On June 18, 1941, at a time when the evening air was perfumed by orange blossoms, the swallows still came straight back to Capistrano and no one had heard of Pearl Harbor, something appeared in the night sky above Orange that no one had ever seen there before.
There it was, on the giant outdoor screen of the Orange Drive-In Theatre. Immense Clark Gables and Judy Garlands and Movietone newsreels, seen through the vertical windshields of 9-year-old Model A Fords by people snuggling close in the dark and listening to the gravelly sound of the speaker hanging from the window.
It was only the second drive-in in Southern California. Pacific Theaters, which had built the place, figured the idea would be perfect for balmy Orange County. However, it wasn't until 14 years later, almost to the day--after a world war and the subsequent migration of veterans and their families to new homes in the suburbs--that other drive-ins appeared in the county with the opening of the Hi-Way 39 Drive-In Theatre in Westminster and, a month later, the Anaheim Drive-In Theatre in Anaheim.
By then, the drive-in was becoming a Southern California institution, combining three of the great cultural passions of Southland life: good weather, the movie biz and the automobile. People went to the drive-in to meet friends, to munch popcorn, to giggle and snuggle in the dark, to let the kids watch the cartoons and fall asleep in the back seat, to check out the opposite sex at the snack bar, to show off their wheels and, sometimes incidentally, to watch the movies. They got a double feature and a cartoon.
Today they still do. And in the era of the multi-screen mall walk-in, ear-numbing Dolby sound and walk-in ticket prices for single features creeping inexorably toward double figures, Orange County film fans are still keeping drive-ins in business, particularly while warm summer nights remain. Though there are fewer drive-ins in the county than there once were (there are six--two of them, the Anaheim and La Habra drive-ins, closed for the winter last week), they remain the choice for thousands of Orange County moviegoers who prefer their films alfresco.
As recently as 1985, there were nine drive-ins in Orange County. But, said Milt Moritz, a spokesman for Los Angeles-based Pacific Theaters, which owns five of the six drive-ins in Orange County, their volume of business, contrasted with other newer, multi-screen theaters, was not enough to justify keeping the property in the face of soaring land values. The remaining drive-ins in the county, however, are adequate to handle the number of customers, Moritz said, and it is unlikely that Pacific will build new ones.
Still, even with competition in the form of walk-ins, concerts and videotape, Moritz insisted the day of the drive-in has not passed.
"Those people who are real moviegoers want to see a movie for the first time on that big screen," he said. "It's just like it was in the '50s, when you could come as you are, just pile into your station wagon and go. You can just pull in and you don't have to climb over a row of seats. It's an alternative way of seeing motion pictures where you're the master of your own ship."
Which, say patrons, is exactly the point.
"If you want to laugh out loud with your friends, or walk around when you want, you can do it here," said Dawn Ameis of Newport Beach, munching on take-out food at the Hi-Way 39 with two of her friends, Denise Vienne of Newport Beach and her sister Katherine, from Loma Linda.
"We can bring the entire family," said Cindy Seitz of Fountain Valley, who had arrived with her daughter Kelly, her friend Les Rowe and her two chows, Sushi and Bruin. "And the dogs like to get out too. You can get out in the fresh air, stand up when you want. It's pretty much a summer thing for us."
While many of the drive-in patrons of the '50s and '60s watched the movies from customized cars and caught the errant evening breeze by putting the top down, a portion of today's moviegoers have embraced the camper, the pickup truck and the van, say theater personnel. It has become common practice to back such vehicles into spaces toward the rear of the lot specifically reserved for tall vehicles and turn them into small living rooms--or, perhaps, porches--complete with lawn chairs, blankets, portable stereos and food of all sorts.
"Walk-ins are out for me," said Steve Decker of Fountain Valley, lounging in the bed of his pickup with his brother Bob and Bob's 8-year-old son, Joshua. "The chairs are too small, and my legs get cramps because I'm tall. And someone always brings a kid who cries. I'd rather be out here in the fresh air."
A new generation of moviegoers is discovering the pleasures of the drive-in, Moritz said.