Drive-ins recreate film-watching magic

Los Angeles residents love their cars. From beaten-up Durangos to two-door Maseratis, Angelenos form a symbiotic relationship with what they drive, refusing to separate from their leather seats and dashboards cluttered with plastic figurines.

Not long ago, Angelenos even watched movies from their cars.

They didn’t do it in the way that some children now watch The Wiggles in high definition in the back of their mothers’ stylish SUV, sipping organic apple juice in between yoga and art lessons.

They parked. They bit their nails. They may have even necked — but only during the boring parts, of course.

The humble drive-in theater may be a symbol of the postwar generation that spent its disposable income on hot rods, diners and sockhops, but some car-only theaters still exist — even in trendy Los Angeles.

Vineland Drive-In Movie Theater, located in the City of Industry, is one of the celluloid stragglers refusing to become obsolete. Housing five screens, the theater plays double features each night for $8 per ticket. Filmgoers choose their screen, drive with low headlights and pick one row of raised pavement to claim as their own.

Each screen has its own radio station, which pipes the movie’s dialogue to hundreds of minivans, sports cars and trucks, all filled with reclining, noisy patrons crunching on homemade snacks. Viewers won’t be graced with hyper-detailed picture quality or THX sound, but rather a slightly gray, pocked version of a film accompanied by a surround-sound score privy to interference from a neighboring car’s giant tin cooler filled with soda cans.

These details are forgivable, though. It’s a kind of no-frills leisure activity that keeps comfort and independence in mind, an experience for the restless among us who like to walk around during a film or drive from screen to screen in search for the perfect movie to watch with bare feet propped up on the dashboard.

A pairing of Sorority Row and Inglourious Basterds matched the periphery of industrial wasteland surrounding Vineland — and everyone from small children to middle-aged men felt at ease grasping onto their mothers and wives during the suspenseful bits.

The drive-in sits in a strange part of California — long asphalt roads, seemingly vacant storage spaces and looming warehouses broken up by veins of train tracks with clanking passenger cars that look just as archaic as Vineland. The washed-out, dated concession stands serve the usual popcorn and soda, but seem irrelevant because moviegoers can bring all the food they need.

Around the concession stands is the only place where all the drive-in attendees converge outside the safety of their cars. Mostly, it’s full of families clutching blankets lined up for the restrooms. One such group — two boys in matching plaid pajamas with their babysitting aunt — sipped juice outside during intermission.

“I love it here because it’s comfortable and cheaper than other places,” Ashley Gonzalez, a student at Whittier College, said as she hugged her nephews Carlos, 7, and Derek, 4.

There to watch Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, the boys needed the soda to prepare for their next conquest: Halloween 2. When asked if they were going to close their eyes, Carlos and Derek quickly responded, “No!”

As bathroom-goers rush back to their cars to catch the second feature, one can’t help but wonder what used to be here at this junction of Amtrak, projections, 18-wheelers and towering palm trees. Was it dusty, gray-washed chaparral wasteland dotted by spotted lizards and big rocks? A Wild West ghost town, vestiges of an untamed frontier for the unashamed and the unabashed?

Now there is only a giant parking lot whose day job is holding a swap meet, an ethereal place that changes when the sun sets and creates magic out of misery, entertainment out of simplicity, something out of nothing — and it all takes place within the very entity that conquered the empty West, making it hospitable to human beings: the car. Places like Vineland serve as old-fashioned reminders of that change.

The drive-in represents what movies did to the entire county — a desert terrain transformed into a lucrative, Hollywood machine that creates other worlds and alternate realities with a camera and some hardworking company folk zooming around the valleys with the help of good old Henry Ford.

Now, that same business seems to value exploding robots in 3-D. That’s not what the joy of movies originated from, the wonder that places like Vineland attempts to preserve. Going to the drive-in is a vestige of a time where escape could only come from being outside, a shared space near others of similar mindset.

Another Southern California drive-in theater, the Skyline Drive-In in Barstow, closed this past year. The closure hints at the drive-in’s role as the aging starlet in the Hollywood pantheon, stripped of all glamour and respect and valued for its cheapness. No amount of pancake makeup can cover up its deepening wrinkles and lagging profits.

But until the practice finally dies of natural causes, there will still be stubborn Angelenos finding spots on the lot for themselves and their precious cars.

Clare Sayas is a junior majoring in public relations. Her column, “Lost & Found,” runs Thursdays.

1 reply
  1. Janice
    Janice says:

    Clare, I found your article informative and I would add, the drive-in theatres also gave/give a large family a place to go and see movies for reasonable costs. When you have to pay out anywhere from $7.00-$10.00 per ticket to see one movie and sit thru unnecessary tv commericals, a drive-in is definitely a plus. Thankfully, we still many here in Kentucky and they do get used alot. What you should write about is WHY the movie theaters can get away with charging adult prices on children as they currently do. This, to me, is a real issue and it is totally an unfair pricing scheme. Thank you for your article. Janice. (Class of 63)

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