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Converting to Business Park : Drive-in Theater to Play Other Role

November 16, 1986|RUTH RYON | Times Staff Writer

For 37 years, the show went on at Pacific Theatres' drive-in at 1951 N. Gaffey St. in San Pedro before it closed its doors in September.

Now grading is expected to begin any day, and construction is scheduled to start in December on a 137,000-square-foot business park and 75,000-square-foot mini-storage facility.

Is it a trend? Are drive-ins in the Sun Belt starting to fade as fast as drive-ins in the rest of the country?

Robert W. Selig, president of the Theatre Assn. of California, voices a resounding "no."

More Productive Use

"Drive-ins in the Sun Belt continue to thrive, playing the top films concurrently with the walk-ins and becoming greatly modernized in many ways," he said. "The San Pedro drive-in demise is only typical of any real estate deal. If a more productive use of the land is found, then the drive-in may go."

A more productive use isn't difficult to find when box-office receipts are down, because drive-ins have, Selig said, "impressive assemblages of land--12 acres or more--that are very well located at the confluence of freeways and arterial highways."

Such was the case with the drive-in in San Pedro, where business was slow, said Frans Verschoor, Pacific's director of mini-storage operations and developer of the $10-million project.

"Many drive-ins are still a very good business proposition," he said, "but this theater saw a gradual change in population with an influx of Spanish speaking people.

'Looked at Another Use'

"So what we did about three years ago was switch from English programming to Spanish pictures. It wasn't a big success, so we looked at another use (for the site). We concluded that a mini-storage facility and business park would be a good idea."

The 13-acre San Pedro site will also have RV and boat storage areas that may eventually be turned into mini-storage or business-park space. "So we have built-in flexibility," Verschoor said.

Developing a mini-storage facility on the site of a floundering drive-in was a relatively new notion.

Pacific has been operating drive-in and walk-in theaters for 40 years and currently runs a total of 65 theaters including 34 drive-ins or a total of 166 movie screens including 70 at drive-ins. However, it was just a couple of years ago that Pacific set up a mini-storage division, and 18 months ago, opened its first facility on the site of its Buena Park drive-in, at 6700 Lincoln Ave.

Daytime Swap Meets

Since then, Pacific not only made plans to turn its San Pedro drive-in into another use, but the theater operation is also developing a mini-storage facility in Honolulu.

"Pacific is a pioneer," Verschoor said. "The concept of incubator units or industrial parks is not new, but the fact that we are doing them on drive-in properties is."

Daytime use of drive-in movie theaters for swap meets has been a successful practice across the country for some time, Selig said, and other theater companies have real estate development arms, but Pacific is the largest of the drive-in circuits with one.

It's ironic that the new mini-storage and business-park use for old drive-ins would get its start in the Sun Belt, where Selig says drive-ins are doing so well.

Open Only Three Months

Drive-ins have not been great money-makers in other areas of the country, where--because of the weather--the theaters are open only three months out of the year. Mainly because of this, Selig figures, the number of drive-in movie screens nationwide has decreased over the years.

The first drive-in movie theater opened in New Jersey in the early '30s, a spokesman for Pacific Theatres said.

The number of drive-in movie screens went from an all-time high of 4,063 in 1958, to 2,840 in 1984, the most recent year that a national figure was available, Selig said. By comparison, in California, there were 256 drive-in movie screens in 1958 and 484 in 1986.

"We have divested a few and increased others by multi-plexing," Verschoor explained. By multi-plexing, he meant installing several screens in one location.

Surveyed Patrons

"Multi-plexing provides higher efficiency than a single screen," he continued. "At a 1,200-car theater with one screen, you might only half fill the theater, but with four screens--each showing to 400 cars--you have four chances to draw a crowd, especially with a different picture on each screen."

What kind of a crowd? "We were puzzled ourselves at the continuing wave of good audiences," Selig said. "So we did a survey to find out who was going to the drive-in movies."

At first, he was surprised when the survey showed that 72% of the audience in the Sun Belt was made up of young married people with two or more children.

"So the drive-in has emerged from being a passion pit," he said with a chuckle, referring to the showing in a few locations of X-rated films and the old notion that the drive-in was a place for teen-agers to neck.

No Baby Sitters

After he thought about the survey, he said, it made sense. "After all, where else can a family that can't afford a baby sitter and parking and have an evening out for $8 to $10?" he asked.

"Of course, we also have a lot of dating couples, handicapped people and other folks who just don't want to dress up."

And this means, he contends, that the drive-in movie has a bright future in the Sun Belt even though some of the theaters are being converted to other uses.

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