They're the last soldiers standing in what used to be a packed battlefield of screens, in a city that used to host over two dozen outdoor theaters, spread out all the way from the border to Oceanside.
Governor Gavin Newsom announced on Monday that all indoor operations must temporarily cease for restaurants, wineries, family entertainment, zoos, museums, cardrooms, and movie theaters. However, both the South Bay Drive-In and the Santee Drive-In will be allowed to resume screenings, with new safety precautions in place.
Santee Drive-In courtesy Facebook
The Santee Drive-In at 10990 North Woodside Avenue was built in 1958 by James and Patti Henry, along with sometime partner and builder Walter Long. In 1961, the Santee was only charging $1.50 per carload, boosting attendance through 1963. A playground with a merry-go-round, swingsets, and monkey bars used to sit in the grass area beneath the screen, until rising insurance rates forced owners to remove all the equipment. Lawnchairs lined up in front of the screen were also removed, possibly to discourage pedestrian gate crashers, but also eliminating the need to landscape that part of the lot quite so meticulously.
By 1973, fortunes had downturned and the theater was screening X-rated triple features. That year, a second screen was added; for a time, features like Last House on the Left and Ned Kelly would show on one screen, while porn unspooled on the other. For a short time, there was even a drive-in church service on the lot every Sunday, while sex flicks screened at night, making for quite the eye-catching marquee.
A daytime swap meet began running on the lot in July 1982 (at the time, the Henrys formed a separate corporation to run this endeavor, but it was later owned by a separate unconnected party). Joe Crowder (who also owned drive-ins in Escondido and Oceanside that held swap meets) next ran the lot’s resale market. The swap meet's next operators featured monthly shows themed for ham-radio enthusiasts and sports-equipment traders.
With two 1.85:1-ratio screens facing each other and room for 700 cars, it's been many years since they took out the last two rows of speakers on poles and began broadcasting films in FM sound. The orange-painted bathrooms used to be a little dicey, but their snack-bar food is more than edible and very affordable.
Though there is a scarcity of new releases, older films are being trotted out for double features on both screens. Starting Friday, July 17, they'll be showing Palm Springs with Relic on one screen and The Goonies with My Spy on the other.
The South Bay Drive-In, open since 1958 at 2170 Coronado Avenue, sits one mile north of the border, with space for up to 1500 cars. It was another William Oldknow/Sero Amusements venture, still run by Oldknow's company, now called De Anza Land & Leisure Corporation, which opened San Diego's second drive-in, the Rancho, and operated several others. Originally called the Bayview and sporting a single screen, in the mid-'70s the South Bay added two more screens. Most of the speaker poles were phased out for AM sound in 1972, and then FM beginning in the early '80s (movies are currently broadcast in stereo, via FM only). The snack bar has been renovated a few times, most recently sporting a nautical theme, with the entire concession building painted blue and white and designed to resemble a ship, portholes and all.
South Bay entrance 1999 - Drive-In Theatre Fan Club 1999 Yearbook
The same company also runs the six-screen Redwood in Salt Lake City, the four-screen Mission in Pomona, the four-screen De Anza in Tucson, and the three-screen Van Buren and three-screen Rubidoux in Riverside, California. The De Anza company really goes all out for the Starlight Drive-In near Atlanta. This well-advertised ozone regularly hosts pop-culture conventions and car shows on its lot during the day, and frequent "Drive-In Madness" theme-athons (often with live band performances) run all night long.
A swap meet started up on the lot in 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 third drive-in swap meet (Midway began leasing to Monte Kobey's swap meet the previous summer, and the Valley Drive-In held an Oceanside flea market as far back as 1971).
The main screen number one at the South Bay blew down during the early 2003 winter storms and had to be replaced that spring, at a cost of around $60,000. In summer 2005, a new Technalight installation was done on the projectors for all three South Bay screens. It may be the only drive-in in the U.S. to serve menudo.
The South Bay is rotating features such as Archive, Palm Springs, The Goonies, Ghostbusters, and others. Their website lists five days' worth of programming at time, with new schedules posted weekly on Wednesdays for that Friday through the following Thursday.
On July 25, they'll screen the recent Blake Shelton drive-in concert film that also features Gwen Stefani and Trace Adkins.