It may not be exactly how we imagined it, but car culture is back to save us from isolation, boredom and fever.
Cabin fever, that is.
Because while most indoor activities — including going to movie multiplexes — have been restricted or altogether suspended over the last few months during the coronavirus pandemic, outdoor movie screenings are providing a much-needed distraction.
And it’s all from the safety of our own cars.
This isn’t exactly a new development in entertainment. Over the last 15 years or so, the appeal of watching drive-in movies has resurged in Southern California — with “pop-up” events hosted by, among others, Devil’s Night Drive-In (2005-2012) in Downtown L.A.; Electric Dusk Drive-In (2012-present), which is relocating from the LACCD Van de Kamp School Campus to Glendale later this year; and Street Food Cinema (2012-present) throughout Los Angeles, with drive-in events this year at The Americana at Brand in Glendale.
But this slice of Americana is a truly American phenomenon, one that never really caught on in other countries. And it hasn’t completely gone away in this country — especially not now, when “walk-in” theaters aren’t an option for us just yet.
In fact, there are still several permanent drive-in movie theaters still in operation throughout Southern California — though there are far fewer now than during their heyday of the 1950s and ’60s. Of course, that was before the 1970s energy crisis necessitated fuel-efficient cars that were too small to get comfortable in for a couple of hours (e.g. the Ford Pinto).
Besides, the screen projection back then was so dim that movies could only start when it was really dark out — a time that got pushed even later after the Uniform Time Act of 1966 nationalized Daylight Saving Time and “Spring Forward.”
Add to that the rising popularity of cable TV, “home taping” and video rentals, and the drive-in industry seemed like it was doomed.
But now, digital projection upgrades have sharpened the picture and allowed showtimes to start earlier than ever — making drive-ins a real family affair, accommodating everyone from grandparents to grandkids to stay even for a double feature.
And the sound no longer comes through those “squawk boxes” that you used to have to hang on your car door (and plenty of folks would accidentally yank away as they absent-mindedly drove off). It’s now transmitted through an FM radio, either through your car’s audio system or a boom box that you can bring with you.
Although the drive-in theaters of yore are currently extinct in Orange County, Ventura County and Imperial County — where none remain — there are still opportunities to experience the throwback of “ozoner” culture elsewhere at SoCal’s surviving “auto theaters.”
Even better, in Southern California we can visit the drive-in throughout the entire year — with very few adverse weather events sabotaging the “rain or shine” policies.
If you’ve got enough room to recline and stretch out, you can relive those nostalgic times — or make some brand-new memories of your own. So, here are the eight best drive-in theaters in SoCal — where you can snuggle up in your jammies and blanket and take in an outdoor flick under the night sky, without ever leaving your car.
1. Paramount Drive-In, Paramount, Los Angeles County
Paramount Drive-In Theatres was originally known as the Roadium (see #2 below) when it opened in 1947 — but was rechristened in 1948 after the City of Paramount (not Paramount Pictures). Built upon an old cornfield, the drive-in was surrounded by dairy farms and chicken coops until the 1970s, when it expanded into a two-screener. At least since its grand reopening six years ago, one screen has been devoted to family-friendly programming (with each main attraction showing twice for an early and late screening).
Although movie screenings ceased from 1992 to 2014 (though the swap meet operated continuously since 1955), the entire site remained amazingly intact enough for the drive-in to reopen in 2014. This new venture is the brainchild of Glenn Bianchi of Bianchi Theatres — son of Joseph Bianchi, a WWII-era penicillin peddler who came out west to become the original proprietor of Roadium. Born in Compton, the younger Bianchi used to work in the snack bar as a teenager and eventually got promoted to manager.
The concessions stand still serves popcorn and hot dogs — but instead of malted milkshakes and Cherry Cokes, there are aguas frescas, churros and other Mexican staples (like nachos and burritos). While the twin theater's 45 acres should accommodate 800 cars, the pandemic requires enforcing a vacant space between every parked vehicle.
Paramount Drive-In Theatres 7770 Rosecrans Ave, Paramount, CA 90723
2. Roadium Open-Air Market and Drive-In, Torrance, Los Angeles County
It had been decades since the Roadium in Torrance had shown its seemingly final drive-in movie in October 1985 — though the 15-acre site on Redondo Beach Boulevard has since been thriving as an outdoor swap meet, first established in the 1960s. And then the inconceivable happened, with the reopening of the drive-in portion of Roadium in 2019 with a Friday night screening series of nostalgic films like “Grease,” “Back to the Future” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” What was intended to be limited only to the summertime actually extended through December 2019, with holiday-themed movies showing on the big screen.
First opened in 1950 and built among the abundant strawberry fields that once could be found throughout Torrance, Gardena, Hawthorne and more, this was the second Roadium to open in the Los Angeles area (the first being in Paramount, see #1 above). Founded by Dale Gasteiger of Headliner Entertainment Group, it was known for a time as the “Roadium Drive-In Theatre Park” and featured an 18-hole mini-golf course under the backside of the screen tower, marked by a rocket ship at the 40-foot high “Missile Hole.”
Roadium is now operated by Pioneer Theatres, Ltd., which had to reinstall a projection system for the drive-in revival, as it had converted its booth into offices when screenings had ceased. It has expanded its summer Friday screenings to both Friday and Saturday nights as part of its “Summer Weekends at the Drive-In” series. The schedule for the remainder of Summer 2020 includes “Shrek,” “School of Rock,” “American Graffiti,” “Beethoven” and “Twister” with tickets priced by the carload. Tickets are sold on Eventbrite in advance and at the ticket booth the night of the screening — as long as it hasn’t sold out (which they often do). On certain nights, you might spot car clubs congregating and putting on impromptu vintage car shows.
The Roadium 2500 W. Redondo Beach Blvd Torrance, CA 90504
3. Vineland Drive-In, City of Industry, Los Angeles County
Located on Vineland Avenue between the 10 and 605 freeways in the San Gabriel Valley, the Vineland Drive-In opened in 1955 with a screening of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” in CinemaScope. It’s been a family-oriented venture from the beginning — with free admission for children under 12-years-old and advertisements that beckoned audiences to “Come as you are in the family car.” And it’s run by a family-owned business — Pacific Theatres, founded in 1946 by the Formans, who still operate Pacific Drive-In Theatres (“World’s Finest Drive-In Theatres”) through the parent company The Decurion Corporation.
With a car capacity of 1,700, Vineland became a “four-plex” theater in 1981. It may have lost its original screen tower and marquee to demolition in 2003, but it still screens mostly first-run or recent features seven days a week, including holidays. Most recently, it has entertained pandemic audiences with free Amazon Screenings as well as ArcLight at the Drive-In with ArcLight Cinemas, with which it shares a parent company.
The concession stand is currently operating at bare-bones capacity — with pre-filled popcorn bags, bottled soda and prepackaged candy — but it’s worth a masked visit, even if just to see some of the old projection room equipment on display, like a lamp projector, film winder machine and old reels.
Vineland Drive-In 443 Vineland Ave, City of Industry, CA 91746
4. Mission Tiki Drive-In, Montclair, San Bernardino County
Until Mission Tiki Drive-In gets transformed into a “technology park” — which a developer plans to do after purchasing the property last year — you can still watch a movie or two under the stars at this 27-acre, tropical-themed paradise. For now, it still shows double features on four screens, seven days a week — many of which are first-run features, but also including some retro favorites like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Gremlins.”
The 9-acre, single screen "Mission Drive-In," as it was then known, opened in 1956 as the brainchild of William H. Oldknow II, who’d moved out West after completing a tour in the Navy and formed his Sero Amusements venture — known since 1968 as De Anza Land & Leisure Corporation. Oldknow had the movie biz in his blood, as his grandfather was the motion-picture pioneer William H. Oldknow Sr. And thanks to his wife to Constantina “Dina” Skouras, he found himself marrying into the family of moguls behind Fox-West Coast Theatres and 20th Century-Fox.
Upon its 50th anniversary in 2006, Oldknow’s daughter Teri rebranded the Mission with a tiki theme and commissioned renowned tiki artist Tiki Diablo to add Easter Island-type moai statues and to redesign the ticket booths with tiki masks and thatched roofs. The snack bar and restroom building were redone as well and are still in operation — but you can also pack your own picnic and start enjoying your meal as early as an hour before showtime, when the gates open and tickets go on sale (sold individually per person, not per car).
Mission Tiki Drive-In Theatre 10798 Ramona Ave, Montclair, CA 91763
5. Skyline Drive-In, Barstow, San Bernardino County
The Western Amusement Company of Los Angeles opened Skyline Drive-In in 1964 in Barstow, where it’s now the High Desert’s only drive-in. Although it went dark in the late 1980s for nine years, new owner Larry Rodkey of Rodkey Theatres reopened it in 1996. Rodkey is the son of Central Coast theater operator Raymond Rodkey, who opened the Sunset Drive-In in San Luis Obispo in 1950. And now, Larry continues the family legacy by running the Sunset in addition to owning the Skyline.
With room for 600 cars to park in the wide expanse of the Mojave Desert, the Skyline is located on Old Highway 58 near an old alignment of Route 66/National Trails Highway on Main Street. While it mainly serves the Barstow and Victorville communities, it offers a unique way to end a “Mother Road” road trip. It now runs seasonally from March through January, with two screens since 2000. Double features are screened every night of the week on each of them.
But plan ahead — because both the ticket booths and snack bar accept cash only. And there are no advance ticket sales or ATMs on site.
Skyline Drive-in Theater 31175 Old Hwy 58, Barstow, CA 92311
6. Van Buren Drive-In Theatre, Riverside, Riverside County
Another drive-in theater owned by the De Anza Company (of Mission Tiki Drive-In, #4 above) is Van Buren Drive-In, named for its location on Van Buren Boulevard. It originally opened in 1964 with a single screen on the site of a former orange ranch in one of Riverside’s most historic neighborhoods, Arlington. It was triplexed in 1975 to become the Van Buren Cinema 3 Drive-In.
A 2007 remodel introduced an Old California citrus grove theme across the marquee and box offices — and the following year, a new mural painted onto the backside of the original screen tower was unveiled. Historic black-and-white photos and reproductions of vintage citrus labels line the walls inside the breeze-blocked snack bar — appropriately so, given its close proximity to California Citrus State Historic Park.
Double features run on all three screens, seven days a week. You don’t have to commit to both showings, though — you’re welcome to exit once the first movie is over. Likewise, you don’t have to arrive for the first movie if you’d rather see the second show — you can arrive just about 30 minutes prior to the start time. However, as is the policy with other multi-screen drive-in theaters, you’re not allowed to “switch” screens at any point — not even if that means simply turning your car around.
Van Buren Drive-In Theatre 3035 Van Buren Boulevard, Riverside, CA 92503
7. Rubidoux Drive-In, Riverside, Riverside County
Riverside’s sister drive-in property is the Rubidoux, which local motion picture impresario Roy C. Hunt opened in 1948. He remodeled the original screen tower (which still stands) to accommodate the widescreen CinemaScope format, which was introduced in the mid 1950s. When Hunt passed away in 1962, the theater’s ownership transferred to the Los Angeles Drive-in Theatre Company.
It’s located in the Rubidoux district of Jurupa Valley, which was named after French-Canadian settler Louis Robidoux (the family changed the spelling of its name in later generations) and also includes the city park and landmark Mount Rubidoux. Though the surrounding area was once dotted with granite quarries and dairy farms, the drive-in now abuts the 60 Freeway and Mission Boulevard.
The Rubidoux was triplexed in 1983 and still shows double features, including some nostalgic favorites like “The Goonies” and “The Karate Kid.” While pre-show entertainment once included — as many drive-ins did — a playground, as well as a petting zoo and miniature railroad, insurance liabilities have rendered these “fun zones” nearly obsolete at most drive-ins.
Rubidoux Drive-In 3770 Opal St, Riverside, CA 92509
8. South Bay Drive-In, San Diego, San Diego County
Originally opened in 1958 as the Bayview Drive-In, the South Bay (since 1960) is located in Imperial Beach, about three miles north of the Mexico border as the crow flies, on former farmland. Now surrounded by residential properties, it’s still got space for up to 1,500 cars — though two additional screens were added to the original single screen in 1974 to transform it into a triplex.
The South Bay Drive-In is one of San Diego County’s last two operating drive-ins—t he other, a 2-screener in Santee (circa 1962) — and it’s survived the last six or so decades thanks to profits from its daytime swap meets on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. According to local drive-in historian Jay Allen Sanford, it also weathered the decline of the industry in the 1970s in part by catering to cult audiences, programming monster movies and horror festivals as well as occasional daytime concerts.
Also a De Anza Company operation, this theater sports a nautical theme — even featuring a (cash-only) snack bar shaped like a ship. Concessions open at least one hour prior to the first showing — but as always, you’re welcome to enjoy your own food (no BBQs or booze) in your car. The theater is open seven days a week, 362 days a year and is even available for socially distant group events.
South Bay Drive-In Theatre 2170 Coronado Ave, San Diego, CA 92154
Top Image: The screen at Mission Tiki Drive-In | Sandi Hemmerlein