The first drive-in theater I snuck into in San Diego was also the first one built here, the Midway, on the northwest corner of Mission Bay Drive and Sports Arena Boulevard. It was December 1979, and I was already camping out for concert tix in the nearby arena parking lot (Frank Zappa, well worth the cold 'n' cramps). Friends held our spots while three of us went down the road to attempt sneaking into the single-screen Midway to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with no plan as to what we'd do once inside (I guess we assumed we could sit near a speaker pole and not be noticed).
Dusty-yellow and surrounded by palm trees, the Midway's sloping hollow wall proved easy enough to scale, but it made the damnedest noise as we slid down the other side, and it was obvious that half the lot was staring at us. As soon as our feet hit the pavement, some guys rolled up in a beach-buggy-style cart and hauled us off the premises to the sound of paying patrons laughing as we were wheeled past their comfy, warm cars and dropped outside the exit gate. I vowed to return as soon as I owned a car, and before long I did have a vehicle (of sorts, an old Rambler) and I was frequenting every outdoor movie screen I could find within safe driving distance of downtown (about 45 miles, given my dicey wheels). I had become a so-called "ozoner."
The Midway Drive-In was constructed in late 1947 at the intersection of Midway Drive and Sports Arena Boulevard, back when the Boulevard was still Frontier Street and Navy barracks stood on acreage later occupied by a FedMart. The Midway Drive-In Theatre Corporation was incorporated July 31, 1946, with Floyd Bernard Jr. listed as company president. Soon, Joseph Shure and his Shure Theatres Inc. bought into the drive-in, eventually owning a majority share. Originally designed for 400 cars, there were also bleacher-style benches for up to 200 walk-ins. The first screen was a canvas-style flat that rolled open over a scaffolding tower, and there were no individual car speakers, only bullhorn-style broadcast speakers designed by RCA Victor, a system called "Directional Sound," where three loudspeakers were mounted near the screen. By late 1948, individual car speakers on poles protruded from cement islands sprinkling the lot. The snack bar sat a few feet below the rest of the graded property, with the projection booth on top of the concession building.
The screen tower was anchored by large poles sunk into what had once been swamp grounds. It was an enclosed structure that included storage rooms and a small efficiency apartment briefly occupied by various theater employees. Early gimmicks used to get patrons parking included free baby bottle warmers, a real-cloth diaper service, in-car heaters, a free car wash (from screen-ad sponsor Genie), and later, "by-the-carload" pricing. In 1953, theater operators Sero Amusements Company purchased 30,000 of the 110,000 outstanding shares of common stock in the Midway Drive-In Theatre Corporation. At that time, it was one of 60 Midway Drive-Ins operating in the U.S. Sero took over management and expanded the lot to fit around 700 cars. The company would also run the nearby Frontier Drive-In (later the Frontier Twin), the Rancho Drive-In (at Federal and Euclid), Chula Vista's Big Sky Drive-In, and other local ozones. In 1958, with Midway's stock averaging $2.82 per share, Sero had a falling out with partners at Shure and purchased most of the remaining stake in the theater. This eventually led to a dispute regarding dividends paid and whether they were applicable to a franchise tax assessment of $2,652.19 for the income year ending June 30, 1960. The matter was settled in May 1968 when the State Board of Equalization agreed to modify the franchise tax amount due by $1,249.
In the early '60s, the Midway enlarged its screen to 75 feet by 120 feet to better display widescreen Cinema-Scope features. Around the same time, the projection booth was outfitted for 70-millimeter film presentation (5-perforation wide gauge, with an aspect ratio of 2.20). The first 70mm screening was King of Kings, starring Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus, beginning April 11, 1962, and shown in "Super Technirama 70." A 70mm reissue of Oklahoma! ran at the Midway beginning April 25 and attracted big crowds but, by the time Spartacus debuted in 70mm at the Midway on May 23, the city's third drive-in theater, the Rancho (opened January 1948), was also equipped for 70mm and was showing the same feature.
When M*ASH was screened in late June 1970, management apparently attempted a political statement by having the projectionist briefly turn off the film and instead run the audio from Lyndon Johnson's speech of March 3, 1968, in which he stated that "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President." Customers leaning on their car horns may have been honking either in approval or complaint.
The paved lot began seeing daytime use when Monte Kobey brought his San Diego Swap Meet to the locale in 1976. The graduate of Arizona State University (with degrees in advertising and marketing) had spent nine years working for radio and television stations before being named general manager of his father-in-law's Phoenix company, Park & Swap. Reportedly, a mere 13 sellers and around 200 buyers showed up for Kobey's inaugural swap meet on the Midway lot, though it eventually grew to be the third-largest outdoor market on the West Coast, attracting around 1000 sellers and over 30,000 shoppers each week. In 1979, Kobey's Swap Meet moved to the Sports Arena parking lot, and for a time a farmer's market was run in its stead at the drive-in.
By the late '70s, the hollow walls surrounding the lot were infested with feral cats, who thrived on an even larger colony of rats, who did battle with employees over edible, drinkable, and sometimes smokable leftovers dropped all over the lot by customers. The Midway showed its last films in September 1981: Chariots of Fire and Mommie Dearest. The Midway Drive-In Corporation was officially dissolved in February 1987. After being torn down, the site became home to a shopping center with a Longs Drugs, a Ralphs, and a Denny's. The area behind where the screen once stood housed a drive-through Heavenly Donuts for a while and later a Salazar's Mexican restaurant.
The Lemon Bowl Cinema Dine opened at the beginning of 1948, San Diego's second drive-in theater. Located on Federal Boulevard in Lemon Grove, the 1948-49 Theatre Catalog lists its original owners as C.E. Norcross, Suburban Theatres Inc. of Loma Linda, California. The lot included a restaurant, where everything from grilled-cheese sandwiches to seafood dinners was served, as well as prewarmed bottles of baby formula. The Cinema Dine's characteristic red-and-white speakers frequently disappeared, either stolen or torn from poles by accidental drive-offs, and now trade for $50 and up on eBay and elsewhere. The speakers originally had a gold-colored button that summoned a waitress to your car so you could order a meal to be delivered on a tray attached to the window.
The Cinema Dine was apparently one of the first area drive-ins to experiment with broadcasting film sound through AM radios in 1972, and an on-site miniature golf course was briefly advertised. This ozone was torn down even before the nationwide atrophy of drive-ins began, to make room for access to the 94 freeway.
San Diego's third outdoor theater, the Rancho Drive-In, at the corner of Euclid and Federal, opened Wednesday, January 28, 1948, with a double feature of The Fabulous Texan and Exposed. Touted in ads as "America's Most Beautiful Drive-In Theatre," it accommodated 600 cars on 13 acres, with bench seats for around 300 walk-ins. Its 60- x 50-foot screen was at the time one of the largest in the country, requiring 30 cubic yards of concrete to support. Over 1000 tons of rock were used to grade the property, and it took nearly seven miles of cables to furnish sound to the speakers. The lower level of the screen building housed offices and storage rooms.
The mural on the back of the Rancho's green screen tower depicted a Mexican village, cacti, and a campesino with his ox cart. Animated at night by neon, the ox's head moved up and down as the cart's wheel turned, drawing motorists like moths toward the lights. The neon portion of the mural remained in service until being condemned as a fire hazard by the city in June 1976 (due to the hot neon being too close to aging wooden signage).
In 1955, there were seven Rancho Drive-Ins in the U.S. San Diego's Rancho was operated by the Oldknow family, whose history in film exhibition dates back to 1909. It was, in fact, the first business venture of William Oldknow, who went on to run theaters across the country (his family still runs the South Bay Drive-In, 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 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 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, the South Bay, the Del Mar, and Big Sky. 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 1957, the Rancho was the first local ozone to enlarge its original screen to 70´ x 130´, in order to show Cinema-Scope and other wide-screen films (the Midway Drive-In near Sports Arena soon followed). It was also the first area drive-in to display a 70mm film, with Madame debuting March 6, 1962 (Midway didn't show its first 70mm until April 11). On May 23, it "competed" with the Midway for Spartacus viewers interested in 70mm, though in reality both theaters were overseen by Oldknow and Sero. "Cinema-Scope was really a creation of 20th Century Fox," says Teri Oldknow, "and my father's uncle-in-law was Spyros Skouras, the president of Fox, so I'm sure he talked my father into enlarging that screen and the Midway's. It was his job to convince us that Cinema-Scope and 70mm would be the next big thing." This would not prove to be the case.
In 1978, Oldknow sold the Rancho Drive-In for just over $1 million to a La Mesa company, Alessio Leasing Inc., which had been renting part of the property for a used truck lot (Standard Oil leased another triangular corner of the lot for a filling station that partially obscured the neon screen mural). "That really breaks my heart," his daughter Teri says. "The Rancho was the first in a whole circuit of drive-ins we ran in California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and Atlanta, Georgia. I understand that, from a land-value aspect, the property was worth more to developers, but it still makes me sad." She lays blame for the closure on several factors. "Gas prices went up in 1973, cars were getting smaller, and you had the decline of the urban single-screen theaters in favor of multiplex multiscreen theaters in the suburbs, in malls. Meanwhile, drive-ins built as cheaply as possible, 20 to 30 years ago, they're getting more and more run down. Even the elaborate old screen murals and neon, these things weren't built to last long."
William Oldknow is still alive and in the drive-in business. "Families are now watching the new shows on television," he said back in 1978, just before the Rancho was shut down. "So we decided to close. We never played X-rated films and tried to keep away from R-rated movies, although the last pictures at the Rancho are R-rated -- Cinderella and Let's Make a Dirty Movie -- because not many family motion pictures are being produced." The Rancho Drive-In's screen last flickered October 17, 1978. The property was later occupied by a Chevron station, a McDonald's, and a
The Campus Drive-In at the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and College Avenue, and stretching to 61st Street, was a single-screen ozone originally built for 700 cars and 200 walk-ins (the seats were later removed, making room for up to 900 cars). The Campus Drive-In Corporation was formed August 7, 1947, and the theater itself opened the following year, charging 50 cents admission and giving out free popcorn during opening week. Sam J. Russo and Co-Op Theatres Inc. were listed as chief operators.
At the time, Signage on the back of the screen featured a 50- x 80-foot mural. Lit up at night by 1900 feet of piping installed by California Neon, it depicted a 46-foot-tall marching majorette, wearing an Indian headdress and spinning a baton that appeared to twirl as she strutted in front of a depiction of SDSU's old main building and bell-tower quadrangle, football goalposts, and mountains (one with a white S on it). The majorette was designed by Austin Linn Gray and Joe Schmidt, two San Diegans said to have based her on a photograph of Marion Caster Heatherly Baker, head drum majorette at San Diego High School in 1943 and later a majorette for the Los Angeles Rams.
A killing took place at the Campus on December 2, 1961. Snack-bar employee Tom O'Leary got into an argument with patron Dennis O'Conner. Things got increasingly heated, and O'Leary ended up pulling a knife on the patron and stabbing him to death. O'Leary was charged with unlawful killing and was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. This didn't satisfy O'Conner's family, who filed a lawsuit against the Campus Drive-In Corporation, seeking damages for corporate negligence by maintaining that O'Leary committed the assault while acting in the course of his employment. The court eventually ruled that the Campus wasn't a party to the manslaughter and thus shouldn't be held liable, though appeals and motions regarding the judgment continued through 1967.
The original Campus Drive-In Corporation dissolved July 8, 1975, and soon the locale was being run by Eldorado Theatres, the same corporation that had opened the Ace Drive-In in Lemon Grove during the late '60s. From the '70s onward, screenings opened with a short film that featured a rippling American flag set to "The Star-Spangled Banner." During intermissions, "Speedometer Bingo" numbers were announced over the speakers, with patrons winning snack-bar prizes when the last three digits on their speedometer matched the numbers called.
The Campus Drive-In closed in February 1983; the final two features were The Dark Crystal and a retread print (a second- or third-run film) of Dragonslayer. Before the drive-in's demolition, the majorette portion of the screen mural was donated to the Save Our Neon Organization, which packed the sign in crates to store in a downtown warehouse. In 1985, the majorette was purchased for $4000 by William J. Stone and Associates, operators of Marketplace at the Grove, off Highway 94. The neon was restored at a cost of around $200,000 by El Cajon-based Integrated Sign Associates, and the majorette was reinstalled at the Marketplace, near the Mann Theatre. After the shopping center was renovated as College Grove Center, a relighting ceremony was held March 10, 2000, reportedly attended by over 8000 people and covered by several local TV news crews.
On July 2, 2001, the operators of College Grove Center, Vestar Development Company, donated the neon landmark to a company called SOHO (Save Our Heritage Organisation). Vestar has agreed to remain responsible for financial and physical maintenance of the sign and for keeping it lit at night in the shopping center. SOHO has an easement for access and the right to remove the majorette, although there are no plans to abandon the Center. The Campus majorette has been featured in photo spreads in Time and Life, as well as in numerous books and calendars. The shopping center that replaced the drive-in uses small reproductions of the majorette in building signage.
The Del Mar Drive-In on Via de la Valle, across the street from the Del Mar Fairgrounds, opened in 1953 with space for 700 cars. Operated independently for its first two years, it was eventually run by William Oldknow and Sero Amusements, a company that hired him as president but which he'd come to own. "The Del Mar had a giant tiki sign on the entranceway that went right across the driveway," recalls Teri Oldknow, "with a giant catamaran painted with sort of tiki hatching. It was really cool."
From the start, the Del Mar decided to remain open seven nights a week, since many film studios at the time refused to provide new first-run films to theaters open weekends only. During most of the '50s, admission was $1 per carload on weekdays and 50 cents per person on weekends (children were free) -- the real profits, as at most ozones, were in the concession stand. As patron perks, they offered free baby-bottle warmers, and for a time, a "live monkey house" was advertised as being on the playground.
Sero was operating so many drive-ins that the speakers at the Del Mar and elsewhere were actually manufactured specifically for Sero and carried the company's imprint on the front of their metal casings. "We made them in Pomona with a company called Bevelite from the mid-'50s through about the late '60s," recalls Teri Oldknow. "They made the speakers for the Pacific Theatres, too." She says few of those audio relics remain in the company's possession, though they frequently turn up on eBay and elsewhere (fetching anywhere from $10 to $100 and up for wired kits, including stand-alone poles). "You'd think, of all companies, we would have realized how just plain cool the speakers were and would have kept them, but I guess nobody ever thought something like that would end up rare and valuable."
In 1978, the Oldknows announced they were selling the Del Mar Drive-In lot for commercial use. "Developers came in and built a huge sea of condominiums... it was too much money to turn down at the time," says Teri Oldknow.
The Frontier Drive-In at 3601 Midway Drive, on the southwest corner of Midway and Kemper Street (between Rosecrans and West Point Loma Boulevard), was named for nearby Frontier Street (later Sports Arena Boulevard). Though opened in 1957, owner Sero Amusements actually bought the Frontier's land in 1941, intending to build the city's first ozone. An architect was commissioned, plans drawn, supplies purchased, and in early 1942 a building-permit application was in the works. Then the city, facing an acute housing shortage, condemned the land in order to put up the Frontier Housing Project, subsidized in part by the U.S. government. "Sero Amusement Company expected the land to be returned immediately after the war in 1946 and started drafting new plans," William Oldknow said in an opening-day article about the Frontier in the Sentinel, a newspaper-style promo given out to opening-night attendees. "The government, however, did not release the property until May 1956."
Construction finally began that summer on a lot intended to hold up to 1600 cars, but work couldn't be completed until after August -- a local Little League team was using a school fence still remaining on the property as a batting cage backdrop. After 16 years of waiting to use his land, Sero owner William Oldknow knew better than to engender bad local PR and agreed to delay building until baseball season was over. Meanwhile, construction superintendent Bill Post had to figure out a way to tear out the huge cement slabs that had been the housing project's floors, as well as how to dismantle the more problematic cement-encased fuel tanks. There was also an overpopulation of gophers tearing up the land, resulting in Post jokingly offering company gardener Nito Chavez a 25-cent-per-gopher bounty. Chavez came up with around 100 critter corpses, and Post had to pay $25 out of pocket for the unbudgeted expense.
Local firm Haydock Construction, with offices on Meade Avenue, graded the land to gradually rise 16 feet in elevation from the front to the rear of the theater. Capital Electric Company installed the 20 miles of underground wiring needed to power small electric lights and speakers placed on each of the 750 posts scattered over the lot, requiring over 10,000 splices and connections. An underground transformer vault in the middle channeled 12,000 volts of electric power supplied by SDG&E. The all-metal screen structure was 75 feet high, with the screen itself measuring 121 feet wide and 52 feet high, painted with a polyvinyl plastic-based paint specially designed for ultra-white ozone screens (the job required around 100 gallons, over four coats).
With two box-office entrances ("No lines!"), the Frontier Drive-In opened Wednesday, April 10, 1957, with a first-run double feature: War Drums ("Their love sparked the west's bloodiest massacre!") and Revolt at Fort Laramie ("Screaming Sioux outside...soldier killing soldier inside!"). Opening-night admission was 90 cents for adults, 50 cents for juniors (12-15), and kids under 12 were admitted free.
Movie stars Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood made opening-night appearances on a makeshift stage in front of the snack bar, alongside actor/singer James Brown (not the Godfather of Soul, but rather Lt. Rip Masters on the kids' TV show Rin Tin Tin), and Playboy's Miss January 1957, June Blair (a former Miss Huntington Beach). Second-tier stars also on-site included Karen Sharpe, May Wynn, Jack Kelly, Beverly Tyler, Joanne Barnes, and Chet Marshall. Sero records show the celebs were flown in to Lindbergh Field, arriving at 4:30 p.m.; they later attended a post-appearance dinner party at the Mission Valley Inn. Robert Wagner, who'd made fewer than a dozen films and was working under a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox, was presumably invited because he starred in The True Story of Jesse James, due to play the Frontier a week later, on April 17 (along with Alan Ladd's Big Land).
At the time of its launch, there were around a half-dozen Frontier Drive-Ins in the U.S. This one was planned as direct competition for the nearby Midway Drive-In, though Sero eventually bought into that theater as well. Ads touted the Frontier's Cinema-Scope screen ("Giant!") and excellent sound ("Adjust volume yourself!"), and patron perks included a bottle-warming service, free windshield towels, and a "mechanic on duty." The Half Way House Restaurant, directly across the street, often shared advertising space with the theater.
Initially, the snack bar (built by Mission Valley's R.E. Hazard Contracting and featuring 60 feet of Formica counter space) had an exclusive cola arrangement with Coke. Early ads promised quality ice cream and candy, pizza, XLNT brand tamales, chili dishes and toppings, and hot dogs that, as per Sero's chainwide policy, were always "broiled, to give them that extra special flavor." One offbeat item was described in ads as "new to San Diego...Tater Dogs, they are called, wieners wrapped in mashed potatoes and French fried. Delicious!"
A large kiddie playground with swings and slides was erected in front of the original screen, though the playsets were later taken down and replaced with hand-spun merry-go-rounds, which seemed to fall quickly into disrepair. "I think they had one of those mini-trains that kids could ride around in," recalls Teri Oldknow. Several twilight talent shows were held on the property in the mid-'60s, including one contest advertised as "The Search for Miss Loma Portal," with a promised prize of "music lessons and gifts valued at over $100."
By 1978, Sero had added a second screen and renamed it "the Frontier Twin Drive-In," cutting capacity to around 750 cars per side. This second screen was often visible to moviegoers parked up the street at the Midway. "The Twin was really successful, so not too long after that they added a third and a fourth screen, both at the same time," says Teri Oldknow. " 'Plexing to quads was really common then; it helped keep drive-ins competitive with the new multiplex mall theaters." Double and triple features were (and remain) another lure usually offered only at ozones.
Around this period, multi-feature theme shows often ran from dusk till dawn, such as all-night Planet of the Apes marathons and back-to-back horror movies. Cult movies attracted cult crowds. I recall a late-'79 showing of Roller Boogie with countless patrons attempting to navigate the lot on roller skates, finding the graded hills fairly deadly to the knees and shins, much to the hysteria of my companions and me (disco-haters one and all, we were there to see Linda Blair's skimpy outfits).
In the theater's final years, a deal was made with a nearby apartment building wherein a special room would be built behind the apartments with a wall-sized window facing one of the drive-in screens. Movie sound was to be piped in for a few dozen viewers seated in theater-style chairs. The apartment complex was to pay the theater $500 a month for this privilege, but it's unclear if construction on the movie room was ever completed before the Frontier shut down in September 1985. "That sounds like something De Anza would do," laughs Teri Oldknow, "and, really, all they had to do was point the FM sound at the apartment building. There were always little side deals being made to squeeze a few extra dollars somehow."
A December 3, 1985, city council meeting presided over by Mayor Roger Hedgecock detailed the rezoning of what was then referred to as "Midway Mall," covering 15 acres of the Frontier Drive-In's former property. The lot was eventually occupied by a shopping center.
When the Big Sky Drive-In opened in 1955 at 2245 Main Street in Chula Vista, its car capacity of 2000 made it one of the four largest ozones in the U.S. (Los Aitos in Long Beach held 2100 while the 41 Twin in Franklin, Wisconsin, and the Twin Open Air in Oak Lawn, Illinois, were the same size as the Big Sky.) One 1967 showing at this Sero Amusements property of The Undertaker and His Pals (motorcyclists who club women on the head to drum up business for their funeral home and diner) was advertised as having "a professional nurse on duty at all times, in case our movie gives you a heart attack."
Both of the Big Sky's exit paths were booby-trapped with a device called "Traffic-Trol." This featured spring-loaded spikes that retracted when driven over by exiting cars but shredded the tires of larcenous gate-crashers attempting to enter the lot via the exit gates. These indiscriminate car-killers became staples at most area ozones, though more than one enterprising miscreant figured out that short plywood ramps placed over the spikes enabled a careful driver to cross over them.
This drive-in went dark in July 1980 with two ultracool final features: The Blues Brothers and Cheech and Chong's Next Movie. After closing, the abandoned snack bar became notorious as a homeless hangout, where at least one violent sexual assault occurred. An industrial park was eventually built on the property.
The Alvarado Drive-In at 7910 El Cajon Boulevard in La Mesa was located near Interstate 8, west of Baltimore Drive, with its entrance on the Boulevard. It seems to have opened in the early '60s, though advertising for this ozone is scarce and details are hard to confirm. Its first appearance in the annual Theatre Guide books is 1961, listed as being operated by "Lanford & Long," with a car capacity of 900. Early on, members and supporters of the Motion Picture Projectionist Local 297 picketed the Alvarado lot because non-union help was said to be running the booth equipment. Owners eventually agreed to switch to union projectionists.
In July 1969, operators formed Alvarado Drive-In Theatre Inc. In January 1972, the business was purchased by Syufy Century Theatres Inc. of San Francisco, which ran several other indoor and outdoor California screens. Within a few years, the Mann Theatres chain came to run this drive-in, if it didn't outright own it. In the late '70s, daytime Sunday church services were being held on the lot. The Alvarado appears to have closed around 1980, to be replaced by a Best market, a Godfather's Pizza, an El Torito, and other strip-mall shops.
The Tu-Vu Drive-In at 5535 Kearny Villa Road, as its name implies, featured two screens and a total car capacity of 650. When the Tu-Vu opened in 1958, the snack bar had 80 feet of counter space, and two large picture windows on either side allowed patrons to keep an eye on both screens while lining up for snacks and drinks.
The lot was originally run by Empire Drive-In Theatres, who leased the property and purchased the equipment. On September 30, 1958, all the drive-in's assets were transferred to the Tu-Vu Drive-In Corporation (incorporated September 22, 1958), owned by William D. Russo (listed as company president), along with a woman named Della M. Ashkins and a third party. Tu-Vu agreed to assume and pay the rental prescribed by the master lease; to assume and pay the equipment sales contract obligation, which amounted to $58,652.10; to pay into escrow the sum of $23,840, which was to be used to pay Empire's creditors in full; and to pay $6160 toward additional construction work. Tu-Vu took possession of the theater, operated it and paid the prescribed rental (amounting to approximately $32,000; it paid between $30,000 and $35,000 on the conditional sales contract), and deposited about $30,000 into escrow.
By 1961, the Tu-Vu's partnership dissolved into several lawsuits. At the time of Tu-Vu Drive-In Corp. v. Ashkins (61 C2d 283), plaintiff Russo owned 54 percent of the Tu-Vu Drive-In Corporation stock, defendant Ashkins owned 39 percent, and a third party owned 7 percent. The corporation, by the written consent of Russo as majority stockholder, had adopted a bylaw in 1960 stipulating that Tu-Vu shares could only be transferred to an outsider if the owner of those shares first offered them to the other shareholders, at the same price and under the same terms.
On December 7, 1960, Russo obtained an option to purchase Ashkins' stock. Russo relinquished the option on January 7, 1961. Tu-Vu issued new stock certificates containing the new bylaw restriction, placing the certificates in escrow on January 31 with the commissioner of corporations. Apparently, neither Russo nor the corporation ever gave Ashkins actual notice of the new bylaw. Ashkins then went out shopping for an outside buyer for her shares, apparently unaware of the new requirement to first offer the stock to Russo and their other partner.
On May 1, 1961, Ashkins granted an option to purchase her Tu-Vu stock to Sero Amusements, a competitor running several local drive-ins. Russo was upset and initiated a lawsuit against Ashkins July 20, 1961, seeking a declaratory judgment sustaining the validity of the bylaw that regulated the transfer of Tu-Vu shares. The trial court entered a judgment that Ashkins possessed a vested right to retain her shares free of restrictions upon alienation, i.e., she could sell her stock to whomever she wanted, whether or not she first offered it to fellow shareholders.
Unfortunately for Ashkins, the sale to Sero never did go through, as Sero chose not to exercise its purchase option and it expired April 30, 1963. The judgment in Ashkins' favor was later reversed, and the trial court was directed to enter judgment declaring that the bylaw in question was valid and enforceable against defendant Ashkins.
During its final few years, the Tu-Vu held a flea market on its grounds during daylight hours before closing for good around 1978. The Tu-Vu Drive-In Corporation was officially dissolved November 25, 1981. A Denny's and an industrial park later took up the drive-in's former acreage.
The Aero Drive-In at 1470 E. Broadway in El Cajon opened in 1954, independently owned by D. Johnson. The equipment was leased from Sero Amusements and William Oldknow, who operated the drive-in for a time. Designed to fit just under 500 cars, the projection booth was built onto the snack bar and was located fairly close to the single screen, providing one of the brighter outdoor pictures in the area. For years, the Aero gave out raffle tickets with admission, distributing prizes (usually food) during intermissions, and it was among the first area ozones outfitted for AM radio sound in early 1973. Usually open only in the summer, a swap meet was run year-round on the premises beginning in the late '70s.
In 1990, Regan Myles and his Regan Group Inc. began running the Aero. The Vista-based company (which also operated the Harbor Drive-In in National City) was sued by the San Diego Union-Tribune over unpaid advertising, losing a judgment of $8645 in August 1992. The Aero lost another civil judgment in March 1993 over an unpaid loan and was required to pay $2264 to the San Diego Wholesale Credit Association.
In early 1999, after the drive-in's original owner died, new owners decided the damaged screen (hit hard by the previous winter's storms) wasn't worth replacing. In June, a crane completed dismantling the screen, though the lot was still used for swap meets. In 2003, around 90 condo-style homes were built on the property.
The Harbor Drive-In at 3150 National Avenue (i.e., National City Avenue, near Highway 54) opened in 1949 with a single screen and built to hold 500 cars. It was operated independently for years by T.P. Huntington, whose firm Harbor Drive-In Theatres Inc. was launched January 15, 1948. The lot at 32nd and D Avenue was open through all seasons, and raffles were a popular theater tradition beginning in the late '70s. The Harbor eventually broadcast with FM sound, and the speakers were removed, causing a steady stream of complaints from neighborhood drivers claiming that movie soundtracks hijacked their car speakers while passing nearby (not to mention complaints from patrons with no FM sound in their cars, forcing them to rent a radio from the snack bar).
I first went to the Harbor on Christmas Eve, 1979, to see Steve Martin in The Jerk, though I was still carless (and essentially homeless) at the time. I recall it as a fairly easy drive-in to sneak into, and I managed to go unmolested for about a third of the film before a theater employee noticed me sitting and shivering up against a pole in a corner of the lot. I was making myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from supplies carried in a paper bag when the kid stepped up to me and started to ask me to leave. I must have looked particularly pitiful; no place to go and no family to be with on Christmas Eve, just me and my PB&J on a cold cement lot. He shook his head like a guy who'd just seen the ghosts of his own potential Christmases past, present, and future and decided not to kick me out. "Never mind, Merry Christmas," he said and walked away, leaving me to enjoy the rest of The Jerk (which I did enjoy -- this is a more fond than maudlin memory for me, such is my passion for ozones).
By the '90s, attendance at area ozones was rapidly declining, and the Harbor was hit particularly hard. In 1993, it was assessed a state tax lien of $1272, and its parent firm in Vista was still paying off thousands of dollars in outstanding advertising bills due to the San Diego Union-Tribune, which was refusing to take new advertising for the Harbor or its sister drive-in the Aero in El Cajon.
Luckily, the Harbor's owners had purchased property surrounding the drive-in lot, and this gave them space to operate a flea market that quickly grew to fill the available acreage. Theater owners used income from this endeavor to subsidize drive-in screenings long after the movies stopped generating profits. Little or nothing was put into upkeep in and around the theater lot, however, as it had become what outdoor screen operators refer to as a "land bank," i.e., a way of keeping a piece of property extant, with minimal expenditure and for as long as possible, for the sole purpose of maximum sales value. The land itself eventually outvalues any business the owners care or can afford to launch. By 2000, the Harbor had become one of the shabbier California ozones among an often-motley cadre of scarred survivors.
In 2001, a new marquee was built to replace the increasingly tattered original. Though Tuesday nights usually boomed thanks to a $7-per-carload special, the Harbor eventually lost a long-running battle against the nearby South Bay Drive-In and went dark around 2003. A flea market still runs on the property, for which the old drive-in space is used as a parking lot.
The South Bay Drive-In, open since 1958 at 2170 Coronado Avenue, is one of only two San Diego drive-ins remaining in operation today. One mile north of the border and with space for up to 1500 cars, it was another William Oldknow/Sero Amusements venture (still run by Oldknow's company, now called De Anza Land & Leisure Corporation). Originally called the Bayview and sporting a single screen, in the mid-'70s the South Bay added two more screens. 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.
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."
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." The company 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.
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. "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."
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 third drive-in swap meet (Midway began leasing to Monte Kobey's swap meet the previous summer, and the Valley Drive-In held an Oceanside flea market as far back as 1971). "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."
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 (admission $6 per person, children nine and under free), it may be the only drive-in in the U.S. to serve menudo.
The Santee Drive-In at 10990 North Woodside Avenue remains open today, still operated by the same family that built it in 1958, James and Patti Henry, along with sometime partner Joe Crowder (who has also owned drive-ins in Escondido and Oceanside). With two 1.85:1-ratio screens facing each other and room for 700 cars, it's open seven nights a week and at this writing charges $6 per person. The last time I attended, 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. 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). The swap meet's current operators feature monthly shows themed for ham-radio enthusiasts and sports-equipment traders.
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. "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." Another employee says, "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 Little Jeff over. We jumped up on the curb as they zoomed on past. I think they did more damage to their car than the fence."
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. 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.
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).
The Ace Drive-In on 8015 Imperial Avenue in Lemon Grove appears to have been one of the latter ozones constructed in San Diego, not turning up in The International Motion Picture Almanac until the 1969 edition. Owned by Eldorado Theatres, the Ace had a vehicle capacity of 900, with its entrance on Broadway. For a short while, a rolling concession cart delivered snacks and drinks to vehicle owners not inclined to make the trip to the snack bar. By the '70s, the Ace was known for endless kung fu triple features and "head" flicks like The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, The Groove Tube, Zardoz, and The Kentucky Fried Movie. It was also known for employees willing to turn a blind eye to cars arriving filled with liquor-laden teenagers and stoners reeking like Tommy Chong's beard. Locals had a saying at the time: "The Ace is the place to space." The last movies screened in late 1986 were King Kong Lives and The Wraith. The lot at the northeast corner of Broadway and Grove Street later became home to an apartment complex.
The Pacific Drive-In, located on Mission Bay Drive, north of Bluffside Avenue, shouldn't be confused with San Clemente's drive-in of the same name. Though the corporation listed as owning this ozone was based in National City, it was actually operated by Pacific Theatres, founded by William Foreman, who got his start in Seattle operating several walk-in theaters before moving to L.A. in 1937 to open California's first drive-in, the Pico (at the time, the fourth drive-in in the nation). Pacific eventually ended up running around a hundred ozones.
"There were three main families running most of the outdoor screens," says Teri Oldknow at De Anza. "There was us [as Sero], the Edwards family, and then there were the Foremans [Pacific]. The three basically controlled the exhibition business and the way things went, right down to whether or not theaters would go along with the studio on things like widescreen and 70 millimeter." In 1976, the Pacific was one of only three local ozones equipped for showing 70mm films (they screened Logan's Run in 70mm beginning June 23, though the print had a mono soundtrack).
The Pacific's snack bar sold a unique concoction still fondly remembered by locals -- an entire pizza (one dollar) with mozzarella, cheddar cheese, and jalapeño toppings. The drive-in was torn down in the early '80s for a housing development. Foreman's company, Pacific Theatres, today operates about 400 hardtop screens, including theaters in La Mesa (Grossmont Center's Stadium 10 and Trolley 8), downtown (Gaslamp 15), and elsewhere in San Diego.
"I think we may have tried a flea market on the [Pacific Drive-In] site," says Jay Swerdlow, executive vice president of Pacific Theatres, "but chances are we just got a purchase offer that was too good to resist and we unloaded it. Some properties pay off as land investments ten times more than they could ever pay off as an operating business. At that time, nothing we could have done on that piece of real estate could have equaled the value of selling."
The Escondido Drive-In at 635 West Mission Avenue (at Quince Street, just west of Centre City Parkway) opened in the mid-'50s with a single screen and room for around 300 cars. Owner Joe Crowder stopped showing films in 1982, but the screen stayed up and a successful swap meet was launched on the site.
"Most drive-ins closed because of home video," says Crowder, "but our problem was getting a good picture. There was a lot of what you'd call 'light pollution' from nearby businesses, and then theater projection technology was basically ignoring [drive-ins] and equipment wasn't being made anymore that allowed for a nice, bright picture on outdoor screens."
He says the swap-meet business has proved too lucrative for him to give up the property. "They call us Little Tijuana. The old drive-in lot is pretty much the main gathering place for Hispanics on the weekends up here." Beginning in late 2004, the locale underwent around $10 million worth of improvements, including a large children's playground and picnic areas near the "food court," which consists of around 15 vendors on any given weekend afternoon. The swap meet (incorporated October 1999) has been periodically raided by immigration officials rounding up suspected undocumented workers.
The Mission Drive-In at 30002 Del Obispo Street in San Juan Capistrano was owned by William Foreman's Pacific Theatres and featured a mural of a mission on the back of its screen, visible from the highway. It appears to have opened in the early '60s and closed around 1985.
The Vista Drive-In on Thunder Drive at Highway 78 in Vista, operated by Western Amusement Company, originally had buttons on the speakers that summoned a carhop so you could order food to be served at your car. With a vehicle capacity of 500, it appears to have opened in the early '60s and closed around 1978. The site was later occupied by buildings in the Tri-City Medical Center.
The Midway Drive-In at 1831 Mission Avenue in Oceanside was not connected with the Midway near the Sports Arena, nor should it be confused with the Oceanside Drive-In or that town's other ozone, the Valley Drive-In. Operated by Robert Siegel (who with his brother owned many area movie houses, including the Siegel Brothers Theatre in Oceanside), this Midway was apparently closed in the '60s and was demolished. A strip of stores, including a Big Bear market, was built on the location, which later became the site of the MiraCosta College Community Learning Center.
The Oceanside Drive-In on Fallbrook Road was listed in the 1948-49 Theatre Catalog as being operated by Joseph Shure and his Shure Theatres Corporation. A conflicting source indicates it was only open from 1950 through the mid-'60s.
The Valley Drive-In at 3480 West Mission Avenue in Oceanside (two miles east of Interstate 5) was among the last drive-ins to launch in Southern California. "We opened August 26, 1966," recalls Samuel Ramirez, who, with his family, has been a caretaker on the property from opening night through the current day. "We were showing James Bond, Thunderball; it was sold out completely for a whole month. I think the tickets were $2.50." Originally a single-screen ozone built for 1250 cars, by 1969 the Valley had added a second screen, and a third and fourth were built in 1977, for a total vehicle capacity of 1600.
Open year-round from the start, Ramirez recalls, "We used to be cleaning up the lot until five, six in the morning. We'd find all kinds of crazy things, and then there would be homeless people jumping over the fence too." Regarding owners John and Robert Siegel, he says, "At one time, they had a theater in Coronado and they owned almost every theater in Oceanside and Escondido. The Crest, the Paramount, the Cinema Plaza; they ran any place that showed movies."
The Valley went to weekends-only in the mid-'90s, becoming increasingly run-down. Especially scary was the men's room, with sickly green walls and one long urinal trough of indeterminate color (shudder). The Valley stopped screening movies altogether after the 1999 season, with the last admission price $4.50 per person. All four screens were left standing, and the snack bar remains today, with the original popcorn and ice machines still intact. "We used to have the posters, the ones we didn't have to send back to Hollywood," says Ramirez, "but somebody broke in and stole them all." A successful swap meet has been held on the site since 1971, eventually growing to over 1000 vendors. In the early '90s, the owners, the Siegel Brothers, were working with a developer to turn the parcel into a $150 million shopping center. However, the project never passed muster at City Hall, mostly because City planners were focused on redeveloping the downtown area.
The Valley lot and surrounding property owned by the Siegels totaled 145 acres. Around summer 2004, the City of Oceanside apparently decided the drive-in property was indeed desirable. City agencies were accused by the swap-meet company of applying pressure to break their lease and abandon the property. Oceanside fire marshall Rob Dunham required swap-meet owners to repaint and enforce fire lanes, and to impose new restrictions on vendors. Sellers were required to use fire retardant canopies and to refrain from parking vehicles in the sales area unless their gas tanks had less than five gallons of gas and their batteries were disconnected. Even the IRS got in on the action, levying a $72,062 tax lien on Oceanside Drive-In Swap Meet operators.
In December 2004, the Oceanside City Council reported that the Siegels had agreed to sell the city a five-acre parcel of the Valley property for $3.3 million, to put up a fire station and drill wells. This small land plot was isolated from the larger theater lot by construction of the state Route 76 expressway. In January 2005, the Siegels reportedly sold the remaining Valley property for commercial development.
Related feature: Intermission