The sun's still out as cars file into a dirt field off Woodley Avenue in Lake Balboa, creating uniform rows in front of an inflatable screen. Even though the evening's open-air movie — Valley-set classic The Karate Kid — won't start for another hour or so, people have come early to snag a good spot, sure, but also to chat with neighbors, buy concessions from the handful of local food trucks and dance as a DJ spins “The Cupid Shuffle.” Some kids have come wearing karate gis to celebrate a movie that came out when their parents could've seen it at an actual drive-in theater in the Valley, well before the last one was demolished in 1996.
Over the course of two weekends in August, a group called My Valley Pass hosted a series of four pop-up drive-in events, screening films specific to the setting — Karate Kid, E.T., Back to the Future and La Bamba — and reviving a cinema subculture that apparently never really died but, rather, rested dormant in the San Fernando Valley's soil.
“The public was very excited to experience a drive-in again in the San Fernando Valley over 20 years later,” event producer and Valley Relics Museum vice president Oscar Urritia says via email. “Parents wanted their children to relive their childhood, and this was the perfect setting of nostalgia and spending time with friends and family.”
In the mid and late '80s, as home video technology became ubiquitous, drive-in theaters fell out of fashion and most, besides a precious few holdouts, were demolished or abandoned by the turn of the century. “The upgrade in technology and the cost of land are the main two reasons [drive-ins disappeared],” says Urritia, who'd originally planned to host the event on the very property where the Valley's last drive-in, the Winnetka 6, once stood. “It became very costly for drive-in operators to keep up with the changes to the movie experience such as projectors and sound. Also finding open land [had become] expensive with so much development over the decades.”
In recent years, America's remaining drive-ins have experienced a resurgence in popularity — it seems outdoor movies have, in general — but My Valley Pass' pop-up did them one better by wrangling talent associated with the films. Jared Cowan, who's known for the incredibly detailed film locations slideshows and articles he does for L.A. Weekly, enlisted child actor Andre Gower to attend the screening of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; Gower, who starred in 1987's The Monster Squad, wasn't in E.T. but he grew up in the Valley, auditioned for the film and was in the commercial for Atari's E.T. game. For Back to the Future, organizers showed a prerecorded video interview with movie co-creator Bob Gale, and Joe Walser attended in person to talk about being on the team that restored Doc Brown's DeLorean. Locations manager Richard Davis, who worked on both La Bamba and The Karate Kid, attended both those screenings, and for the latter, Cowan enlisted Marty Kove, who played sinister Cobra Kai sensei (and potentially scarred Vietnam vet) John Kreese. Each screening featured a new prerecorded greeting from Mayor Garcetti.
It really is a bummer that there isn't a year-round drive-in theater in the Valley, since people are obviously craving the experience. But Urritia says the pop-up will absolutely return next summer. “With the overwhelming demand from the audience, we will now make this a summer tradition,” says, adding that they'll continue to program films that complement the Valley setting. In the meantime, I guess the Vineland Drive-In isn't that far away.