Here's Your Summer Guide to SoCal's Drive-In Movie Theaters

Mission Tiki Drive-In Theater's tiki-head gardenEXPAND
Mission Tiki Drive-In Theater's tiki-head garden
Courtesy Mission Tiki Drive-In

The city of Montclair is a small tract of land situated between Pomona and Upland, which was once swaddled in the sweet scent of citrus trees. It used to be named Monte Vista, but there was another town of the same name in California, so a 1958 vote changed the moniker. Montclair's claim to fame has long been its prescience in building a shopping mega-complex in the postwar boom, making the city the shopping destination for citizens from surrounding areas, especially kids from the Claremont Colleges. But the less discovered gem of Montclair is the Mission Tiki Drive-In Theater.

From Los Angeles, it's about an hour drive, so plan ahead for some car time (I listened to two units of an Italian-language lesson: Io capisco un po d'Italiano!). I highly recommend arriving to the theater at least an hour before the first film of the double feature begins. In most cases, you'll want to aim for around 7:15 p.m. for an 8:15 showtime — you'll have four double bills to choose from, and most, if not all, are first-run new releases.

Pack as if you're going to a picnic in the park. To enjoy the drive-in like a pro, your fantasy supply list for the night should include: folding lawn chairs; a blanket; a battery-powered boombox with FM radio; and a picnic basket filled with La Croix, hummus, pitas, olives, multiple cheeses, fruit and baguette. It's not necessary to sit outside of your car — running your battery for the FM sound output is completely acceptable, and it's even recommended on a windy day. But on a nice summer night, it's fun to be under the stars.

Now that you're packed, you can get on the highway. From the 10 eastbound, the shopping centers are visible, and while the drive-in isn't far from the Indian Hill Boulevard exit, you'll still have to travel a bit south to get there. On your way, you'll pass by Juanita's Drive-In, an In-N-Out and Rosy's Tacos; the theater has a full concession stand, but remember that you'll be there for a minimum of six hours if you stay for both films. Vegans and gluten-free folks will have to think ahead to bring dinner, which is a snap if you hit up Pho Ha Vietnamese cafe off the freeway, or if you take a quick detour north to Loving Hut Organic.

Then you arrive at the drive-in. As you cross over the bridge, you'll see the giant screens rise up on the horizon on your right — don't miss the entrance right after the bridge.

Once at the theater, you'll join the line of cars. Until the drive-in officially opens, people toss Frisbees and footballs to pass the time, but when the ticket takers open their booths, folks are anything but lackadaisical in the rush to find their perfect spot — which is why it's good to be there early.

You'll want to find a spot about four rows back from the screen and dead center. If you've got a hatchback, maybe park so you can open that up to camp, but make sure you know how to kill your interior lights before you try it. Nothing ruins the drive-in mood like some asshole with his lights on.

Mission Tiki Drive-In Theater in MontclairEXPAND
Mission Tiki Drive-In Theater in Montclair
Courtesy Mission Tiki Drive-In

You can set up your chairs and crack open a La Croix right away or head to the concession stand, which is designed to look like a tiki hut. The theater was built in 1956, right before Montclair hit its shopping-center heyday, but the tiki theme came in a 2006 renovation, which updated the tech to premium digital projection.

The concession stand got an update, too, with a full kitchen, though most of the Mexican-food menu isn't available at night. Like most drive-ins, Mission Tiki operates as a swap meet during the day, and that's when you can order the chilaquiles. At night, it offers spiced-up movie-theater fare: slutty gas-station chips and nacho cheese, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, whole pizzas, churros and buckets of popcorn with a do-it-yourself fake-butter dispenser. Ask whoever's working at the register if they're serving any of the burritos and quesadillas, if you're so inclined, because most of the time they'll accommodate you with a secret, limited menu.

With all the amenities taken care of, the only thing left to do is party it up with your friends in this humongous parking lot until the sun sets and the first previews play. (You could also visit the theater's odd tiki-head garden for a peaceful reprieve.)

Aside from stargazing and having an excuse to slurp up nacho cheese, the best part of a drive-in is the communal experience, where you can lean over to your movie mates and comment on how ridiculously unbelievable that CGI scene was, which would normally get you shushed out of an ArcLight. And for $9, you get to see two films in the open air, as if you've hit your head and traveled back in time.

Upcoming Events

10798 Ramona Ave., Montclair; (909) 628-0511, missiontiki.com.

SOCAL DRIVE-INS

If you're down for a drive-in road trip, check out these other theaters in Southern California.

Skyline Drive-in Theater: The Skyline has been holding down the desert movie crowd in Barstow since 1964 but added a second screen to its tiny operation in 2000. Other than that, this theater and its iconic mustard-yellow concession shop have retained their midcentury style and charm. The Skyline gets a fair amount of wind, which interrupts screenings, so check the weather before heading out. You can always drop in at the Route 66 or Western American Railroad museums to kill time if there are delays. 31175 Old Hwy. 58, Barstow; (760) 256-3333.

Smith's Ranch Drive-in Theater: This drive-in has a history dating back to the 1920s, when the Smith family came to the desert to homestead. Their property became a gathering place and at one point held a school for the children, who all had jobs somewhere on the ranch — some lucky kid got to be the projectionist. Today, it's 5 bucks a head to see blockbusters on the big screen, but the historical value of this place is priceless. After a day of trekking around the Wall Street Mill trail and gambling at Tortoise Rock Casino, relax with a movie under the stars. 4584 Adobe Road, Twentynine Palms; (760) 367-7713, 29drive-in.com.

Rubidoux Drive-in Theater and Van Buren Drive-in Theater: Riverside is the rare city with dueling drive-ins; both are now owned by the same folks, so there's no competition. Each has an impressive history — Rubidoux opened in 1948 to entertain postwar suburbanites, and Van Buren opened in 1964 on what was once a sprawling orange grove. Both boast a $9 double feature to keep you (and the kids) entertained for the night. Check out the Castle Park carnival rides nearby if you need an intermission. Van Buren Drive-In, 3035 Van Buren Blvd., Riverside; (951) 688-2360, vanburendriveintheatre.com. Rubidoux Drive-In, 3770 Opal St., Riverside; (951) 683-4455, rubidouxdrivein.com.

West Wind Santa Barbara Drive-in Movie Theater: The West Wind is owned by the nation's largest drive-in theater company, which finds defunct lots ravaged by nature and neglect and renovates them with state-of-the-art technology. The West Wind is so close to the coast that you can feel and smell that beach air blowing through your car windows. In the summer, expect special events such as Luau Night, where singers and dancers entertain before screenings. The retro arcade is open the entire night. 907 S. Kellogg Ave, Goleta; (805) 964-9050, westwinddi.com.


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