The first drive-in theater I snuck into in San Diego was also the first one built here, the Midway, on the northwest corner of Mission Bay Drive and Sports Arena Boulevard. It was December 1979, and I was already camping out for concert tix in the nearby arena parking lot (Frank Zappa, well worth the cold 'n' cramps). Friends held our spots while three of us went down the road to attempt sneaking into the single-screen Midway to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with no plan as to what we'd do once inside (I guess we assumed we could sit near a speaker pole and not be noticed).
Dusty-yellow and surrounded by palm trees, the Midway's sloping hollow wall proved easy enough to scale, but it made the damnedest noise as we slid down the other side, and it was obvious that half the lot was staring at us. As soon as our feet hit the pavement, some guys rolled up in a beach-buggy-style cart and hauled us off the premises to the sound of paying patrons laughing as we were wheeled past their comfy, warm cars and dropped outside the exit gate. I vowed to return as soon as I owned a car, and before long I did have a vehicle (of sorts, an old Rambler) and I was frequenting every outdoor movie screen I could find within safe driving distance of downtown (about 45 miles, given my dicey wheels). I had become a so-called "ozoner."
The Midway Drive-In was constructed in late 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, eventually owning a majority share. Originally designed for 400 cars, there were also bleacher-style benches for up to 200 walk-ins. 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. By late 1948, individual car speakers on poles protruded from cement islands sprinkling the lot. The snack bar sat a few feet below the rest of the graded property, with the projection booth on top of the concession building.
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. 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 screen-ad sponsor Genie), and later, "by-the-carload" pricing. In 1953, theater operators Sero Amusements Company purchased 30,000 of the 110,000 outstanding shares of common stock in the Midway Drive-In Theatre Corporation. At that time, it was one of 60 Midway Drive-Ins operating in the U.S. Sero took over management and expanded the lot to fit around 700 cars. The company would also run the nearby Frontier Drive-In (later 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 most of the remaining stake in the theater. 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 $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). The first 70mm screening was King of Kings, starring Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus, beginning April 11, 1962, and shown in "Super Technirama 70." A 70mm reissue of Oklahoma! ran at the Midway beginning April 25 and attracted big crowds but, 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 M*ASH 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 began seeing daytime use when Monte Kobey brought his San Diego Swap Meet to the locale in 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, though 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 films in September 1981: Chariots of Fire and Mommie Dearest. 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.
Related feature: Intermission