Scott Marks 4:26 p.m., May 21
Do You Remember: The Midway Drive-in
THE MIDWAY Drive-In was constructed in 1947 at the intersection of Midway Drive and Sports Arena Boulevard, back when the Boulevard was still Frontier Street and Navy barracks stood on acreage later occupied by a FedMart. The Midway Drive-In Theatre Corporation was incorporated July 31, 1946, with Floyd Bernard Jr. listed as company president.
Soon, Joseph Shure and his Shure Theatres Inc. bought into the drive-in, though Bernard maintained his stake for the entire life of the theater, later working with his son Dusty Bernard and Dusty's wife Lynn.
Originally designed for 400 cars, the screen tower was anchored by large poles sunk into what had once been swamp grounds. It was an enclosed structure that included storage rooms and a small efficiency apartment briefly occupied by various theater employees.
The first screen was a canvas-style flat that rolled open over a scaffolding tower, and there were no individual car speakers, only bullhorn-style broadcast speakers designed by RCA Victor, a system called "Directional Sound," where three loudspeakers were mounted near the screen.
Built by Floyd Bernard, Jr., the Midway screened its first film – Body and Soul starring James Garfield -- in February 1947. Tickets were 75 cents, and Bernard was later quoted saying “We made $6,300 the very first week…that was a lot of money in those days.”
By late 1948, individual car speakers on poles protruded from cement islands sprinkling the lot. The original snack bar was a makeshift Quonset hut in front of the screen, though this was later replaced with a standard concession building, sitting in the middle of the lot, a few feet below the rest of the graded property. From that point onward, the projection booth was located on top of the concession stand. There were also bleacher-style benches for up to 200 walk-ins.
Early gimmicks used to get patrons parking included free baby bottle warmers, a real-cloth diaper service, in-car heaters, a free car wash from nearby screen-ad sponsor Genie ("with the magic towel!"), whose sign was lined up alongside the Midway marquee. Later, "by-the-carload" pricing was instituted, as the Midway and several other local ozones competed to top each other's all-fer-one ticketing.
The Screen tower would double as an advertising billboard for the nearby Pie Piper restaurant and a Heavenly Donuts that outlived the Drive-In itself.
(Above and left-hand image- 1974, courtesy DeAnza/Nardoni)
John Wayne unexpectedly showed up at the Midway in either 1951 or 1952.
“We were showing Hondo,” Floyd Bernard’s son Dusty told one San Diego paper (9-8-80), “and he walked right into the snack bar and started shaking hands with everybody. He was really nice to all of us.”
In 1953, theater operators Sero Amusements Company (who had tried and failed to launch San Diego’s first drive-in on the lot the Frontier Drive-in later occupied) purchased 30,000 of the 110,000 outstanding shares of common stock in the Midway Drive-In Theatre Corporation.
In the mid-fifties, the entire lot was paved over, in a modernization project spearheaded by Dusty Bernard, along with assistant manager Bob Belchez. “When we finished,” he says, “we each took a car to all the speaker locations, to make sure that the view of the screen was perfect from everywhere in the lot.”
At that time, it was one of around 60 Midway Drive-Ins operating in the U.S. Theater co-owner Dusty Bernard was living in the apartment built into the screen tower itself, along with his mother and sister.
Though the Bernards still owned the Midway, Sero took over management and expanded the lot to fit around 700 cars. The company would later run the nearby Frontier Drive-In (which morphed into the Frontier Twin), the Rancho Drive-In (at Federal and Euclid), Chula Vista's Big Sky Drive-In, and other local ozones. In 1958, with Midway's stock averaging $2.82 per share, Sero had a falling out with partners at Shure and purchased their stake in the theater as well.
This eventually led to a dispute regarding dividends paid and whether they were applicable to a franchise tax assessment of $2,652.19 for the income year ending June 30, 1960. The matter was settled in May 1968 when the State Board of Equalization agreed to modify the franchise tax amount due by a whopping $1,249.
In the early '60s, the Midway enlarged its screen to 75 feet by 120 feet to better display widescreen Cinema-Scope features. Around the same time, the projection booth was outfitted for 70-millimeter film presentation (5-perforation wide gauge, with an aspect ratio of 2.20).
However, by the time Spartacus debuted in 70mm at the Midway on May 23, the city's third drive-in theater, the Rancho (opened January 1948), was also equipped for 70mm and was showing the same feature.
When MASH was screened in late June 1970, management apparently attempted a political statement by having the projectionist briefly turn off the film and instead run the audio from Lyndon Johnson's speech of March 3, 1968, in which he stated that "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President." Customers leaning on their car horns may have been honking either in approval or complaint.
The paved lot was seeing lots of daytime use after Monte Kobey took over the struggling San Diego Swap Meet, which had operated in the locale since 1976. The graduate of Arizona State University (with degrees in advertising and marketing) had spent nine years working for radio and television stations before being named general manager of his father-in-law's Phoenix company, Park & Swap. Reportedly, a mere 13 sellers and around 200 buyers showed up for Kobey's inaugural swap meet on the Midway lot in 1978 ---- it eventually grew to be the third-largest outdoor market on the West Coast, attracting around 1000 sellers and over 30,000 shoppers each week.
In 1979, Kobey's Swap Meet moved to the Sports Arena parking lot, and for a time a farmer's market was run in its stead at the drive-in.
By the late '70s, the hollow walls surrounding the lot were infested with feral cats, who thrived on an even larger colony of rats, who did battle with employees over edible, drinkable, and sometimes smokable leftovers dropped all over the lot by customers.
The Midway showed its last film - That's Entertainment Part 1 - on Saturday night, September 6, 1980. Before the final screening, co-owners Dusty and Lynn Bernard held a private party on the lot, for around 400 friends and associates. A loud rock band named Metro played, while snack bar pizzas, hot dogs, burgers, and popcorn buckets were served, along with beer and wine.
Ozone operators provided cans of black spray paint for anyone who wanted to scrawl farewell messages on the wooden green walls - the Union-Tribune (9-8-80) quoted one as reading "One of my fantasies was fulfilled here 20 years ago."
"We never had time to watch the movies," according to 50 year-old projectionist Bob Belchez, who'd worked at the Midway from 1965 to 1977. "We always had speakers to repair or equipment to keep up."
Dusty Bernard told reporters the Midway had just experienced its best summer season in years. “But I felt that the up-and-coming trend in drive-ins is the multi-screened theaters. At this point, we don’t have enough room to do that. I was afraid we’d become outdated, or that we’d lose our hold on the market.”
His father Floyd said “To stay competitive, you have to bid with the other theaters for films. Some of the studios today want 90 percent of the gross and a six-week guarantee minimum.”
The Midway Drive-In Corporation was officially dissolved in February 1987.
After being torn down, the site became home to a shopping center with a Longs Drugs, a Ralphs, and a Denny's. The area behind where the screen once stood housed a drive-through Heavenly Donuts for a while and later a Salazar's Mexican restaurant.
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"Before It Was The Gaslamp: Balboa's Last Stand" -- Cover story 6-21-07: In the late 70s/early 80s, I worked at downtown San Diego's grindhouse all-night movie theaters. This detailed feature recalls those dayz, the death of the Balboa Theatre, etc., including interviews with operators, vintage local movie ads, and more. http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs...
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