Valley drive-in theaters hang on in digital world

The Madera Drive-in features two screens that can draw up to 340 cars on weekend nights. Photo source: Yosemite-sierra.comThe Madera Drive-in features two screens that can draw up to 340 cars on weekend nights. Photo source: Yosemite-sierra.comOnce the wildly popular summer evening outing for families and teens, drive-in theatres have slipped into relative obscurity over the last few decades.

With the rise in home-theater technology and developers buying up the lots where many once sat, these relics of the past have grown few and far between save for a handful of establishments still drawing crowds from all over for a taste of the outdoor movie experience.

In the San Joaquin Valley, only a few such businesses are still in operation.

The Kings Drive-In in Armona has withstood the test of time since 1948. Located at 14th Avenue and Lacey Blvd. just west of Hanford, the drive-in opens for moviegoers every night from March to October each year.

With just one screen, The Kings Drive-In plays the latest features each week and has capacity for up to 300 cars. Owner Geraldine Graff, 83, said most customers come from Hanford, but many hail from as far as Fresno and Bakersfield. Some may have never been to a drive-in theatre before.  

“It’s a nostalgia thing. A lot of the younger generation, not so much teenagers, they think it’s a history thing and they’ve got to come,” said Graff, who took over operations after her husband Tom passed away in 2010.  “It’s families, teenagers. We get everybody. It’s a mixed crowd. In summer, it’s mostly the young the adults.” 

Besides watching a film from the comfort of one’s own car, Graff said the experience is also more economical than an indoor theater. The Kings Drive-In charges $8 per carload with a maximum of six people, while Thursday family nights discounts that rate to $5 a carload. In addition, every night is a double feature with the first film starting at 9 p.m.

While not always easy, Graff said managing the drive-in has been a passion since her husband purchased the place 30 years ago, driving to and from their home in Carmel every week to make sure things were running smoothly.

Formerly a nurse’s assistant in Monterey, Graff didn’t have quite the same involvement as her husband over the years until her husband became ill and she soon found herself taking an active role. 

With the help of her daughter, Graff said she is still learning all the technical aspects of the business while trying to preserve the place from vandals and destructive children. 

“A drive-in takes a lot of work, a lot of upkeep,” she said.  “There’s been a lot of repair because it was let go when my husband was very ill and it got run down.”

As far as profits go, Graff said simply that the business is “taking care of itself” for now.

Farther north, the Madera Drive-In features two screens playing the latest films nightly from May to August. Owner Bobby Gran said it’s not uncommon to sell out 340 parking spots on weekend evenings.

“We get a little bit of everybody, but the majority is families,” Gran said. “Merced and Madera patronizes us as well as Fresno and Kerman and other surrounding areas. We’re still the last bit of Americana left.”

The drive-in charges $7 for adults and $2 for kids ages 4-11 while movies begin playing at 8 p.m. On Monday nights, radio station Mega 97.9 turns up the fun with a promotion where they serve old school hot dogs and give out passes to different local events.

Besides soda, popcorn, nachos and other concessions, Madera Drive-In sells a 14-inch pizza for $10.

Gran, who also runs the Motor Vu Twin Drive-In in El Centro and the Hi Way Drive-In in Santa Maria, said the drive-in has always been a labor of love since his dad bought it in 1972. 

Over the years, the screens were upgraded from the wood and stucco of its 1940’s origins, the wiring was replaced and a better alarm system was put in. Also, much care is taken into the landscaping. 

But one investment that might sting, Gran said, is a trend by film companies compelling theatres to play digital format films, requiring more costly equipment over what indoor theatres are being stuck with.

“The problem is that drive-ins operate on 35 millimeter film,” Gran said. “They didn’t engineer them this way. By the time you equip them for digital, you’re easily over 100 grand per screen. It’s going to be about a $250,000 investment.”

That kind of money hasn’t come easy. Gran had to raise the prices of showings from $6.50 to $7 while the prices in the snack bar also went up recently.

As well, a successful swap meet that once brought in more money for the business was forced to close three years ago following complaints of traffic and noise from neighbors.

About 4,000 drive-ins were open in the U.S. in 1958, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. As of September 2010, there were about 370 left. Throughout California, there are only 18 or so drive-in theatres still running.

D. Edward Vogel, administrative secretary of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, said much of the decline has been due to the fact that many of the independent owners that once ran them are now passing away.

Most of them, he said, simply couldn’t pass up attractive deals for these properties that sit empty for much of the year making no money at all.

“Eventually, cities got bigger and the drive-ins incorporated into city limits and property values went up,” he said. “But generally what happened is mom and pop got older and the kids didn’t want to take them over.”

In the San Joaquin Valley, some may still remember the drive-in theatres of days gone by. The Sunnyside Drive-In on Olive Avenue was torn down in 2004 after operating for 40 years while the Starlite Drive-In drew crowds since the 1950s.

The Porterville Drive-In closed in 2004 while the California Mooney Drive-In in Visalia shut down in 2006 after a nearly 60-year run. Many more can be found at www.drive-ins.com.