Sunday, July 30, 2006

THE TIKI INVASION, HUELL HOWSER AND OTHER DRIVE-IN STORIES FROM THE 2006 SEASON


(Good old Blogger.com photo posting services being its cranky self, I was only able to get one photo up before the system crapped out on me-- same old story. More photos to break up the blather that follows as soon as I can get the damn things to post-- Dennis)

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything on the ongoing adventures of the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society, and one might suppose, because of the paucity of posts, that this summer has been no different than last summer, or that there’s nothing really interesting going on.

Well, I’d hate to give that impression.

The good folks of the Society (hereafter referred to as SoCalDIMS) have been busier than ever, due in no small part to the continued efforts of Juan Gonzalez, manager of the Vineland Drive-in, and Frank Huttinger, Teri Oldknow and Jeff Thurman of the De Anza Corporation, owners of the Mission Tiki, Rubidoux and Van Buren Drive-ins here in Southern California, to keep things really hopping this year. (Master projectionist Jeff Thurman has relocated to the Rubidoux Drive-in from the Mission Tiki, and although the Mission Tiki remains a spectacular venue, and getting better every time I go out there, Jeff’s presence, humor and expertise in the booth is already sorely missed. We’re coming out to the Rubidoux soon, Mr. T.! You can’t get rid of us that easily!)

My daughters and I made our first official 2006 trip to the Mission Tiki together in March, during a nice, fat thunderstorm, to see The Shaggy Dog. It was a lot of fun introducing them to the joys of inclement weather outdoor moviegoing. They looked pretty good in their footsie pajamas and hooded jackets padding across the parking to get a taste of that Mission Tiki popcorn. And for some reason, my youngest found it HILARIOUS every time I had to run the wipers—perhaps she had clear visions of Tim Allen literally being wiped off the screen, and that added to the on-screen comedy. But that trip was without Mom, and her absence was duly noted by my oldest daughter, who got a bit nervous in the great outdoors without her mom there to snuggle with.

So, when SoCalDIMS set up in the snack bar of the Vineland a few weeks later, Mom came along, this time for a double feature of Ice Age: The Meltdown and Eight Below. By this time the Vineland still had only one screen that was fully Technalight-functional, and unfortunately it wasn’t the one we were parked in front of. But just a quick glance over at Kate Beckinsale’s leather jumpsuit in Underworld: Evolution and it was clear as a bell that Technalight at the Vineland was just as magnificent as at the Tiki, the Van Buren or the Rubidoux.

In early April SoCalDIMS made our way back out to the Van Buren, where we talked to a very friendly crowd all night, sitting mere feet away from the best snack bar in all of Southern California drive-in-dom. Last summer, being in the snack bar at the Van Buren for three hours was a mixed blessing—we could smell the delicious carne asada grilling all night long, but in was 105 degrees outside, and probably a good 10 degrees hotter than that indoors. But in April, with clouds looming and rain still a possibility, the smells were all I was thinking about. Sal and I talked with an unusually high number of folks who had lots of good stories about favorite drive-ins long gone, and lots of questions about what was happening with the drive-in situation in 2006. We happily provided as much information as we could and got a lot of new sign-ups for our mailing list. (Are you on the list? If not and you want to be, e-mail us at socaldims@earthlink.net today!)

Manned with a spectacular carne asada plate, I made my way to my car just as the second feature, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party was beginning, around 10:00 p.m. I loved the movie and was wide awake and ready to go when Spike Lee’s Inside Man started just about 12:00 midnight. Inside Man was a lot of fun, but an old man like me, well, I started getting a little sleepy when I realized Inside Man ran a none-too-lean 129 minutes. The movie finished up at around 2:20 a.m., and then I realized, hey, I'm looking at a drive back from Riverside to Glendale, about 45 minutes to an hour. But what I’d completely forgotten about was that this very evening was the same evening that we were to turn our clocks ahead at 2:00 a.m. So now I’m leaving Riverside at 3:20 a.m., and I arrived home just about an hour later. By the time I got home, cleaned up and ready for bed, it was more like 5:00 a.m. And just two hours later, two little girls came calling, ready to start the day…

Back at the Mission Tiki in mid May, SoCalDIMS officially kicked off the summer season with a fun evening spent looking over the lot before show time with Frank Huttinger, who laid out some more of the design planned for the Tiki lots to prepare for their big summer push to celebrate the drive-in’s 50th anniversary in August. As usual, the Saturday night crowd at the Mission Tiki was extremely friendly and curious about what SoCalDIMS was all about, and we were more than glad to give up the info. Afterward, I headed out to take in Mission: Impossible 3, which didn’t do a lot to keep me riveted. That night was spent looking at the stars a lot and peeking at the other screens, wondering if I should have taken a chance on Silent Hill instead. (Here’s some silent video courtesy of Sal who decided the thing to do would be to follow me and his son through the snack bar line that night—again, this is more interesting than Mission: Impossible 3…)

Just two weeks later I corralled several buddies from the office and we caravanned out to the Mission Tiki for the opening Saturday night performance of Pixar’s Cars. If there was ever any doubt as to where the perfect place to see that movie was, Jeff and the Mission Tiki put them to rest that night with a brilliant technical presentation. We all enjoyed the movie in the excellent weather, parked in camp chairs or inside nicely padded minivans with the rear hatch popped open and facing the screen. An everyone who stayed through the end credits was rewarded with one of Pixar’s funniest ending tags yet—the characters from Cars attend the town’s rejuvenated drive-in movie theater to see all the previous Pixar hits recast with automotive versions of their favorite characters (a la Monster Trucks, Inc.). It was quite a thrill to see and hear the whole lot burst into cheers, applause and the dulcet tones of 200 honking horns when this sequence finished. Speaking of which, we were surrounded by the members of two classic car clubs who were invited to attend the screening, and being around such automotive fervor really added to the fun atmosphere of the night. What’s more, on screen #1, where the remake of The Omen was showing, there was another car club in attendance—the Hearse Collectors Club. All in all, it was an incredible quality night of fun—we got there two and a half hours before show time. It was exactly the kind of exciting experience, one filled with a sense of community and enthusiasm that I always remember from my formative drive-in days as a young moviegoer. And the Mission Tiki isn’t anywhere near through offering nights like this, believe me. Sadly, this night would turn out to be the last trip to the Tiki under Jeff Thurman’s watchful showman’s eye. (Take a look at the video I shot that night—Brian De Palma needn’t be looking over his shoulder or anything, but
at least you get the idea…)

We didn’t make it out to the Tiki, or any other drive-in again, until the end of the month. But when we did we had a couple of passengers in tow that had never been to a drive-in movie before, and I’ll be damned if I thought they’d ever agree to go. But when I told them that the featured attraction was going to be Superman Returns, that was good enough to convince them. My parents-in-law (ages 82 and 78) came out over the long Fourth of July weekend, and despite some initial trepidation—they were very tense at the prospect of the girls playing with some newfound friends under the screen, apparently convinced that they would be run over—they soon settled in and had a grand time. I pulled the back seat out of the van and set it up for the two of them so they’d have a VERY familiar seat in which to relax, and they did just that (Daddy opted for the camp chair after a while). And they were amused not only by the friendliness of the kids that began playing with my kids, but also by the fact that I seemed to be running into a lot of people out on the lot that I knew. We ended up parked behind SoCalDIMS member Warren Meyers and his wife, and Warren was decked out for the occasion. (See accompanying picture! Gaze at it! This was not staged! It was a real-life sighting!) The girls and I had seen the movie the day before, indoors—my oldest found it a bit too intense, especially when Lex Luthor brutalizes Superman two-thirds through. But my youngest (she’ll be four in August) was enthralled and couldn’t wait to see it again the next night. My oldest eventually decided she needed to be separated from the action for a while, so she and Mom got out and moseyed over to the snack bar, where they ended up sitting at some picnic tables and watching Cars again from afar, while my wife monitored Superman Returns to see when they could make a safe return to the van.

Last Sunday, SoCalDIMS had a little planning dinner at a keen Mexican restaurant near the Vineland, and then we headed over to the drive-in, where we were treated to a show by the Vineland’s ever accommodating manager Juan Gonzalez. It was a fun night out, and my first opportunity to see a Technalight-sparked film at the Vineland up close. Buddies Paul, Steve and I parked our chairs under the starlight for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and although I felt the movie went on a little too long, it was certainly genial enough and proved to be an excellent showcase for the newly brilliant image on display nightly at the Vineland. Juan will be undergoing fresh paint jobs on all four screens in the next week or so, which should do everything to increase the brightness of the already 100%-improved picture at Los Angeles County’s only operating drive-in. And you know what? Paul and I discovered that the Vineland’s hamburgers are pretty damn good. Now, if you’re thinking Double Double or an A&W Papa Burger, you’ll probably be disappointed. But for a simple burger that’s there to do two jobs—taste good and fill your aching belly—this burger is definitely on par with the fine sandwiches at the Mission Tiki. They look a little odd—the patties are kidney-shaped!—but they have a very moist, juicy consistency, not grilled to within an inch (or more likely, an eighth-of-an-inch) of their lives. Paul, in pre-selling me on the experience, claimed they tasted kind of like meatloaf, and he was right. If you’re not sold on this description, perhaps it’s just one of those items you have to try for yourself. This item alone will get me back in the snack bar line the next time I’m at the Vineland.

And then there was last night. Sal and I met Teri, Frank, Dave (the guy who is designing all the superb tiki decorations that are now on display at the Mission Tiki—with still more to come!) and new MT manager Todd out at the Tiki box offices, where we were joined by none other than KCET-TV’s own Huell Howser, producer and host of the very popular California's Gold series on KCET. Huell has made a very particular and popular art out of highlighting various wonderful, unusual, unheard-of aspects of California culture on his program, and thanks to Sal’s efforts, last night he and his cameraman (Cameron, perfectly enough) were there and shot an entire episode of California's Gold centering on the rejuvenated Mission Tiki and, yes, indeed, the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society. It was great watching Huell go all guerilla-camera-tactics on unsuspecting folks who were in their cars waiting for the box office to open. In person he’s exactly the way he presents himself on camera—genuinely interested, fascinated, inquisitive and uber-friendly—and it was marvelous to watch the way he got people to open up and gab with him on camera. (At one point, he ambushed a little girl waiting with an armload of goodies as she came out of the snack bar line and demanded to know what she’d chosen from the voluminous menu—she giggled and detailed every item.) He spent a lot of time talking to folks in line, outside and inside, visiting the projection booth and telling stories of drive-ins of his youth. When it came time for his dinner, he sat down with us at the SoCalDIMS table and sampled (nay, pounded down enthusiastically) the premium chili dog with utter delight. Then it came time for Sal and I to jump in the spotlight. Just before dusk, Huell and Cameron hustled us out to the lot on screen #3 and gave us our own little moment. And again, I feel it’s a tribute to Huell’s particular way of putting his subjects at ease, but I think both Sal and I comported ourselves rather well—pretty gregarious and well-spoken for a couple of drive-in geeks—and we breezed through our little segment, which Huell punctuated with continued praise when we finished (“You guys were greaaaaaat!”—Come on, you can hear him saying it, can’t you?)

The Mission Tiki/SoCalDIMS episode of California's Gold is set to air NEXT SUNDAY (talk about quick turnarounds!), August 6, exact time to be announced. The showing of the episode, however, is going to be tied into another fundraising effort that Huell will be doing with the Mission Tiki in September. During the pledge breaks when the show is airing, Huell will be selling $100-a-carload tickets for a night at the Mission Tiki, and Teri is programming great double features of classic drive-in fare for all four screens! (More information on the exact programming and the date of the show as it becomes available.) And Huell has invited Frank, Teri, Sal and I to KCET next Sunday night to take part in the pledge drive antics! I’ll definitely be keeping you all apprised of exactly when this show will air!

And, as they say in the show business, that’s not all, folks! De Anza is completing the tiki-zation of the Mission Tiki just in time for next weekend, when the official 50th anniversary celebration will get underway. It’s called the Tiki Invasion and it’s happening this coming Saturday, August 5. The gates will open up at 2:00 p.m., the earlier the better to gawk at all the great tiki-themed renovations De Anza has put into place. And there’s gonna be all manner of bands, booths, food, hot rod displays, several car clubs on hand, plus a great drive-in triple feature—Maria Montez and Jon Hall in the Technicolor camp classic Cobra Woman, the ‘70s William Castle thriller Bug, and Hard Ticket to Hawaii directed by B-movie godhead Andy Sedaris, who, it is rumored, may even be making a special appearance. Advance tickets are available right now and they’re going fast. If the response is as good as the folks at De Anza are expecting it will be, look for lots more of this kind of action at the Mission Tiki in the months and years to come—Teri has a boundless enthusiasm for this kind of event and exactly the right sensibility to pull it off. She’s one of the best friends this rejuvenated drive-in movement in Southern California has got, and next weekend you’ll see why.

Finally, regarding SoCalDIMS anyway, Sal (I’ve taken to calling him Mr. Tireless Footwork) has hooked us up with the good folks at 88Slide, a really keen one-minute Internet trivia program, and they’re going to be featuring the Vineland, the Mission Tiki and other drive-ins all this week on their Web site. 88slide's drive-in and Mission Tiki 50th anniversary programming begins Monday July 31, 2006 and continues till Friday August 4, 2006. Check this spot for the link every day, in case I don’t succeed in making it a point to remind you every day next week!

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There’s so much great stuff happening in the drive-in culture this summer, not only here in Southern California, but all over the country. Here’s a link to a story (complete with video) on the continuing good fortunes of the ‘49er Drive-In in Northwest Indiana, for example.

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Jay Allen Sanford published an excellent history of the drive-in in San Diego, California in a recent issue of the San Diego Reader. Jay informs us, though, that a crucial element of the story—a timeline of the history of the drive-in—was for some reason left off of the online version of the story, so in the interest of completism, here’s that timeline as offered to paper-and-ink readers of Mr. Sanford’s story (note the comments from De Anza’s own Teri Oldknow at the very end of the piece):

1932: Richard Milton Hollingshead Jr., a chemical engineer and oil and grease salesman, conducts his first experiments in outdoor viewing by nailing a bed sheet between two trees and putting a 1928 16mm movie projector on the hood of his car. He designs a ramp system to angle parked cars upward and tests the effects of rain on the windshield by using lawn sprinklers. By August, Hollingshead is ready to patent his idea (#1,909,537).

June 6, 1933: Hollingshead's first outdoor theater opens on Crescent Boulevard in Pennsauken Township, near Riverton and Camden, New Jersey. Admission is 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person. The venue is originally just called Drive-In Theatre, although the actual name is the Automobile Movie Theatre. The opening feature is Wife Beware, a second-run from the previous season. This begins a long-running feud between “ozones” (outdoor theaters, as dubbed by Variety magazine) and indoor theaters battling for first-run features. Hollingshead pays $400 for a four-day rental of Wives Beware when indoor exhibitors can get it for $20 a week! The first drive-in closes in 1936 and is moved by its new owner to Union, New Jersey.

April 15, 1934: Shankweiler's Auto Park theater in Orefield, Pennsylvania, opens. Like all other drive-ins, it must pay Hollingshead's Park-In Theatres for the rights to run an outdoor screen: a one-time fee of $1000 and 5 percent of the gross box office receipts.

1934: The Pico Drive-In opens at the corner of Pico and Westwood in Los Angeles, California's first and America's fourth outdoor theater.

May 6, 1936: The Weymouth Drive-In opens in Weymouth, Massachusetts, though owners Thomas DiMaura and James Guarino fail to obtain a license from Park-In. On July 3, Park-In files a lawsuit charging patent infringement, obtaining a writ entitling Hollingshead to place employees at the Weymouth to collect the entire box office proceeds for July 3, 4, and 5. Subsequent money is paid, and in a few months the Weymouth's owners reach a licensing agreement with Park-In.

1938: Hollingshead sells his patent to Willis W. Smith, who franchises it and requires drive-ins to pay royalties. However, Loew's Theaters (owned by MGM Pictures) convinces a Boston circuit court that a ramp built into the ground isn't an invention, it's landscaping, and Hollingshead's patent becomes unenforceable. With drive-ins now public domain, the industry undergoes a growth spurt.

June 1938: Just over a dozen ozoners are operating nationwide.

1941: RCA develops the in-car speaker, which by the mid-to-late '40s becomes commonplace.

1942: Around 100 drive-ins operate across 27 states.

1948: Around 820 drive-ins are in the U.S. and Canada, 44 of them in
California.

June 3, 1948: Former Navy pilot Edward Brown Jr. opens the first Fly-In Drive-In Theatre, with room for 500 cars and 25 airplanes. Located next to a New Jersey airport, the planes can taxi to the last two rows (though a jeep is needed to tow planes back to the airfield after showings).

1949: The Drive-In Movie Association lobbies against the Daylight Saving Time movement, claiming parents won't take their families out for showings starting as late as ten p.m. By 1964, DST would be in full swing across America, though West Coast ozones say they're hardest hit by the new late show times.

1950: At a time when around 3500 drive-ins operate in the U.S., in-car heaters are introduced, enabling year-round showings.

1954: Autoscope drive-ins feature a screen for each car.

1955: RCA sells a complete drive-in package (with its own financing), including a sound system, projection equipment, and lights to mark the parking-lot pathways.

1957: Concession stands generate important revenue, as do “free for children” admission policies (the latter heavily protested by the film industry, which feels this “cheapens” their prestigious product). Most drive-ins utilize fondly recalled intermission films featuring singing snacks, dancing hot dogs, and countdown clocks, popularized by filmmakers at the Filmack Company.

1958: The U.S. has approximately 4000 drive-in theaters, while Canada has around 40. Quebec has none because the province has banned them on the advice of the Catholic Church, which calls ozoners “pits of iniquity and sinful excess.”

1960: In Texas, a few drive-ins have horseback hitching-posts. The Theater Motel in Brattleboro, Vermont, rents rooms facing the screen and wired for sound.

1967: California has its all-time peak of around 223 operating drive-in theaters.

Late 60s - early 70s: Thanks to a series of lawsuits, the big film companies no longer hold a monopoly on distribution and drive-ins are able to get more first-run A-list features. Some ozoners show racier fare not suited for most suburban hardtop theaters, a few eventually going X-rated. A handful of drive-in owners take to making their own films geared specifically for outdoor screens, such as Bob Lippert Sr., who runs a chain of 23 drive-ins from Oregon to Hollywood (he once owned San Diego's Cinerama). Lippert produces nearly 200 movies for his chain, including Jungle Goddess, Treasure of Monte Cristo, Tales of Robin Hood, and Mask of the Dragon.

1973: AM radio transmission of movie sound becomes practical thanks to innovations by Cinema Radio, a company started by Fred J. Schwartz to combat poor drive-in audio. At the time, an estimated 97 percent of cars have AM radios.

1978 – 1988: Over 1000 outdoor screens close. Reasons include land value increases that make selling for redevelopment attractive financially, aging owners wishing to retire, decaying properties, the increasing popularity of malls and multiplexes, and the home-video explosion. Many drive-in lots become strip-malls containing, ironically enough, video stores.

1982: Around 2130 drive-ins still standing.

1987: Around 1000 drive-ins operating.

1990: Only about 900 drive-ins remain open.

December 1997: 815 outdoor screens remain.

1999: United Drive-In Theatre Owners association formed.

June 2005: 419 drive-ins operate nationwide.

Present: In the last 15 years, around 40 drive-in theaters have reopened and about two dozen new ones were built. At this writing, California has 21 drive-ins operating with a total of 50 screens. The owners of the South Bay Drive-In, De Anza, will have a 50th anniversary reopening ceremony August 5 for their four-screen Mission Drive-In in Pomona (now the Mission Tiki), with live bands, a hot rod show, vendor booths, and all-night cult movies. “The theater got very run-down, but I completely redesigned it and refurbished the marquee to reflect the same tiki theme as the old Del Mar Drive-In,” says Teri Oldknow. “I really loved that place. It totally inspired me to make over the one in Pomona, with the same great '50s patio-culture theme.”

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And here’s a word from Mark Bialek, proprietor of The Drive-in Exchange, Ltd> regarding a fun project that is still going on:

“Just thought I'd invite everyone to take part in the Drive-In Moonlite Movies 100 Greatest Drive-In Theatre Movies poll. The American Film Institute for the past few years has been conducting such polls of favorite 100 movies, so we have decided to conduct our own poll for the 100 Greatest Drive-In Theatre Movies. You don't have to belong to the AFI or be a member of any film organization to participate. We are opening this poll to everyone who loves drive-in theatres, and we are going to see what kind of results we get.

To take part in the poll you must register through our web site or at Drive-in Exchange.com.

Complete instructions can be found at either site. Participants must submit their 10 favorite movies, and we will tally the results.”

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And finally, for even more fun, I just got word of a CD that sounds like it might be right up the alley of just about any drive-in fan, but especially ones who treasure memories of rural ozoners from the ‘50s and ‘60s. It’s a storytelling CD by Donald Davis entitled The Big Screen Drive-in Theater. Davis tells Keilloresque stories of three summers he spent working at a drive-in in North Carolina and details a lot of the ins-and-outs of daily drive-in operation in an allegedly very entertaining manner. I think I’m gonna put this on my birthday list!

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Well, that’s all for now. I hope to see you all at the Mission Tiki next weekend for the big Tiki Invasion. In fact, consider this an invitation to all Los Angeles-area film bloggers, like Kim Morgan, Anne Thompson, Nilblogette, Alison Veneto, Tim Lucas, anyone at the IFC Blog who is in town, the cinetrix, and anyone else who I haven’t thought of or who I’m not aware is in town—- e-mail me and maybe we can get a blogging caravan out to the Mission Tiki sometime soon! I’d love to introduce you all to one of the great drive-ins, still in operation after 50 years—some of them greater than others, but none as great as the ones that are surely ahead for lovers of movies and the drive-in experience. Okay, I really mean it this time… see you in two weeks!

5 comments:

Sal said...

Wow Dennis, I'm exhausted just reading about we've been doing for the past 12 months. Could not have done any of this without all the help from my fellow SoCalDIMS members and the undying generosity of Jeff, Frank, Teri & Juan. A special shout out to Linnea Pierson for quietly listening to SoCalDIMS and it's members about how important the Vineland is to all drive-in movie lovers in southern California.

Brian said...

Great post! Between Cobra Woman, William Castle and the idea of crashing the SoCal drive-in community, I'm almost tempted to try to make the cross-state journey myself! Unfortunately it's too late for me to take off from work this weekend. (plus I just bought tickets to a midnight screening of Death Race 2000 at a theatre with a roof that night)

I haven't been to a drive-in since 1979 or thereabouts. It was Star Wars, as I recall my second viewing of the film. It's probably no surprise that the San Francisco Bay Area property values have squeeze drive-ins pretty much off the landscape. The closest one I'm aware of is outside Santa Cruz.

Tim Lucas said...

Sorry, Dennis, but I'm based in Cincinnati, not the West Coast!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Tim: Sorry! I just took a guess in the hopes that you could make it. But come on, what's a plane ticket from Cincinnati?! :)

Brian: I was hoping that you'd say you were coming! But Death Race 2000 on the big screen will be quite a treat, no doubt about that! The Mission Tiki is planning a big night in September as well, however, with classic sci-fi and other drive-in fare-- double features on all four screens-- so if you're interested, I'll keep you informed!

Sal: Let's take a breath now and I will congratulate you in particular for all your hard work and for finally seeing these projects-- Huell, 88Slide-- that you initiated and ran down and coordinated come to fruition! Long live the Southern California drive-in, eh?

Sal said...

I know Dennis. I tend to obsess over things once I get my claws into them. I sometimes forget other people have lives of their own. Again, I apologize for sucking you into my vortex. Take a breather buddy. You and Kathy have helped me a great deal as well as Lanna so let me say thank you all for the work we've done together. Just keep spreading the word, and I like the daily update about 88slide. Macho Nachos everyone!