equipped marvels that shine so brightly from the center of the Mission Tiki’s lot. It was great to see everyone’s enthusiasm as Jeff regaled us with some of the technical details of 35mm film projection and demonstrated how the sound is transmitted from the projector to the low-wattage FM transmitters that send it out to your car radio. I always worry about taking too much advantage of Jeff’s hospitality when it comes to bringing people through for tours, but he never fails to make everyone feel welcome. The World Series was playing on a small TV in the corner of the room and, Houston Astros fan that he is, I’m pretty sure he would rather have listened to that while prepping the evening’s entertainment than talk to yet another group of wide-eyed drive-in fans. But he never made us feel like we were intruding on his time or attention, and he started the evening off on a very special note for Kimberly, Rachel and PSaga. Thanks again, Jeff!










Doom was, no great surprise, utter crap, and as such made for pretty good Mystery Science Theater-type fare for those of us who were willing and able (Fintan, miffed at being forced to sit through such unmitigated poo-poo, retreated inside his car and was followed by Rachel, who presumably spent most of the first feature with her neck craned back at screen #2, where Wallace & Gromit could be seen shining brightly in the night.) PSaga was waiting very audibly for costar Karl Urban to take his shirt off, a moment that, alas, never came. And Jonas took especially delighted note of the erect nipples visible through the sweaters of a couple of female bit players near the beginning of the movie. But he, and several of us boys, would end up frustrated by the refusal of icy token female cast member Rosamund Pike to doff her medical gear a la Sigourney Weaver in Alien. She did turn out, however, to be perhaps the worst, most unconvincing screamer in the history of horror/science fiction films, which endeared her to us almost as much as gratuitous full frontal nudity on her part would have. (Yeah, right—Ed.) The biggest audience reaction, however, came when the Rock burst through a none-too-sturdy papier-mâché wall and shouted, to no one in particular, “Semper Fi, motherfucker!” I’ll be darned if that wasn’t enough to send most of us, deadened by the repetitive, staccato editing and overripe acting by then, into a heady release of uncontrollable laughter, and I know I wasn’t the only one who spontaneously stood up out of my camping chair to salute. Serenity was far more involving, and as such there was a lot less yapping and horsing around while it unspooled. I got a bit of a scare midway through it, however, when the sound from the speakers in my car started popping with distortion. A little investigation revealed that one of our party, who had returned early to the car with some others rather than take the tour of the projection booth offered by manager Jeff Thurman, had inserted the keys in order to hear the movie, but had turned the ignition to the right, rather than setting it to the left in “accessory” mode. As a result, I ended up having to run my engine for the last half-hour or so of Serenity in order to ensure that we’d be able to pull out of the lot under our own power. But even though it was momentarily unnerving it was never much of a concern, as I always carry jumper cables and was surrounded by five other cars that were familiar to me. Just another drive-in adventure, and one that was far more exciting than anything in Doom, believe me.

OCTOBER 29, 2005: MISSION MURDERS AND TIKI TERROR FOR BLAAAGH ON HALLOWEEN WEEKEND

The following weekend Blaaagh was in town, and we’d planned from quite a while back to make the Mission Tiki the centerpiece of the Saturday night portion of his visit. The perfect icing on this particular piece of cake was delivered by Jeff the previous weekend, when he revealed to me that the MT would indeed be playing Saw II with extra special co-hit The Devil’s Rejects. Whoo-hoo! I’d had a chance this past summer to see this one in Portland but just didn’t feel up to it, and now what I would retroactively rationalize as my stalwart sense of delayed gratification would see a pay-off in the form of just about the perfect drive-in double feature for my buddy and me. We got out to the Mission Tiki early the evening of October 29 so we could roam around the perimeter of the lot and take some pictures of the new marquee, which was supposed to be completed by that weekend-- it was up and looking good, but still sans letters to spell out the names of the current attractions. We hooked up with Jeff early and found out that he was experiencing some pretty severe staff problems—three snack bar employees were out due to a death in the family, and one of the cashiers at the box office had fallen ill. Yet to our eye he was handling the difficult situation with relative calm and ease, and he still made time to show Blaaagh around the projection booth. While they talked upstairs, I made my way down to the snack bar to meet up with a guest I had invited on behalf of the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society. I didn’t have to wait long before I saw popular local radio talk show host Larry Mantle, along with his wife and their four-year-old son, come through the main snack bar entrance. Larry and his wife were, as expected, extremely friendly and very excited to be at the Mission Tiki, and even though they got caught in a pretty heavy crush at the snack bar caused by the sudden depletion of the staff, they remained good-humored and we whiled away the time waiting for hot dogs waxing enthusiastic about what was going on here and at the other drive-ins in the area. Only Larry's son was distraught-- it turned out that he was worried that, by being stranded in the snack bar, he would end up missing the beginning of Wallace & Gromit and his chance to take Jeff's projection booth tour. Three hot dogs and as many minutes later, we were all headed upstairs to Jeff's booth. The movie had, indeed, started, but we had forgotten that, in addition to the trailers, there was an 11-minute animated short starring the Madagascar penguins attached to the Wallace & Gromit feature-- the perfect time-stretcher that would allow the Mantles their glimpse into the Mission Tiki's control center. They were fascinated by what Jeff had to show them, none more so than Larry's son, whom Jeff scooped up, brought to the projector and held up so he could see the beam of light shooting through the window and extending all the way out to the screen where his movie would be playing.

Patty and Paloma take a break from the snack bar crush on Halloween weekend at the Mission Tiki...






while Adrian makes sure everybody gets their dog and corn while they're still hot...






With minutes to spare before the Madagascar short concluded, we hustled the Mantles downstairs and toward their car, said good-bye and made plans to keep in further contact. Jeff, Blaaagh and I hung out at the bottom of the stairs and talked for a few more minutes, at which point Blaaagh and I made our way toward screen #3, where Saw II had already been underway for about ten minutes. Since I'd seen the movie just a few days before, I brought my pal up-to-date on the action thus far and we settled in for a horror double bill the likes of which we hadn't seen together, especially at a drive-in, since around 1987, when we saw Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part Two at one of our favorite old haunts, the now-vaporized Winnetka Six Drive-in in the north part of the San Fernando Valley. At the end of Saw II we decided that we'd stay and see what we missed the first time when the movie repeated at around 11:00 p.m. and headed back for a little men's room-type relief. And on the way through the snack bar I ran into Frank Huttinger, film buyer for the De Anza Corporation, whom I'd met and talked with extensively at the Van Buren Drive-in in July. Frank, Blaaagh and I grabbed a chair at one of the tables there in the lobby and spent the first 15 or 20 minutes of The Devil's Rejects talking abut the great plans in store for the Mission Tiki in the coming months, which was enough to get me really excited, and enough to get Blaaagh thinking about buying a plane ticket for a return visit sometime in May. Frank is a very friendly guy, very enthusiastic about the Mission Tiki and all the De Anza drive-ins, and I think he's also really appreciative of the efforts, even as a fledging organization, of the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society to stir up interest not just in his drive-ins, but in rekindling the whole experience of going to the drive-in and keeping it top-of-the-mind for parents, kids and couples as a great first-choice entertainment option. Of course, the effort and dollars De Anza itself is putting into these lots to make going to the drive-in special again is the main force that has turned their business around, and it's exciting to imagine even greater heights of success might be in store for the drive-ins, and for SoCal DIMS, in the summer of 2006.

The Devil's Rejects was a reasonably clever, if relentlessly disgusting, homage to the kinds of '70s horror fare Blaaagh and I routinely saw in these venues when we were wet-behind-the-ears college kids. The list of the cameos-- P.J. Soles, Ken Foree, Geoffrey Lewis, Priscilla Barnes, Michael Berryman, Tom Towles, Deborah van Valkenburgh, Ginger Lynn Allen, Mary Woronov and Steve Railsback, among many others, would have been enough to keep us happy just playing Spot Our Favorite Genre Star. The whole premise of director Rob Zombie's gruesome comedy is built around a simple twist of perception-- a motley band of serial killers, led by William Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie (the director's wife) and Roger Corman stock player Sid Haig, reprising his role as the murderous Captain Spaulding from Zombie's previous House of 1000 Corpses, all on the run from an increasingly demented sheriff (William Forsythe, in prime sky's-the-limit mode), ultimately find themselves in much the same position as many of their own victims when the sheriff snaps and reveals himself to be perhaps even more deranged than his prey. The finale, with the killers making a slow-motion suicidal run at a heavily armed road blockade, all scored to Lynryd Skynrd's "Freebird," is as perversely funny and excessive as anything I've seen this year and puts a happy cap on a movie that contains more than its fair share of morally dubious shenanigans (God knows how much further the unrated cut, now out on DVD, goes, but I think perhaps the theatrical version will do just fine for me, in this case). And to put a hilarious cherry on top of the blood-soaked finish, as the credits started to roll, Jeff pops on the radio with a little raised-eyebrow editorial: "My, wasn't that tasty! And speaking of tasty, don't forget to make a last run at our delicious snack bar offerings, because the snack bar will close in approximately 20 minutes." If he didn't know it before (and I suspect he did), Blaaagh knew with that little audio flourish that Jeff's Mission Tiki Drive-in was indeed as good as I had been advertising here for months, the cream of the crop, ground zero for excellence in drive-in moviegoing in Southern California. And he knows, just like I do, that it's only gonna get better out there in Montclair as the days start to get longer...

END NOTES


* The Southern California Drive-in Movie Society will be out in force at the Mission Tiki this Saturday night to celebrate the release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire with Jeff and all our outdoor movie-loving friends, and there's three other screens with titles like Zathura, The Legend of Zorro, Chicken Little, Flightplan, Jarhead and Derailed. So even if Harry's not your thing, there oughta be something out there that is up your alley. If so, come on out and join us. Sal, Kathy, Lanna, Chris, Kyle and I will all be out manning the tables, accepting sign-ups for society memberships and e-mail listings, and just taking the opportunity to chat with everyone to whom drive-in movies still mean so much. If you haven't yet done so, come on out and see what Jeff's Technalight marvels can do with a movie like Harry Potter, the type of movie I once would never have considered seeing at a drive-in, but now would gladly check out at the Mission Tiki, because the presentation is just that good. Speaking of Technalight, the amazingly brilliant illumination system featured on all of the Mission Tiki's projectors is now installed on all three projectors at the Van Buren Cinema 3 Drive-in in Riverside. The movies, and the future, are indeed looking much brighter at the Van Buren these days! And there may be some good news to report about Technalight and another Southern California drive-in to report soon-- when it becomes a sure thing, I'll let you know.

* Finally, drive-in fans (fanatics) are known for their obsessive love, and if you're of a certain age you may remember this toy, which Blaaagh reminded me of in an e-mail earlier this week. He also directed me to this site where (for a fee, of course) you can watch the original TV commercial for this delightful little item-- and you can actually see what's on the bill at this link too! Well, of course, eBay has one that is up for bid right now, but I have a feeling it's gonna go for a touch more than a less-than-mint condition item like this really should. But if you're interested, it could make some drive-in nut that you love a lot very happy this Christmas.

That's all from the drive-in for now. I hope to see you this Saturday night and fill you in a little bit more about what the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society has cooking for 2006. Until then, Support Your Local Drive-in!

6 comments:

Rachel said...

Fun read, Dennis. Yep, I was one of those militant "Wallace & Gromit"/"Corpse Bride" people who did occasionally glance back longingly at the other screen with the cleverly animated creatures spouting witty dialogue. But no sense crying over spilled milk, right? However, I do feel the need to set the record straight on one point, which is that I actually gamely sat through the entire first feature and even a portion of the second feature before the frigid night air forced me to retreat to the (relatively warmer) backseat of Kim's automobile. The question, of course, is where was Steve King on that particular evening?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Rachel, sorry about the timeline blunder. (Is it time for me to hire a fact checker?) Glad you enjjoyed the evening and the revisiting of it. As for the Steve King question, I did call him out for initiating the movement toward Doom (something he's very familiar with doing in every day, I think!) and then skipping out on actually coming to the drive-in, but as far as the answer to your question, I think it has something to do with college football, a comfy couch and more nachos than any one man should ever consider eating at one sitting.

blaaagh said...

Wow, what a great time I had reading that! I particularly liked, among other favorite things, how you get to see a different Oregon coast photo for each highlighted word you click on in "The Most Beautiful Place in the World." The snowy "Dirty Harry" trilogy memory was vividly evoked--funny how well I can remember that cold night, now that you've jogged my memory--and where the hell did you find that photo of the heater?!!

The miracle of the Mission Tiki's rebirth is even more wonderful when I look at one of the sites commemorating all the old drive-ins, and see how many of them are dark or completely gone, especially in Oregon where there are practically none in existence anymore. I can only hope the trend catches on and spreads--but as it is, the drive-in resurgence in Southern California is something I never would've believed would happen.

Why do I look so grim in the photo of me? Maybe the prospect of watching "The Devil's Rejects" seemed like going off to execution at the time--or maybe it a lame attempt at looking like a white gangsta. Haha.

Jeff Thurman said...

Great Read Dennis! After seeing the photo of me though, I'm glad I've had Lasik. Now if I could only lose the weight.

Thom McGregor said...

This great post makes me very sad that I missed all those fun drive-in outings, even the Oregon snowstorm with Blaaagh, although many of the movies you mentioned look like stomach-turners to me, and I can't believe you put up that horrible picture from "Devil's Rejects" that scares me so much. And the Mission Tiki is the only drive-in I've ever attended that made me understand your love of seeing movies outdoors and eating in my car. And, Blaaah, I did think you were striking a tough guy white gangsta pose in that picture. So unlike you and so funny. Oh, and the Oregon coast is beautiful.

blaaagh said...

Hey Thom, just think: your halcyon drive-in days may be just beginning! And I appreciate your appreciation of my white gangsta mug shot, all tough n'shit. As you know, that's my true personality.