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The Last Show

In the early 1970's a big outing for my Ohio family usually meant a night at the drive-in, because it was easier on my young parents' tight budget than a regular cinema. Dad would carry my sister and me—bathed and in pajamas—out to our Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon, where he had folded down the back seat and laid out blankets and pillows. Mom would pack popcorn and sodas—a special treat—and off we'd go to see some Disney family fare.

Traumatic childhood revelations took place in that car. One night my father brought me back from a men's room visit to find my sister sobbing in Mom's lap. Bambi's mother had been shot by hunters. Another time, the back seat erupted when Tiffany—an adorable, fluffy white dog (a.k.a. Benji's "girlfriend")—was brutally kicked across a gleaming parquet floor and left for dead.

But it wasn't all tears. In winter our laughter would often steam up the cold windows.

Apparently, a different sort of activity was steaming up the windows of parked cars at other screenings—drive-in dating became practically synonymous with getting to third base. But nostalgia for those days belongs to an older generation. Well before I even knew that bases existed, our town drive-in locked its gates.

A few months ago my memories were sparked when I came across a Web site devoted to the few drive-ins left in the United States. California, with 48 on the list, had the highest concentration. Considering just how essential the car is to Californian culture, I wasn't surprised.

Further research turned up very little new information on drive-ins, and L.A. friends expressed few insights. It seemed I had no choice but to embark on a quest. My friend David, who had misty memories of watching a drive-in screen from his bedroom window, was eager to come along for the ride.

Six lanes wide, Route 10 provided a stimulating welcome to the West Coast as we zoomed out to Santa Monica and a night at the Georgian Hotel. This 1933 gem, exuding old Hollywood glamour, seemed just the right place to launch our search. Throughout Prohibition it was famous for its basement speakeasy—now the breakfast room—which attracted such early stars as Charlie Chaplin and Carole Lombard. Even Rose Kennedy enjoyed its haute Art Deco style. The hotel was subtly cleaned up and renovated in 1993. The long front porch is perfect for watching the laid-back scene. From our room we had a view over palms to the glittering lights of the Santa Monica Pier less than a mile off, and could hear waves crashing on the beach across the street.

The next morning we drank coffee on the porch while waiting for our friends Phil, a native Angeleno, and Holly, a transplanted New Yorker, who'd offered to help decipher the drive-in addresses and towns on my list. At Cora's Coffee Shoppe, a few blocks down Ocean Avenue from the hotel, we spread out an L.A. map and plotted. Cora's was hopping, and the waiter wouldn't even glance at our table until he was ready to serve us. The food—better than typical diner fare—was definitely worth the wait, though. By the time it arrived, we'd figured out the technique: Show up, place your order, stroll on the beach, and come back 45 minutes later to claim a table just in time to get your meal.

According to my list, three drive-ins lay to the northwest between L.A. and Simi Valley, including a three-screen colossus in Van Nuys. As we discovered soon after hitting the road, all had been torn down within the past two years.

The immensity of our quest began to dawn on us, and we spent the rest of the day searching for any survivors among the names on my list. Mostly we found ruins. Weed-filled lots bore mute witness to vanished alfresco entertainment pavilions. Crumbling screens would loom up out of industrial parks on the outskirts of obscure L.A. County towns. Long Beach's Los Altos, a classic example of drive-in style whose name sprawled in red neon across the back of an enormous screen, was a dusty, ghostly presence on the roadside when we visited. Since our visit, it's been bulldozed to make way for a K-mart. Sadly, of the 11 sites we visited that day, nine no longer stand.

Racing to beat nightfall, we decided to skip the Vermont in Gardena—the only drive-in that lists its shows in L.A. Weekly—to drive to Azusa, a half-hour northeast of downtown L.A. There we'd check out the Foothill, which has the distinction of being "the last drive-in on Route 66." We stopped at Urban Epicuria on Santa Monica Boulevard to pick up a picnic dinner. For dessert we made a detour to visit the Donut Hole in La Puente, where you drive through twin towering doughnuts. Pastry lives up to architecture; we drove down Donut Lane twice.

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