Nestled in the rear of her hard-body Jeep at the Sepulveda Drive-In, Marcia Dungen was impervious to the cold.
The once-a-week drive-in patron was prepared. She simply turned on the heat and pulled a blanket over her legs.
"It's great. I live right around the corner and have been coming here since I moved to the area in July," she said cheerfully. "It's peaceful and quiet--and cheaper."
The Van Nuys woman's sentiments echo those of other drive-in movie die-hards who happily endure inclement weather and a less-than-perfect picture to watch a movie from the comfort and privacy of their cars.
There are four drive-ins in the San Fernando Valley, each of which is open 365 days a year. Pacific Theatres owns and operates them, along with 27 other drive-ins in Southern California. With the exception of the Sepulveda Drive-In, which charges $5 a carload, admission prices at Valley drive-ins are $4 for adults, $2 for children 12 to 15 and free for children under 12.
'Park-Ins' Became Craze
Drive-ins--or "park-ins" as they were first called--began in 1933, when Richard Hollingshead opened the first of its kind in Camden, N.J. The following year, Angelenos were going to Pacific's original drive-in theater at Westwood and Pico boulevards to enjoy the new craze.
During their heyday in the late '50s, there were 4,063 drive-ins across the country, said Robert W. Selig, president of the Theatre Assn. of California. But, as of 1986, the Motion Picture Assn. reports that the number has fallen to 2,813, many of which now have multiple screens.
Over the past several years drive-in theaters have been closing, including five in the Valley and Thousand Oaks. Escalating real estate prices are often the cause, said Selig. "If that land becomes sufficiently valuable for other uses, it may be converted," he explained.
The land that the Sepulveda Drive-In occupies in Van Nuys is assessed at about $377,000, and the land the Pickwick Drive-In is on in Burbank is assessed at $580,000. Pacific Theatres does not own these parcels in their entirety. It leases parts of them, according to Frank Diaz, Pacific's director of theater operations.
The company, however, does own the land for the Van Nuys Drive-In--assessed at just over $1 million--as well as the land occupied by Chatsworth's Winnetka Drive-In--assessed at close to $2 million. But Milton Moritz, Pacific's vice president of advertising, said there are no plans to transform the Valley's four drive-ins. He said all of them are moneymakers.
"Business definitely drops during the winter months," he said. "But when you run a business 365 days a year--rain or shine--it averages itself out."
In recent years, the company has invested millions of dollars to improve the Winnetka and Van Nuys drive-ins. In 1975, the Winnetka opened as a four-screen drive-in. In 1985, two screens were added, and the capacity of the drive-in was increased to 2,220 cars. The original Van Nuys Drive-In, built in 1948, was torn down in 1983 and a triplex, with a capacity of 1,125 cars, now stands in its place.
"You have to give people more variety," said Frank Diaz, Pacific's director of theater operations. "I don't believe single screens--no matter what part of the country they're located in--are going to be around too long."
Pacific's "plexed" theaters also offer patrons something called cine-fi, a sound system that makes it possible to pick up the movie's sound over a car's AM radio. The snack bars at those theaters have also been remodeled.
Diaz said that, although some of the drive-ins have changed "rather dramatically" over the years, the patrons haven't. "They like to be casual. They don't want to fuss," he said.
The reasons people give for attending drive-ins are as varied as the individuals themselves. Some say they are glad they don't have to listen to the chattering of other moviegoers; others say they enjoy talking with their friends during the film. Some say they are glad they can smoke; others say they prefer not being around smokers.
At the Sepulveda Drive-In one recent weekend, there were those who enjoyed dressing down, like Marie Clark of La Crescenta, and those like 19-year-old Jesse Raygoza of Van Nuys, who preferred to dress up--especially since he often takes his dates there.
The Durbins of Canoga Park were overjoyed that their feet didn't stick to the floor. So was 14-year-old Erica Lifonzo of Sun Valley, who likes to take her shoes off at the drive-in.
Melissa and Robert Garza of Highland Park and their 4-year-old daughter, Roxanna, agreed that the benefits of the drive-ins far outweigh the cold. Twenty years ago, dressed in her pajamas, Melissa used to visit the Pickwick in Burbank with her parents. On a recent night there, Roxanna was ready for a night at the movies in her own tiny striped nightshirt.
"It's real private, and you can bring your children," said Melissa Garza. "The prices are a lot more reasonable."