Could coronavirus mean a comeback for drive-in theaters?
South Bay and Santee theaters move past pandemic closures and welcome cooped-up San Diegans
When Richard Hollingshead opened America’s first drive-in theater in 1933, in New Jersey, he advertised it as a place where “the whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.”
Noise isn’t the issue now. It’s something else that’s moving through the air, silently: the novel coronavirus.
Briefly shuttered by the pandemic, San Diego County’s two remaining drive-ins have opened again in recent days, sporting new social-distancing rules telling people to stay in their vehicles and bring their own food because the snack bars are closed.
With indoor theaters and other venues still shuttered, this is the only public entertainment game in town, which helps explain why more than a dozen vehicles were in line at the South Bay Drive-In Wednesday night at 7 p.m. — 90 minutes before the movies started.
“It’s something to do that gets us out of the house,” Chris Johnson said a while later, standing outside a car with his wife, Elaine, while two girls, ages 8 and `12, climbed around in the back seat.
They were among the first to park in front of the screen for the animated film “Trolls World Tour.” By the time it started, more than 40 other vehicles had rolled in: people in the backs of SUVS (hatch doors open), or on chairs in the beds of pick-ups, or in the front seats of cars, all eyes forward, FM radios tuned to the frequency playing the film’s soundtrack.
In some ways, it felt like any other night at the drive-in for Johnson, who said he’s been going to the South Bay one for 10 years. The stars were out. People were laughing.
But in another way, it was very different. Days earlier, the Johnsons had been tested for the novel coronavirus, he said. While they were waiting for the movie to start, Elaine Johnson’s phone rang. The results were in.
“All four of us negative,” Chris Johnson said. “We can enjoy the movie now.”
Big screen memories
The South-Bay Drive-In opened in 1958, during the heyday of outdoor cinema.
Like so many other developments in American culture, this one was fueled by Baby Boomers, the post-World War II population explosion that created larger families and sent them looking for something to do in their station wagons. Cash-strapped teens welcomed the opportunity for cheap nights out with friends.
At one point, there were about 5,000 drive-ins in the United States. Then came the 1970s oil crisis, when expensive and sometimes-rationed gasoline prodded people to buy smaller cars, which didn’t guzzle as much fuel but weren’t comfortable at a drive-in, either.
Growing cities pushed into the outskirts, where drive-ins often were located, and that had an impact, too. When the real estate became more lucrative than the box office, the bulldozers soon followed. Movie rentals and VCRS kept more and more people at home, as well.
By the 1990s, there were about 900 drive-ins left in the country. It’s now 305, according to a tally last October by the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.
California is the nation’s most populous state, but it ranks fifth in terms of drive-ins, with 15. Pennsylvania and New York have the most (28), followed by Ohio (24) and Indiana (19). Five states don’t have any drive-ins, according to the list: Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana and North Dakota.
Beginning in the late 1940s, San Diego County was home over the years to more than 15 drive-ins, places with memorable names like Aero, Big Sky, Frontier, Ace, Lemon Bowl Cinema Dine, Tu-Vu, and Campus, which featured a 40-foot tall neon sign of a majorette, now on display at the College Grove shopping center.
The competition for business was such that some theater owners offered diaper service during intermissions. They held Odometer Bingo, reading off numbers that guests tried to match to the mileage counters in their cars.
And they all collected stories, the stuff of drive-in legend. Kids sneaking in by hiding in car trunks or hopping over fences. Shattered glass left behind by distracted drivers forgetting to detach speaker boxes from their windows before leaving. And amorous couples too busy behind steamed windows to realize that the movie had ended.
Despite their increasing rarity, drive-ins still seem such a rooted part of the American experience that it can be surprising to find an adult who has never been to one.
“This is my first time,” said Matt Howarth, 31, of Pacific Beach, after he arrived at the South Bay Drive-In Wednesday night with Clara Drayne, 28, of Coronado.
They parked a white Mazda SUV so that it was facing away from the screen and opened the back hatch, where they prepared a cozy viewing platform with pillows and blankets.
“Got the jujubes, too,” Howarth said.
Like several others at the drive-in, he said the movie itself wasn’t really the attraction. He couldn’t remember at first what they were there to see. (“Knives Out.”) It was more about the chance to be doing something amid a pandemic that has curtailed life as everyone knew it, with no end in sight.
“There aren’t a lot of other social options at this point,” Howarth said.
“Normally we’d be hanging out at a bar, but ... " Drayne added.
They’d paid $10 each to be there, a price that included a second movie. Kids ages 1 to 9 get in for $1.
That made it a relatively inexpensive outing for Tim and Christine Lee and their three children. The Bonita family was there after noticing the huge white screens while bicycling near the theater last weekend.
They corralled the kids — Elijah, 13, Eugenia, 11, and Isaac, 8 — into the Honda Odyssey for a double bill of “Trolls World Tour” and “The Secret Life of Pets 2.” Once parked, they opened the back hatch, folded down the rear seat, and put down bedding. They all wore protective masks.
Christine Lee said online school for the kids has been going well, but it’s hard not to feel cooped up after so many weeks. “This is their first time at the drive-in,” she said. “Now is as good a time as any.”
Other patrons have been regularly checking the theater’s Facebook page, which chronicled the drive-in’s coronavirus roller-coaster ride. Open for a while in early April, then closed by order of health officials, then open again beginning last weekend.
“Omg something to do,” a Lake Elsinore resident posted on the page. “But I can’t leave car so it’s basically more quarantine. People just wanna be able to say they went out.”
The Santee Drive-In had a similar ride. Closed March 17, it announced plans to open April 10, only to be told by officials it couldn’t. Weeks went by and the theater’s Facebook page occasionally flared with stay-at-home angst.
“Because of rules I’ll sit in my damn car,” one woman posted. “I just want to enjoy a movie out in the fresh air.”
“Loyal movie goer,” wrote another. “It’s not the same at home.”
When the theater announced on Thursday that it had been cleared to open this weekend ($9 for adults, $4 for kids), the post quickly drew 574 “likes” and 210 comments.
Some worried about the coronavirus. “I would have exact bills for your entrance,” a retired construction company worker wrote. “You never know where the change you get from the register or the car in front of you has been.”
But mostly it was pent-up celebration.
“Movies is all I need,” a Mesa College student wrote, “to have my life back.”
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