Let's All Go to the Drive Ins! The Santee & South Bay Outdoor Theaters

Thanks to our year-round mild weather, San Diego is one of the few cities in the U.S. with not just one but TWO drive-in theaters still in operation; the South Bay DI and the Santee DI.

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THE SOUTH BAY Drive-In has been screening movies since 1958 at 2170 Coronado Avenue. One mile north of the border and with space for up to 1500 cars, it was built over former farm land on a triangular 13.2-acre site bordered on the north and east by Interstate 5.

Originally called the Bayview and sporting a single screen, in 1961 the theater installed a “real midget auto ride” in its playground.

The South Bay is operated by the Oldknow family, whose history in film exhibition dates back to 1909. When San Diego's third drive-in the Rancho, at the corner of Euclid and Federal, opened on January 28, 1948, it was the first business venture of William Oldknow, who went on to run theaters across the country (his family still runs Atlanta's Starlight Drive-In, and others).

William Oldknow's grandfather had opened the third-ever U.S. movie theater. William began as an usher at L.A.'s Beverly Theatre, later becoming a doorman at the nearby Westlake before changing courses to attend Harvard Military Academy and do a tour of duty as a Navy ensign.

"When I got out of the Navy in 1946, I got into the business, too," he told the San Diego Union in October 1978. "Euclid and Federal at that time was in county territory, and one of the reasons I built [the Rancho Drive-In] there was because the city had an amusement tax on theater tickets of, I think, five percent. We didn't want to charge that. Later, the tax was repealed, so we petitioned for annexation to the city in order to get city water. Our water came from a well, and it tasted awful."

After building the Rancho, Oldknow partnered with Sero Amusements, which owned the land the Frontier Drive-In (near the Sports Arena) would be built on. Before long, Sero hired Oldknow as company president. "As Sero went through some restructuring, and as various partners were bought out in the '50s, he came to own the company," says William's daughter Teri Oldknow, operations manager for De Anza Land & Leisure Corporation (as Sero came to be known after 1968).

From the late '50s onward, Oldknow oversaw other local Sero properties like the Frontier and Midway Drive-Ins, as well as the Del Mar, Big Sky, and South Bay Drive-Ins. Sero also held leases on area outdoor screens like the Aero Drive-In in El Cajon, plus Oldknow was running ozones in Pomona, Riverside, Ontario, L.A., Beaumont, Salt Lake City, and Tucson.

In the mid-'70s, the South Bay added two more screens, both a bit smaller than the original but well landscaped into the background hills. The main screen had a black border painted around it, about three feet on all sides, so its actual picture size was about the same as the two newer screens. The entrance was restructured to include three individual ticket booths, separated on each side by paved lanes so that a total of five lanes led into the various screen lots.

Most of the speaker poles were phased out for AM sound in 1972, and then FM beginning in the early '80s (movies are currently broadcast in stereo, via FM only). The snack bar has been renovated a few times, most recently sporting a nautical theme, with the entire concession building painted blue and white and designed to resemble a ship, portholes and all. A mast rises from the center of the building.

Image Local legend has it that actor Matthew Modine used to work at the South Bay. "Actually, that was his father, Mark Modine, who worked for us," laughs De Anza operations manager Teri Oldknow. "That was in the '70s, and they had, like, eight kids who all grew up at the drive-in. His sister still works there to this day."

Image When I mention to Oldknow my recollection of how run-down this drive-in got in the early '80s -- with frequent gang activity, drug trade, and other scary goings-on -- she says, "I know it was bad. There were plans to sell around that time. I wasn't with the company then, but the attitude was kind of like 'We'll just let it go long enough to get a good offer and then sell it.' I started here in 1996, and that was one of my big pushes, to revive places like that and make them better than ever."

"If you manage a drive-in properly, you keep it fun, keep it clean, keep it safe, there'll be so much business you'll have to turn customers away."

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Reader reader Tony D. Metal emailed me to say “The South Bay Drive-In was always a trip. The back rows were reserved for the lowriders. Somewhat intimidating, they did draw attention. However, everyone got along. The whites and Hispanics showed mutual respect, and we were on their turf, but the drive-in was for all to enjoy. No racial barriers. We all got along very well.”

De Anza also runs the six-screen Redwood in Salt Lake City, the four-screen Mission in Pomona, the four-screen De Anza in Tucson, and the three-screen Van Buren and three-screen Rubidoux in Riverside, California.

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The De Anza company really goes all out for the Starlight Drive-In near Atlanta. This well-advertised ozone regularly hosts pop-culture conventions and car shows on its lot during the day, and frequent "Drive-In Madness" theme-athons (often with live band performances) run all night long.

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"We had [exploitation filmmaker] Dave Friedman there last year for Blood Feast," Oldknow says. "His offices used to be across the street from ours in L.A., and we'd share the same screening room. We can get away with that at the Starlight because it's an industrial area with no neighbors but a cemetery and a landfill."

"We can't do adventurous stuff like that at the South Bay because we're surrounded by residential properties. Neighborhood people are going to complain no matter what you do, so we're reluctant to have that kind of programming there. I'd like to, though, maybe timed around the Comic-Con."

Image The South Bay has done events such as all-night Monsteramas, "Bloodsucker Film Festivals" with back-to-back vampire films, an "All-Beatles" program, and even occasional daytime concerts, though this sort of cult-inclined programming faded out by the late '70s.

Image A swap meet has run on the lot since April 1977, operated by the drive-in's owners rather than being leased out as at other area ozones. It appears to have been the area's fourth drive-in swap meet (Midway began leasing to Monte Kobey's swap meet the previous summer, the Valley Drive-In held an Oceanside flea market as far back as 1971, while the Aero was holding "swap fairs" in 1960).

"That's why the South Bay survived," says Oldknow. "There was that early recognition of how to turn daytime use into profits on the property. There's no overhead for a swap meet, whereas we're paying 50 percent of our box office take to the studio for movies. Swap meets were the only thing enabling most drive-ins to survive the '80s. We're charging money for parking spaces and keeping all the proceeds...this was so profitable that it would be difficult for other businesses to compete for the property."

Image In 1986, the Swap Meet on the South Bay lot was the only area Meet to operate on Wednesdays. This created a big problem with the ozone's neighbors, who said the parking shortage resulted in vehicles overrunning the entire area, often blocking driveways or even parking on people's lawns. Swap Meet attendance was said to be from 3,500 to 5,800 patrons every Wednesday.

By mid-January 1987, things hadn’t improved. The City Planning Commission actually voted to suspend the Wednesday meets, but the City Council overturned the decision and offered De Anza one more chance. "If you don't clean up your act in three months, you're not going to get your permit," Mayor O'Connor quoted saying in the January 14 Union-Tribune.

Image Police Commander Jim Sing noted that ticketing on Wednesdays was three times higher than other days, and that some customers spent Tuesday night sleeping in their vehicles on the neighborhood streets. "I think they'll never be able to fix some of the problems," said Sing. “They [patrons] don't pay any attention to the traffic laws.”

Angry ozone neighbor Sue Martin dramatically told the City Council "I pray every Wednesday night and thank the Lord that I still have my child alive."

"We've taken a lot of steps to improve this," Stephen L. Pentoney, secretary-treasurer for De Anza Land and Leisure Corporation told the San Diego Union-Tribune. De Anza began offering lower admission prices to patrons who parked in the theater lot instead of outside on city streets. They also built a wall to keep patrons out of the Meet until 7 a.m., allowing the parking lot to open 45 minutes earlier and thus cutting down on parked cars backing up outside the facility at sunrise. Barricades were also erected, to detour traffic away from neighborhood streets, with six hired security guards to redirect traffic.

De Anza also got Swap Meet exhibitors and patrons to mount a write-in campaign to Save the Swap Meet. In addition, they distributed pamphlets called "It's Your Last Chance to Save the Swap Meet," with a list of "dos and donts" about parking and driving on neighborhood streets. These efforts resulted in De Anza's "conditional use permit" being extended to cover the Wednesday events.

Image (South Bay entrance 1999 - Drive-In Theatre Fan Club 1999 Yearbook)

By 1999, the South Bay’s swap meet had become a local institution, praised by all but a few occasionally unhappy neighbors. Oldknow estimates that the meet brought in around $1 million dollars annually, while the land beneath the theater lot was worth around $8 million.

The main screen number one at the South Bay blew down during the early 2003 winter storms and had to be replaced that spring, at a cost of around $60,000. In summer 2005, a new Technalight installation was done on the projectors for all three South Bay screens.

"That increased the picture brightness from five to nine times brighter," says Oldknow, "so it's as bright as any indoor screen now."

Open seven nights a week, 52 weeks a year, it may be the only drive-in in the U.S. to serve menudo.


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THE SANTEE Drive-In at 10990 North Woodside Avenue is still operated by the same family that built it in 1958, James and Patti Henry, along with sometime partner and builder Walter Long.

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In 1961, the Santee was only charging $1.50 per carload, boosting attendance through 1963. A playground with a merry-go-round, swingsets, and monkey bars used to sit in the grass area beneath the screen, until rising insurance rates forced owners to remove all the equipment. Lawnchairs lined up in front of the screen were also removed, possibly to discourage pedestrian gate crashers, but also eliminating the need to landscape that part of the lot quite so meticulously.

By 1973, fortunes had downturned and the theater was screening X-rated triple features. That year, a second screen was added; for a time, features like Last House on the Left and Ned Kelly would show on one screen, while porn unspooled on the other.

Image For a short time, there was even a drive-in church service on the lot every Sunday, while sex flicks screened at night, making for quite the eye-catching marquee.

Image A daytime swap meet has run on the lot since July 1982 (at the time, the Henrys formed a separate corporation to run this endeavor, but it's now owned by a separate unconnected party). Joe Crowder (who also owned drive-ins in Escondido and Oceanside that held swap meets) next ran the lot’s resale market. The swap meet's current operators feature monthly shows themed for ham-radio enthusiasts and sports-equipment traders.

In 1986, four large banks of high-intensity floodlights were installed at nearby Santana High School’s football stadium, to illuminate the playing field at night. This affected the clarity of movies projected on both Santee screens, resulting in the drive-in filing a $10,000 claim against the Grossmont Union High School District in early 1991. The field is around three-quarters of a mile from the drive-in, whose screens are visible from the stadium bleachers.

“The frequency of [outdoor field] use has increased dramatically in the last year,” said Santee lawyer James Sternberg. “At first, they used it just for football. Now, they're using it for all kinds of things.”

With two 1.85:1-ratio screens facing each other and room for 700 cars, it's open seven nights a week. Until fairly recently, there were still two rows of speakers on poles, and films were also broadcast in FM sound, though I understand the speakers have now been removed. The orange-painted bathrooms can be a little dicey, but their snack-bar food is surprisingly edible and affordable.

Santee employees say they still have to be vigilant about gate-crashers. "When we see them going over a fence, we wait until they get to a car and kick them all out," says assistant manager Matt Jarbo (who in 2005 was taking film classes at Grossmont College). "Nobody comes in the trunk anymore. From the ticket booth, I call in the license numbers of any cars with a single driver. We'll have a security guard walk past, see if the driver's the only one in there. If not, we walk up and talk to them."

"Sometimes they'll say, 'I lost my receipt, we came together' and get all belligerent. We just step away and say, 'You're trespassing, we can call the sheriff,' and they usually just leave."

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Santee co-owner Mike Long said "There's a big dent in the fence from somebody we kicked out. They came around the corner and just rammed the fence and left. They even tried to run me and [manager] Jeff [Messenger] over. We jumped up on the curb as they zoomed on past. I think they did more damage to their car than the fence."

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I recall arriving early at the Santee on April 20, 1999, I think for a showing of Jawbreaker. The staff was used to seeing me stake out a speaker pole near the front rows, where I'd sit with the convertible top down and usually work on whatever drawing or writing project had been due the previous weekend. On these occasions, I’d also get my dinner at the snack bar - $3 for a large popcorn, and $6.50 for an entire pizza.

On this visit, it was still daylight, and the speakers near the screen and alongside the snack bar broadcast a local oldies station.

Several other early arrivals were playing the music along in their cars, so the whole lot echoed and reverberated to the same sounds, coming from all directions at once, a multisourced auditory experience only attainable on certain drive-in lots, right about at twilight.

Suddenly, the music was interrupted by an all-too-detailed breaking news report on the Columbine school shootings.

I remember looking around and seeing everyone on their own individual little auto islands, everybody pale and still, nobody speaking or moving for what seemed like several moments. Then children started crying, a slowly rising cacophony as the stillness was broken and parents tried various ways to comfort their increasingly upset charges. I just happened to catch the eye of a guy in the car two spaces down from me, also attending alone; even as I saw his face was glistening with tears, I realized he was staring at my own wet face.

It was an extraordinary shared moment, just before crisis-management kicked in and everyone tried to pull themselves together a bit. That twilight, I overheard hushed bits of many sobering conversations, especially coming from cars containing young kids. Several vehicles just up and left after the news report.

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A more upbeat group experience occurred when Herbie: Fully Loaded was released in 2005. Bug owners swarmed the Santee lot in droves, beginning midafternoons and eventually covering nearly every square inch of drive-in pavement for two consecutive sold-out weekends. Transformed into a convention-hub for area Volkswagen fans of all ages, the Santee also brought in a replica Herbie car, which was popular for family photo ops (an enterprising photog was usually onsite with a Polaroid, charging $2 per pic).

(Most of the vintage local drive-in ads were provided courtesy of http://www.myspace.com/sandiegocinerama )


DRIVE-IN THEATERS – A SELECTED TIMELINE by JAS

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1932: Richard Milton Hollingshead Jr., a chemical engineer and oil and grease salesman, conducts his first experiments in outdoor viewing by nailing a bedsheet 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.

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By August, Hollingshead is ready to patent his idea (#1,909,537).

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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.

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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.

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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. Shankweiler’s is still open today, and is reportedly as well-attended and as popular as ever.

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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.

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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 ozones 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. The Supreme Court votes unanimously to prevent the monopoly of movie theater chains, whose price fixing and discrimination hurt independent theaters and drive-ins. This also results in a rise of independent film production, because producers can now deal directly with theaters without fear of reprisals from the big moviehouse chains.

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June 3, 1948: Former Navy pilot Edward Brown Jr. opens a Fly-In Drive-In Theatre, with room for 500 cars and 25 airplanes.

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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). Soon, there are also fly-in food drive-thrus.

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 showtimes.

Image 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 ozones “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 through 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 ozones 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 18 years, around 50 drive-in theaters have reopened and about 30 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, remodeled their four-screen Mission Drive-In in Pomona (now the Mission Tiki), which frequently hosts events by SoCal Dims, the Southern California Drive-In Movie Society.

“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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Famous Movie Poster Rejects You've Never Seen Part 1: Private collection of movie poster designs published exclusively on the Reader website for the first time ever: Batman, Witches of Eastwick, Supergirl

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Part 2: The Fly, Vamp, Fright Night, Howard the Duck, Stallone: Over the Top, Ladyhawk

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Part 3: Horror film Near Dark, horsey drama Phar Lap, the Robert DeNiro/Albert Brooks sleeper Midnight Run (still under its working title Running Scared when these two posters were mocked up), 3D cartoon Starchaser: The Legend of Orin, Airplane-style comedy Bad Medicine (with Steve Gutenberg and Julie Hagerty), and war story Hamburger Hill.

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Part 4: Collegiate comedy Campus Man, horror hits Wes Craven's Deadly Friend and Blood Diner, and rock and roll horror flop Trick or Treat, as well as Texas Godfather, Vanishing Act, China Girl, 8 Million Ways to Die, sci-fi biker flick City Limits, and war romance Purple Hearts.

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Part 5: Voyage of the Rock Aliens with Pia Zadora, the Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon/Pee Wee Herman surf comedy Back to the Beach, psycho-ex thriller Fatal Attraction, alleged comedy Planes Trains & Automobiles, James Woods in Cop, the Tom Cruise hit All the Right Moves, drive-in horror hit Deadly Blessing, the re-release of Roger Corman's original Little Shop of Horrors, import sex comedy Perfect Timing, historical drama Hanoi Hilton, Stallone sequel Rocky V (under its original title Final Bell), and Nothing But Trouble, back when it was still known as Welcome to Valkenvania.

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Part 6: Horror comedy Return of the Living Dead, Force III, Meatballs III, plainclothes cop thriller Off Limits (Willem Dafoe, Gregory Hines), sci-fi McDonald’s commercial Mac & Me, the Diane Lane potboiler Lady Beware, UK comedy Mr. Love, Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, Walter Bannert’s German-language Austrian film the Inheritors, the Dudley Moore/Eddie Murphy flop Best Defense, Richard Donner’s Inside Moves, William Peter Blatty’s Ninth Configuration, adventure flick Tai-Pan, German musical the Frog Prince with Helen Hunt, and the Rosary Murders.

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