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The Last Drive-in

Almost showtime: Sunset at the Vineland (Photo by Rena Kosnett)

I had just bolted the Malibu Inn, where Kid Rock and wig-wearing thespian Jeremy Piven decided to storm the stage and ruin a showcase by some musician friends of mine, when I noticed the flickering of cinema lights across PCH about 20 yards away.

I crossed the highway and came upon a lone, elderly man in a vintage pickup truck parked facing the moon-reflecting Pacific. He was smoking away and watching a black-and-white film through his windshield. A projector clicked away on his roof and the screen rose up in front of his truck.

Rio Grande?” I whispered.

Red River,” he grumbled back.

I stood alongside his truck at 2 a.m. on a damp Malibu night, watching John Wayne driving cattle across that rough, rouge river, waiting for his stepson, played by Monty Clift, to eventually turn against him.

“Why don’t you go to the drive-in?” I asked, as I was leaving.

“Ain’t no more,” he said, never taking his eyes off the screen.

Not quite.

Patented in 1933 by Richard Hollingshead Jr., the world’s first drive-in opened in Camden, New Jersey. A year later, the Pico-Westwood opened on the grounds of what is now the Westside Pavilion mall. By 1948, when RCA introduced car speakers, there were 820 drive-ins nationwide and the rush was on.

The ’50s were boom years for the open-air movies. Drive-ins added swimming pools, mini-zoos, live bands, ice rinks and concession stands. One in Asbury Park, New Jersey, billed as the world’s first “fly-in, drive-in,” handled 500 cars and 25 airplanes that landed on an adjacent airstrip and taxied up to the screen. There was also the Theatre Motel, located in Brattleboro, Vermont, where you could watch a movie from an air-conditioned room on a 100-foot screen just outside your window.

For me, the mother of all drive-ins was on Long Island, where I spent my soul-searching teen years. The All-Weather Drive-In on Sunrise Highway in Copiague accommodated some 2,500 cars. There were slides, swings, a Ferris wheel and a merry-go-round. But nothing could top the four-car train that took screaming kids all over the massive lot.

By 1958, there were more than 4,000 “ozoners” (as Variety called them) in the United States. They’ve been going extinct ever since.

Numerous culprits — the Cold War, UFOs, the British Invasion, television, sound problems — have been blamed. But in the end, it may have been simply that another American fad had run its course.

Or has it?

The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association claims that in recent years, 63 closed drive-ins have reopened and 40 new ones have been built in 27 states. Operators that survived invested money in multiple screens and FM-radio sound. A new generation is discovering drive-ins, and a seed of revival may even be taking root here.

The Pacific Vineland Drive-In, on 17 acres in the City of Industry, is strategically located just off the 605 freeway between two big topless clubs. Tip: If you pass Miss Kitty’s, you’ve gone too far.

“The Vineland is the last of the classic drive-ins in L.A. and Orange County,” says 46-year-old Sal Gomez of the Southern California Drive-In Movie Society.

Indeed, it is the only active drive-in in either county.

Showing first-run features on four giant screens, the Vineland is now in its 53rd year of operation. It’s run by Juan Gonzales of Chino Hills, who has been with the Pacific Theatre chain since 1979, when he was an usher at the now-defunct Santa Paula Drive-In in Ventura County.

With the recent addition ofTechnalight, a brightening optical device for screen projection, and FM stereo channels providing sound for each of the four screens, the Vineland has embraced the modern world. (Gonzales explained that Pacific has promised to provide nearly $1 million for renovations in upcoming months. The bathrooms alone should eat up most of that budget.)

Curious and maybe even nostalgic, two gal pals and I paid just $7.50 each for a double feature that begins at dusk. (If you miss the first one, no sweat, it runs again.) It was still daylight when we rolled into the Vineland, so kids played whiffle ball while their folks prepared dinner and waited for the sun to go down and for Matt Damon to start running frantically around the world in The Bourne Ultimatum.

We tuned our radio to the movie-screen channel, and with the good sound system, we really enjoyed Bourne’s eclectic soundtrack. We brought our own gourmet feast and had a mini–tailgate party. We then rolled around in a makeshift bed in the back of the Toyota 4 Runner. We smoked. We gabbed. We cell-phoned. Some drank. We could/should/might have had sex. I did notice some really fogged-up windows in our “neighborhood.”

Other groups broke out folding chairs, blankets, tables and grills as if they were in their own backyards. The snack bar was packed and tons of popcorn were popped.

There were 1,700 cars there on this Friday night, and not a single altercation.

When the double-decker Metrolink train rumbled by on the Riverside line, just behind the No. 3 screen, every hour, the transit riders waved to the auto-bound moviegoers.

It reminded me of the miniature train that used to roll around the All-Weather back in Copiague. We would also wave at the people parked in front of the screen in their cars, and we couldn’t wait to join them for the movie.

The Pacific Vineland Drive-In, 443 N. Vineland Ave., City of Industry. Box office opens at 7:15 p.m. Call (626) 961-9262 (recording) or (626) 961-3416 (evenings).

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