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 Cox Communications building.
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, the Campus was one of the largest drive-in theaters on the West Coast. 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."
Related feature: Intermission