Daniel Powell 11 a.m., Jan. 25
How did San Diego go from two dozen drive-in theaters to only two?
Hint: The murder of a future SD Mayor's brother had a lot to do with it
The Reader's Don Bauder has an excellent new story about former San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor's recent legal tribulations: "Mayor Mo" stole $2 million from late husband's foundation.
While O’Connor may have been one of the city’s better Mayors, I’ve never quite forgiven her for her role in dismantling San Diego’s network of drive-in theaters (aka “ozones”), which she felt were devolving into dangerous dens of iniquity. A little known story behind this (from my Reader cover feature Field of Screens: San Diego Drive-In Theaters 1947 - Today):
December 2, 1961: Campus Drive-In snack bar employee Tom O'Leary got into an argument with a 21 year-old patron Dennis J. O'Connor. Things got increasingly heated, and O'Leary ended up pulling a knife on the patron and stabbing O'Connor to death. O'Leary was charged with unlawful killing and was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
This didn't satisfy O'Connor'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.
O'Connor's father Jerome O'Connor spent so much time in courtrooms that he eventually became president of the San Diego Court Watchers Association.
In 1971, the murdered man's sister, Maureen O'Connor, became the youngest person ever to be elected to the San Diego City Council.
She was elected Mayor of San Diego in 1986, and went on to recommend the demolition and redevelopment of around a dozen outdoor theater properties, including in other San Diego counties. She co-drafted and signed a widely circulated petition to close Lemon Grove’s Ace Drive-In, a 7.6-acre parcel of land at the northeast corner of Broadway and Grove Street, complaining that police were constantly at the theater dealing with "pot smokers and indigant [sp] young people."
The Ace (which inspired a catch phrase among local tie-dyed and squinty-eyed patrons of Cheech & Chong and Groove Tube double bills: "The Ace is the Place to Space") ended up becoming home to the Village Grove apartment complex, built by Jack Guttman’s company Guttman Construction at a cost of around $8 million dollars and featuring 161 rental apartments.
Mayor Mo fast-tracked several more drive-in conversions to make things easier on firms she favored such as Guttman's, which had also built up the land formerly occupied by the Pacific Drive-In on Mission Bay Drive, north of Bluffside Avenue and near the foot of Garnet.
The Pacific DI locale ended up hosting the $10 million Bella Pacific project on the former ozone lot, featuring 120 “condominium-grade” apartments.
Though Guttman himself earned an ominous nickname on several cinema aficionado websites, “The Ozone Killer,” former Mayor Mo’s dislike and distrust of drive-in theaters certainly made it easier to whittle down San Diego’s drive-in population from its late seventies high of nearly two dozen ozones to its current tally of exactly two: The South Bay DI and the Santee DI.
And Mayor Mo once went after one of those theaters as well...
The South Bay Drive-In, open since 1958 at 2170 Coronado Avenue (one mile north of the border and with space for up to 1500 cars) was built on a triangular 13.2-acre site bordered on the north and east by Interstate 5. The former farmland was one of San Diego's many William Oldknow/Sero Amusements ventures (the South Bay is still run today by Oldknow's company, now called De Anza Land & Leisure Corporation).
An open air flea market has run on the lot since April 1977, operated by the drive-in's owners rather than being leased out as at other area ozones. It appears to have been the area's fourth drive-in swap meet (Midway began leasing to Monte Kobey's swap meet the previous summer, the Valley Drive-In held an Oceanside flea market as far back as 1971, while the Aero was holding "swap fairs" in 1960).
In 1986, the Swap Meet on the South Bay lot was the only area Meet to operate on Wednesdays. This created a big problem with the ozone's neighbors, who said the parking shortage resulted in vehicles overrunning the entire area, often blocking driveways or even parking on people's lawns. Swap Meet attendance was said to be from 3,500 to 5,800 patrons every Wednesday.
By mid-January 1987, things hadn’t improved. The City Planning Commission actually voted to suspend the Wednesday meets, but the City Council overturned the decision and offered De Anza one more chance.
"If you don't clean up your act in three months, you're not going to get your permit," Mayor Maureen O'Connor was quoted saying in the January 14, 1987 Union-Tribune.
Police Commander Jim Sing noted that ticketing on Wednesdays was three times higher than other days, and that some customers spent Tuesday night sleeping in their vehicles on the neighborhood streets. "I think they'll never be able to fix some of the problems," said Sing. “They [patrons] don't pay any attention to the traffic laws.”
Angry ozone neighbor Sue Martin dramatically told the City Council "I pray every Wednesday night and thank the Lord that I still have my child alive."
"We've taken a lot of steps to improve this," Stephen L. Pentoney, secretary-treasurer for De Anza Land and Leisure Corporation told the San Diego Union-Tribune. De Anza began offering lower admission prices to patrons who parked in the theater lot instead of outside on city streets. They also built a wall to keep patrons out of the Meet until 7 a.m., allowing the parking lot to open 45 minutes earlier and thus cutting down on parked cars backing up outside the facility at sunrise. Barricades were also erected, to detour traffic away from neighborhood streets, with six hired security guards to redirect traffic.
De Anza also got Swap Meet exhibitors and patrons to mount a write-in campaign to Save the Swap Meet. In addition, they distributed pamphlets called "It's Your Last Chance to Save the Swap Meet," with a list of "dos and donts" about parking and driving on neighborhood streets. These efforts resulted in De Anza's "conditional use permit" being extended to cover the Wednesday events.
By 1999, the South Bay Drive-In’s Swap Meet had become a local institution, praised by all but a few occasionally unhappy neighbors. Oldknow estimates that the meet brought in around $1 million dollars annually, while the land beneath the theater lot was worth around $8 million.
Maureen O'Connor's predecessor, Mayor Roger Hedgecock, also played a role in the demise of several San Diego drive-ins, most notably the Midway DI and the Frontier DI. A December 3, 1985, city council meeting presided over by Hedgecock detailed his rezoning vision for what was then referred to as "Midway Mall," covering 15 acres of the Frontier Drive-In's property.
The Frontier lot was eventually occupied by a shopping center, while the Midway DI locale (once the site of Kobey's Swap Meet) became home to a shopping center with a Longs Drugs, a Ralphs, and a Denny's. The area behind where the Midway screen once stood housed a drive-through Heavenly Donuts for a while and later a Salazar's Mexican restaurant.
The City of Oceanside spent years battling the Valley Drive-In at 3480 West Mission Avenue in Oceanside (two miles east of Interstate 5). When it opened on August 24, 1966, it was called the Mission Drive-In, though the name was changed to the Mission San Luis Rey Drive-In and then the Valley Drive-in, presumably to avoid confusion with the Mission DI in San Juan Capistrano.
Owners John and Robert Siegel, whose family has operated theaters in Oceanside since 1934, had a theater in Coronado and they owned almost every theater in Oceanside and Escondido including the Crest, the Paramount, and the Cinema Plaza.
The Siegels fought with Oceanside officials over most all their theater properties, many of which the city coveted, especially the Valley DI. The fighting included police raids, permit revocations, and even redeveloping the roads AROUND the drive-in to render its entrance driveway inoperable!
In August 1986, Valley Drive-in manager Jerry R. Beauchamp went so far as to file for a seat on the Oceanside City Council. He withdrew from the race a few weeks later, choosing to instead support candidate Paul Wick, a 50-year-old businessman who had been living in Oceanside for 25 years.
"Jerry Beauchamp was one of the union projectionists at the Valley Drive-In," longtime local projectionist Dan Whitehead recalled for the Reader. Having spent a near lifetime of service working for Walnut Properties and then Edwards Cinemas, landing him work in dozens of San Diego theaters, Whitehead remembers "He also did relief work at the Crest, Palomar, Star, and Towne theaters when Walnut had them. I always liked him. He put me in mind of a hefty, good natured southern sheriff."
A successful -- though later contentious -- swap meet was launched at the Valley DI since 1971, eventually growing to over 1000 vendors. Junior Seau was a frequently seen fixture. Originally unlicensed (as the city didn’t require one), the swap meet became a "non-conforming use" on the commercial-zoned property under code changes enacted in 1988, bringing it in line with city requirements. However, beginning around 1990, property owners John and Robert Siegel and swap-meet operator Joe Colin Crowder (who also ran a meet at the closed Escondido Drive-in) found their 3-day-weekly Swap Meet becoming increasingly unpopular, with both neighboring residents and city officials.
“It's really turned into a circus out there,” Planning Commissioner Bob Wilson told the Union-Tribune (June 1, 1990). "The success of this thing has become a detriment to the city and to the neighborhoods over there…It's creating a tremendous traffic problem.”
Another problem: Migrant workers were known to form impromptu brothels in the bushes and fields near the drive-in, wherein prostitutes would come in, a few mattresses were laid on the ground, and men lined up for their turns with the working women. Police raids occasionally resulted in a burst of men and women, in various stages of dress, leaping over and through the drive-in fence to run through the lot, seeking escape from whichever authorities were pursuing them.
Commissioner Wilson tied the bush shenanigans to the drive-in itself. "It's a shopping center for the riverbed [inhabitants] is what it is…This thing started out where everybody cleaned out their garages and went out there. It's just out of control up there…It's gone too far." In late 1991, two murders and two shootings were reported in the thickets behind the ozone screen buttressing the end of North Foussat Road.
In November 1991, responding to complaints of around 45 "love shacks" operating in the bushes and littered with countless used condoms and 6 foot-high heaps of beer cans, city workers spent a week using bulldozers, tractors, and chain saws to clear the land near the drive-in. This sent the estimated 300 or so weekend bush dwellers packing.
In 1993, Valley manager Dan Wooten talked about the city's plan to raze the ozone for a 115 acre retail complex. "The owners recently approved certain screen and equipment repairs," he told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "We'll be here one more season if we're lucky, maybe two or three. Who knows? This is the quietest summer I've had, in the five years I've been here."
Things weren’t so quiet in the brush around this ozone, though. Despite repeated sweeps to clear out transients, residents complained that little had changed. In late summer 1994, while searching for a missing 44 year-old woman named Rebecca Ann Jensen who’d last been seen at the drive-in, police found a dead male and then, almost three weeks later, Jensen’s body was found, both of them just a few dozen feet from the theater lot. Even after several transients were charged with murder, Valley neighbors fretted that the daytime Swap Meet attracted unsavory elements into their back yards.
Then, the City of Oceanside initiated-and-approved road construction along Route 76 that forced the Valley owners to move the entrance on Foussat Road, which was right about where 76 ended at the time. The new entrance was a half-mile away, on the west side of the property, near Oceanside Municipal Airport.
This caused countless would-be patrons to drive away after seeing the old gates boarded up, assuming the theater had closed.
"You know, there is no longer any respect for private property," area projectionist Dan Whitehead tells the Reader. "Really hasn't been for a long time. That Oceanside City Council is a smarmy, self-righteous downright sickening bunch. I attended a couple of their meetings with a group from my neighborhood to protest the gang activity that was beginning to take place there."
"They sit on a high dais and the lights dim up. Very theatrical. It made me want to puke. I even wrote a little piece that would up in the Oceanside newspaper in which I stated that the new City Hall was more like a theater and could possibly be put to better use were it rented out to troubadours, minstrels and traveling theater companies. I typed and printed copies in my office at the Star Theater and left them in a pile in the city hall lobby with my signature affixed. I was pleasantly surprised when it showed up in the paper."
The Valley stopped screening movies altogether after the 1999 season, with the last admission price $4.50 per person. All four screens were left standing, and the snack bar remains today, with the original popcorn and ice machines still intact.
The Vista Drive-In on Thunder Drive at Highway 78 in Vista, operated by Western Amusement Company, ran afoul of City officials over screening sexy movies.
In 1972, the year Deep Throat was released, the Vista began showing adult movies, at first non-explicit R-rated fare but then actual, factual hardcore. Vista City Council member Gloria McClellan actively campaigned to get the Vista to either switch back to family movies or be shut down entirely.
"This is the first time in my life that I saw a 50-foot nudie on the screen," she told the LA Times. "It was right next to the hospital. The women's clubs, the churches, the doctors, I'm the first one they called. They saw these 50-foot nudies and said we can't have this."
In 1975 McClellan convinced a local sheriff's deputy to attempt driving onto the lot one night with his underage teen daughter in a car, along with some of her (also underage) friends. When the deputy later told the City Council about being sold tickets and admitted with no questions asked, Vista Drive-in operators quickly caved and went back to all-age screenings.
It didn't help. The Vista Drive-in closed around 1978. The site was later occupied by buildings in the Tri-City Medical Center.
The Aero Drive-In at 1470 E. Broadway in El Cajon didn't run into City interference until late in its life but, once this ozone was targeted in their crosshairs, El Cajon was just as anxious to put this drive-in to sleep as they were to close the city's x-rated Pussycat Theater.
When the U.S. Navy made an offer to buy the 10-acre parcel beneath the Aero in April 1989, they were hoping to develop affordable apartments for 100 to 150 military families. "I, for one, welcome you to the city of El Cajon," Mayor John Reber was quoted saying at the time.
However, the land owner, Voltaire Company Limited of Del Mar, soured the Navy deal. "Our real-estate department had made contact with [the owner] a couple of times," the Navy's housing acquisition planner Mary Jane Bailey told the Union-Tribune (August 25, 1989). "For whatever reason, he decided he did not want to sell…It's dead in the water."
Around the same time, Aero owner Don Johnson met with city officials to discuss the ever-growing backlog of complaints from neighbors about the weekend Swap Meet operation. Johnson hired security guards to patrol neighborhood streets and deter illegal parking, while police accelerated enforcement of traffic regulations before and during Meets, especially along hard-hit Luke Lane. Johnson also began letting sellers into the lot at 6 a.m., an hour earlier than buyers, which alleviated some of the weekend traffic congestion at Broadway and Third Street attributed to the Meet.
When a local developer announced plans to build a shopping center on the 9 acre site, over 200 Aero neighbors had signed a petition favoring the development; one of them, John Kremensky, told the council he’d been living in the shadow of the drive-in for 30 years.
"If you don't approve this plan, that drive-in will still be standing when we're all in the ground," he told the City Council.
Would-be developer Bob Cahan was unhappy to see his shopping center shot down. "He [owner Don Johnson] has a money-making operation there, and he owes nothing on the property," he told the Union-Tribune (8-4-94). "I don't see any reason for him to walk away from that."
Except the Aero wasn’t really much of a “money-making operation.” The theater incurred a loss of around $45,000 in summer 1997, causing the owner to announce it’d be closing, at least temporarily, in mid-September of that year. Several staffers were laid off.
In early 1999, after the owner passed away, new owners decided the damaged screen (hit hard by the previous winter's storms) wasn't worth replacing. The theater did reopen, but only briefly. On its final night, advertised in the local Union-Tribune and the Reader, the Aero offered free admission, free popcorn, and free soda to all attendees.
Only four cars showed up.
In June 1999, a crane completed dismantling the screen, though the lot was still used for swap meets. In 2003, around 90 condo-style homes were built on the property.
With so much opposition from various City agencies, it's hard to believe that, back in the day, at least one future City official WORKED at a local drive-in, where a U.S. Presidential candidate stumped as well...
The Escondido Drive-In opened in 1950 on the southwest corner of Escondido Boulevard, at 427 Grant (later 755 West Mission). The lot only fit 325 cars, miniscule by ozone standards. The family of owner and operator Dan Johnston had been running theaters in the area since before World War II - when this ozone opened, they also ran Escondido’s Pala and Ritz theaters, which were only a block apart on Grand.
Future Escondido Mayor Wil Mason was one of the drive-in's original employees. "My main job was to check the trunks of cars for kids sneaking in," he told the Union-Tribune (1-25-04).
During its debut 1950 season, the Escondido Drive-in hosted political stumper Richard Nixon, whose California campaign included stops at several other ozones, but no others in San Diego. Since there was no footer "stage" constructed in front of the screen, Drive-in Dick stood up on a car to address the rally.
The Escondido DI lot was for awhile so blessed with good fortune that, in 1962, pastor Richard Huls began holding Sunday church services on the theater lot. Two years later, he installed drive-in style speakers in the back parking lot at nearby Community Reformed Church on Felicita Avenue, where he continued the drive-up church services all the way into the next millennium.
This theater moved to 755 West Grant in 1966, losing 25 car spaces in the process. The old locale was eventually occupied by a DMV office, and the new location began running into trouble with the City of Escondido, mainly over its own Swap Meet operation.
The Swap Meet (incorporated October 1999) was periodically raided by immigration officials rounding up suspected undocumented workers. In addition, residents of the Village Grove Apartments, across the street from the theater, filed numerous complaints with the city.
“We like where we live” apartment manager Carol Spaziano told the Union-Tribune (7-16-99), “but my tenants don't feel safe because of the people coming out of the swap meet on weekends.”
On April 15, 2009, the Escondido Drive-In screen was torn down by AMG Demolition, after swap meet operators decided it was too expensive to repair and city officials declined to designate it "historic" enough to merit saving.
"Fifty years is our rule of thumb on historical significance," the city's planning chief Jon Brindle told the North County Times (4-15-09). "It was also not a particularly unique kind of movie screen."
"It's a neat piece of the town, but it's nothing incredibly special," said Bob McQuead of Escondido's Historic Preservation Commission. "There might be something someday I will fight to preserve, but not this."
"Field Of Screens" -- Cover story 7-6-06: Complete theater-by-theater history of San Diego drive-ins thru the years, including interviews with operators and attendees, dozens of rare and unpublished photos, vintage local theater ads, and more. http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs...
"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...
"Pussycat Theaters: When 'Cathouses Ruled California" -- for the first time, the inside story of the west coast Pussycat Theater chain of adult moviehouses, which peaked in the '70s but later died out. Company head Vince Miranda owned and lived part time at the Hotel San Diego, operating several other local theaters downtown and in Oceanside, Escondido, etc. Told by those who actually ran the theaters, with a complete theater-by-theater encyclopedia covering every Pussycat that ever screened in CA -- http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs...
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- New Drive-In Will Be San Diego's 1st New DI Theater Since 1966 — June 12, 2012