Get there fast, before California's drive-ins are gone for good—but don't skip the sights along the way
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.
A beautiful neon marquee drew us into the Foothill's well-landscaped grounds, in a niche at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. Inside, the sound of music squawking from hundreds of ancient speaker units created a bizarre fun-house effect. (Most drive-ins long ago switched to broadcasting on locally unused radio bands.) The show was a double bill: Blade and Snake Eyes for just $5 per person. The first 20 minutes of Blade—nightclubbing vampires and gore—was a far cry from the family scene I remembered. We had to get away, and quickly learned that today's cars are not equipped to handle the one essential point of drive-in etiquette: no headlights. On most new models there's no way to turn the lights off when the engine is running. We slunk out to hoots from the other cars.
We woke up after an excellent—nightmareless—sleep at the pristine Circle C Lodge in the Morongo Basin town of Twentynine Palms. The Circle C is a classic example of good, simple motel design. Twelve rooms built of cinder blocks encircle a courtyard with pool, spa—and barbecue pit!
Route 62 heads west toward Yucca Valley, the basin's most developed town. We checked out the sights, especially Joshua Tree National Monument, and the thrift shops offering surprisingly well preserved wares. Back in Twentynine Palms, the Smith's Ranch Drive-In was just what a desert drive-in should be: utilitarian, simple, sturdy, and clean. The screen rose high on a turquoise metal frame in the middle of a field. Unfortunately, the double bill was Blade and Snake Eyes. Maybe we'd skip the first show.
After a dip in the Circle C's pool, we headed for dinner at the 29 Palms Inn. Founded in 1928 on the Oasis of Mara, the inn has been run by the same family for five generations. Over the years it served as a funky getaway for the likes of James Cagney, Bette Davis, and Jimmy Durante. Its 17 rooms are spread among a number of buildings; nine of them are traditional adobe bungalows.
As we drove to the inn, we were baffled to see the landscape disappearing in the distance. A storm was kicking up sand, blocking our sight as much as any blizzard. We pulled over to let it pass. I couldn't help but remember Ralph Fiennes's discourse on winds in The English Patient as he and Kristin Scott Thomas are buried in the desert.
We survived. And minutes later pulled up at the inn and raced past the pool to the restaurant just as rain began pelting down. The weather saved us from another night of vampire carnage. Instead, we drank wine and watched an intense display of lightning miles to the east. It was better than any Hollywood effect.
Backtracking west on Route 10 in the morning, we nearly missed the famous "monsters" at the Cabazon exit. A new Burger King and Denny's all but block the view of the giant iconic tyrannosaurus (installed there in the early 80's) and apatosaurus (which dates to 1975). At Riverside we turned south toward San Diego.
Riverside is the birthplace of California's navel-orange industry. The town is also home to the baroque, labyrinthine Mission Inn, probably the state's first "themed" undertaking. In 1902 its founder remodeled an 1876 building to capitalize on romantic notions of California's Spanish history. The result is this sprawling, sentimental, decidedly quirky hotel. A cloistered walk, five-story rotunda, catacombs, and dozens of tiny decorative but purposeless chambers and byways all contribute to the sensation of staying in a real Spanish mission. Completely restored in the early nineties, it's worth a stop, if only for lunch at the Spanish Patio café.
Of all the theaters we saw, the two in Riverside—the Rubidoux and the Van Buren—were the best preserved: paved lots, bright paint jobs. I would have loved to watch The Avengers at the Rubidoux, but we wanted to reach San Diego and the South Bay Drive-In before dusk.
Just north of San Diego we found room at the unconsciously retro-hip La Jolla Cove Suites motel, a six-story confection above La Jolla Cove. The amenities are basic but the price is right, the location is prime, and the view from our oceanfront terrace couldn't be beat.
We had no time for the sunset, though—we roared south on Route 5 to make showtime at the South Bay. The bill included Blade, yet again. But there were also two other screens to choose from, and parked at the center screen we could look left and right to see the other flicks. We tuned the other shows' frequencies in and out at will. Channel surfing, lounging in our car, eating popcorn: we had found drive-in heaven.
Take Interstate 10 east from Santa Monica to Vincent Avenue/Glendora Boulevard. To get to the Donut Hole, turn right on Glendora Boulevard and make a right on Amar Road. For the Foothill Drive-In, return to I-10 and go east until you hit Grand Avenue. Take a left onto Grand and turn right onto Foothill Boulevard. For the Circle C Lodge, go west on Foothill Boulevard to Citrus Avenue, then south through two stoplights to Route 210. Go east and follow signs as 210 merges with 10. Continue east on 10 for about 70 miles until just past the Palm Springs (Route 111) exit. Turn left onto Route 62 and follow it through the towns of Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree into Twentynine Palms. The Circle C Lodge is just off Route 62.
Smith's Ranch Drive-In and 29 Palms Inn both lie east of the Circle C on Route 62. For Smith's Ranch, turn left on Adobe Road and head north about two miles. For the inn, turn right off the highway onto National Park Drive (just after Adobe Road), then follow the signs.
Backtrack west on Routes 62 and 10. The Cabazon exit is about 15 minutes past the Palm Springs turnoff. Continue west on I-10 and pick up Route 60 near Beaumont. To get to Riverside, take Route 91 west and turn right onto Mission Inn Avenue. The Mission Inn is three blocks down. For the Rubidoux Drive-In, continue west on Mission Inn Avenue for about 20 minutes. To reach the Van Buren Drive-In, return to town on Mission Boulevard and, just before the Mission Inn, head south on 91. Exit at Van Buren Boulevard and go south. The drive-in is just a few miles past the exit. Turn onto Interstate 215 in the direction of San Diego. I-215 merges with I-15, which you take until Route 52. To get to the La Jolla Cove Suites, go west toward La Jolla on 52, which turns into Ardath Road and then merges with Torrey Pines Road. Follow Torrey Pines and turn right on Prospect Street. For the South Bay Drive-In, head south on I-5 to southern San Diego. Take the Coronado Avenue exit and go west for a few blocks.
Vermont Drive-In Theatre 17737 S. Vermont Ave., Gardena; 310/323-4055.
Edwards Azusa Foothill Drive-In Theatre 675 E. Foothill Blvd., Azusa; 626/969-9632.
Smith's Ranch Drive-In 4584 Adobe Rd., Twentynine Palms; 760/367-7713.
Rubidoux Drive-In Mission Blvd. at Opal St., Riverside; 909/683-4455.
Van Buren Drive-In Theatre 3035 Van Buren Blvd., Riverside; 909/688-2360.
South Bay Drive-In 2170 Coronado Ave., San Diego; 619/423-2727.
Hotels and Restaurants
Georgian Hotel 1415 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; 800/538-8147 or 310/395-9945; doubles from $225.
Cora's Coffee Shoppe 1802 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; 310/451-9562; breakfast for two $15.
Urban Epicuria 8315 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; 323/848-8411.
Donut Hole 15300 Amar Rd., La Puente; 626/968-2912
Circle C Lodge 6340 El Rey Ave., Twentynine Palms; 760/367-7615; doubles from $85.
29 Palms Inn 73950 Inn Ave., Twentynine Palms; 760/367-3505; doubles $65; dinner for two $50.
Mission Inn 3649 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside; 800/843-7755 or 909/784-0300; doubles from $140; lunch for two $35.
La Jolla Cove Suites 1155 Coast Blvd., La Jolla; 888/525-6552 or 619/459-2621; doubles from $135.
Meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
Shax Riegler is an associate editor at Travel & Leisure.