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."
Related feature: Intermission