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Roll In, Roll 'Em : Drive-Ins Clinging to Life as a New Generation Mixes Movies and Its Cars

July 02, 1993|JEFF PRUGH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The drive-in movie

Where we'd go

And somehow never watch the

show.

--"Moments to Remember," The Four Lads, 1955

They stand like headstones in nostalgia's graveyard, movie screens clinging tolife on 90-foot-tall struc tures called towers.

Say "hello again" to an old friend--the drive-in theater.

And no jokes, please, about all that smooching on the screen taking a, well, back seat to those steamier scenes inside the cars.

You see, that just doesn't square with management's idea that drive-ins are supposed to entertain families-- and be a "baby-sitter," too. And some moviegoers will tell you flatly that drive-ins are no longer, as someone once cracked, theaters with "wall-to-wall car petting."

"The movies are better now," says Mike Strange, 21, a Chatsworth construction worker. "The people come here and watch the movies--and then they go home and fool around."

His girlfriend, Shani Marcus, 20, sits atop Strange's shoulders beside a friend's car on a Friday, waiting for one of six double features to begin at Pacific's Winnetka Drive-In Theatre, which sits on 27 acres in Chatsworth.

It's one of only two outdoor movie venues remaining in the San Fernando Valley (the other: Pacific's Van Nuys Drive-In), both bucking a nationwide decline in the number of drive-in screens from a peak of about 4,000 in 1958 to only 870 today, according to the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, based in North Hollywood.

"They used to play just awful movies at the drive-in," Shani Marcus says, "but now they're better."

At dusk, as the big screens light up, one by one, Marcus and her boyfriend join a sellout crowd of customers in cars, pickups, vans, campers, station wagons and motor homes to watch the debut of "Jurassic Park."

The film's monstrous hype and hoopla seem appropriate for its plot: dinosaurs invading a theme park and eating people.

*

Play no funeral march for the drive-in movie. Put that obituary on hold. The patient's vital signs are flagging, but the prognosis is mixed.

To hear some moviegoers tell it, not all drive-ins today are dinosaurs that people kill off by staying away.

"If you listened to some people, you'd think nobody goes to the drive-in anymore," Terri Hart, 36, of Chatsworth, says in the pre-show twilight at the Winnetka, accompanied by her two sons and one of their friends.

"We go to the drive-in all the time. For us, it's affordable. You don't have to spend $50 the way you might have to for an evening at the walk-in. I can take the kids in their pajamas, if I want."

Drive-in loyalists tend to be working-class young and old, notably baby boomers rekindling the dear old 1940s and 1950s through their children, or the older couple who show up most Friday nights at the Winnetka. "They're always first in line," says Kirk Hansen, the theater's managing director. "They order their large cheese pizza, and he plays the video games while they wait for the show to start."

To the very young, a night at the drive-in packs novelty.

"It's amazing to see kids come here and think they're discovering something," says Milton Moritz, Pacific Theatres' vice president of advertising and public relations. "It's like going to a Johnny Rockets diner, sitting down at the counter and saying, 'This is something new !' "

Meanwhile, as Terri Hart talks above the din of boom boxes and car radios--all sounding like a "battle of the bands" amid a sprawl of tailgate picnics, lawn chairs, playpens and Frisbee games--she, too, remains a confirmed drive-in devotee.

"Out here," Hart says, "you have a little more freedom to move around and wiggle and not annoy the person next to you."

To another customer, Bryan Bohannan, 36, of Granada Hills, the price couldn't be better--especially for a double feature (playing with "Jurassic Park" was "Gremlins 2: The New Batch"). It cost just $4.50 (one adult admission) for Bohannan and his four children. Admission at the Winnetka and the Van Nuys, both Pacific Theatres, is free for youngsters under 12--and $2.50 for children 12 to 15, if accompanied by a parent.

"Instead of spending all the money on seats," Bohannan says, "I bought three pizzas and soda pop here--and I bring the ice, the popcorn and the candy bars. So basically, I have everything I want to be comfortable."

As he talks on, his three youngest children--Benjamin, 8; Sara, 5, and Travis, 2--snuggle up in blankets, side by side, atop the roof of his 1980s-model Cadillac Eldorado, waiting for the show to begin.

"The kids like to sleep on the roof and watch the show," Bohannan says. "I just sit in the car. And they just eat all night long. We like it."

His oldest child, Adam, 11, eavesdrops nearby, his face lighting up when he's asked what he likes most about the drive-in.

"Staying up late," he says. "And the bigger screen, of course."

Safety considerations, too, rank with comfort and affordability among many drive-in patrons.

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