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Death of a Drive-In : Pickwick Theater Shuts Down, Ending an Era for Burbank Moviegoers and Film Makers

October 08, 1989|CARLOS V. LOZANO | Times Staff Writer

The closing of the Pickwick Drive-In Theatre not only marks the end of an era for Burbank moviegoers, but for movie makers who had used the outdoor theater for premieres and as a backdrop for films.

The Pickwick, in the 1100 block of West Alameda Avenue, was a prime location for filming because of its proximity to Burbank Studios, which houses Walt Disney Co., Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros.

"It was convenient, just a few blocks away," Ron Chan, field publicist for Warner Bros., said. "It was easier to go there than other places."

Over the years, the Pickwick has been used to film scenes for such movies as "Blue Thunder," starring Roy Scheider; "Christine," featuring Keith Gordon; and "St. Ives," with Charles Bronson and Jacqueline Bisset. More recently, the theater was used to film a segment for the television series "The Outsiders."

"I had to hold up demolition for a week so they could come in here and do their filming," said A. Terrance Dickens, director of real estate for Pacific Theatres Corp., which owns the Pickwick.

Closed Sept. 10

Dickens said the theater, which closed Sept. 10, will be torn down within the next few weeks to make way for, among other things, a 55,000-square-foot Vons Pavilion shopping center.

The 800-car Pickwick, at one time Burbank's only theater, is the second drive-in in the Valley to be shut down in the last two months. With the closing of the Pickwick and the Sepulveda Drive-In on Aug. 13, only two outdoor theaters are left in the Valley and seven in all of Los Angeles County.

"It's sad," Dickens said. But, he added, "things change."

Indeed, times have changed. A May 12, 1949, flyer advertised the grand opening of the Pickwick: "Clean, healthful entertainment under the stars for the entire family," the ad boasted, all for a mere 65 cents. The pictures featured on the theater's opening night were the action adventure "Red Stallion in the Rockies" and the Dorothy Lamour comedy "The Lucky Stiff."

The theater was charging $4.50 for adults and $2.50 for teen-agers when it closed and still was losing money, officials said.

"We had banners, free drinks and popcorn . . . I remember Natalie Wood was on hand for the opening," said Frank Diaz, a veteran Pacific employee. Wood was only 12 at the time but already a movie star.

Diaz said the most memorable event at the theater was Warner Bros.' 1974 premiere of Mel Brooks' western comedy "Blazing Saddles."

At the invitation of the theater, about 250 guests--including the stars of the film, Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder--came on horseback. Drive-in speakers were attached to saddle pommels and a "horsepitality bar" was set up in front of the huge outdoor screen.

"It was quite a promotion," Diaz said. "People got up on their horses and watched the movie. It was a lot of fun."

The unusual premiere was the brainchild of the late Warner Bros. publicist Marty Weiser.

"It's legend around here," Chan said. "Mel Brooks was so pleased with the promotion that he wrote a letter praising Marty" for coming up with the idea.

Chan, like others, said he is disappointed with the decision to close the Pickwick.

'Really Sad'

"It's really sad that Pacific is going to tear it down," Chan said. "I hate to see it go because it is a landmark. It's too bad we have to sacrifice historical things for the sake of progress."

The main reason for the Pickwick's closing, Diaz said, is that single-screen theaters are no longer profitable. Successful drive-ins, as well as conventional theaters, are multiscreen, he said.

"The Pickwick sits on about 9 acres . . . Any single-screen drive-in is pretty much limited as an entertainment venue because there is no way to expand," Diaz said.

For years, the Pickwick was the only place in Burbank for big-screen entertainment. That changed in 1988 when an AMC 10 Theatre opened near the downtown intersection of First Street and Palm Avenue.

But the Pickwick, Pacific officials said, already had experienced a significant decline in business the year before with the opening of the 18-screen Universal Cineplex in Universal City, a short drive from Burbank.

"It was very successful over the years," Diaz said. "But business dropped off in recent years."

The Pickwick hosted its last premiere in 1987. The screening of Alex Cox's "Straight to Hell" drew such stars as Dennis Hopper and Emilio Estevez, both of whom camped out with friends in a 1960s Ford Falcon. Actors Buck Henry, Shelley Duvall and Ed Harris also attended the screening.

Diaz said the two remaining Valley drive-ins, the Winnetka Drive-In and the Van Nuys Drive-In, owned by Pacific, have survived because they are multiscreen theaters.

"Between the two theaters, there are nine screens," he said. "They are doing very well. They are very successful."

Still, some moviegoers insist, there was something special about the Pickwick.

Saw Rolling Hills

"At the Pickwick, you not only saw the screen but the rolling hills all around it. Nowhere else in the Valley can you get that kind of view," said Leslie Brogan, a former Burbank resident who attended one of the theater's last showings.

Brogan, 28, said she had gone to the Pickwick for "as long as I can remember. I would go there with my high school friends. Sunday was the popular day to go. But we wouldn't watch the movies too much."

Brogan admitted that the old drive-in was not as popular in recent years as it once had been. She said "only about 25 cars showed up" at the theater's last screening, a double feature of "Turner and Hooch" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."

"It's a shame," Brogan said. "Who knows, maybe 10 years from now, there won't be any drive-ins."

Burbank resident Rachel Smith, 18, said she will miss the Pickwick.

"They're knocking down a piece of history," Smith said. "I didn't go there very often, but the times I went it was very groovy."

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