Kirsten Anderberg CA History: San Fernando Drive-In Movies
San Fernando Valley History: DRIVE-IN MOVIE THEATERS
(1960's - 1990's)
The Van Nuys Drive-in...full of memories for Valley kids who have now grown up
The above picture is from the website www.garbell.com/drive-ins/VNdrive-in-screen.jpg where you can also view other
photos of classic Southern CA movie marquees, as well as the insides of the theaters. I am sad to see drive-ins pass into history. I think they were a nice way for
families to spend time together outside at night while in the suburbs.
Below are my (me being Kirsten Anderberg) own personal memories of drive-ins as a kid and teen in the Valley during the 1960's and 70's:
In the 1960's, kids got into their pajamas to go to the drive-in movie theaters that dotted the Valley. Parents or older siblings would pile a bunch of kids into a station wagon and then we would all watch from the car, often leaving the parent or sibling with a car full of sleeping children by the end of the movie! (Knowing the kids would fall asleep early was one of the ways parents were able to get older siblings to take the younger kids out for these nights, as a matter of fact, as the teens would know the younger kids would be out of their hair early.) As kids, it was always exciting going to the drive-ins. Often they would park the station wagons backwards, and make a bed in the back with pillows and blankets, and then a bunch of kids could lie down and watch the movies out the back, with either the back window open or the back door of the station wagon open. The kids could then fall asleep when they wanted, watching the movie. Often the parents or older siblings would sit next to the car on lawn chairs. Very often you would also see kids sitting on blankets next to cars too. It was common to see kids in the back of the station wagon, and a blanket full of kids, with a few lawn chairs, all attached to one car stall, on a summer night at the Van Nuys Drive-in. In the 1960's, I have vivid memories of seeing the Beatles' "Hard Days' Night," Disney's "Junglebook," and "Swiss Family Robinson," and many other Disney classics. I saw a lot of Kurt Russell and Fred MacMurray in those drive-in theaters in the 1960's.
Many Valley drive-in theaters had little playgrounds at the bottom of the big movie screens. These playgrounds had swings, slides and those circular metal discs kids twirl around on. Often you would see the younger kids in their pajamas, as I said. Families would begin arriving at the drive-ins at dusk, while it was still light and the kids would play in these playgrounds as the parents got the car ready for watching the movie, etc. I remember there was a ritual that as it began to get dark, all the kids would run back to their families' cars to begin watching the movies.
In the 1960's - 1970's, the physical appearances of these drive-in theaters were all very similar. As I remember it, they always had one or two ticket stations at the entry. Sometimes there would be long lines of cars waiting to pay and go in. A huge marquee facing the street announced the movies playing as you waited in line. The Van Nuys Drive-in had a particularly notable front signage, with a cowboy on a horse and the San Fernando Mission in the background. You would pay per person in your car, so sometimes we would sneak people in by covering them with blankets in a back seat, or even putting someone in the trunk, but you had to go once dark for the hiding in the trunk act, as you could not let the people out of the trunk without the cover of dark. Once into the drive-in, you would choose a spot and drive up to it. There was raised pavement at every car space so you could angle your car to see the screen properly. People would back in and out a few times to get the proper angle. Next to the car spaces were poles on which hung speakers. The speakers were made of a tin-colored metal, with one button, for volume. They were attached to the pole by a wire and they had a little lip of metal to hang the speakers on the side of your cars door or on the window rolled up a titch to hold it. To leave the drive-in, you exited at the sides of the screen. There were teeth that would puncture your tires if you tried to drive in through the exits. Throughout the movie, people would leave, driving down the side to the front by the screen and leave. Sometimes they would try to turn on their lights to drive out and leave and people would honk and yell at them.
There were snack bars that were usually in round buildings with many entrances, and they sold things like popcorn, hot dogs, soda pops, candy, etc. I do not remember going to the snack bar that often. I remember they had really bad food there. Often we would get some kind of fast food and take it in with us, such as grabbing a bunch of burgers or tacos to eat once there, along with a cooler of ice and cold soda. It was common to see families picnicking on blankets next to their cars, or having picnics laid out on the tailgate of station wagons opened up, before the movies, and the kids would run back and forth between the playground and the picnics with their families. The scene made for a nice family outing.
In the 1970's, as I turned into a teen, drive-ins took on different social functions. Now, drive-ins were places for dates, and a place to congregate with friends to drink alcohol underage, and smoke pot with friends. This was before the days of home theaters and VCRs, DVDs, etc. To watch a movie in your car was the most privacy you could get while watching a movie. As a date, you could get much more sexual in your own car than in a movie theater. You could not smoke pot or drink alcohol in movie theaters, but you could in your car at drive-ins. Our cars were used differently at drive-ins as teens. Instead of the back of the station wagons being a bed for kids, well, I am *sure* at least one child was conceived at a Valley drive-in! The cars with teens in them were often parked facing the movie screen, unlike the station wagons which were often parked backwards, but the teens would spread a blanket on the hoods of cars and sit on the hoods, using the windshields as a backrest.
One of the weirdest things I have ever seen at a drive-in was at the Van Nuys Drive-in around 1976. It was a strange short movie made by the Manson Family, and it was a propaganda film for recruitment. I will never forget the movie as it left a huge impression on me. I had snuck into the Van Nuys Drive-in with my sister Jan that evening, we had walked into the drive-in through a hole in the fence, and then spread out two lawn chairs and began to watch the movie, saying our friends with a car were coming and we were holding their spot. After a while they kicked us out, but before they did, we saw this Mansion Family movie. The movie showed hippies living a hippie lifestyle, running through meadows, communing with nature, playing music, supposedly sharing and loving one another, they promoted it as a new philosophy, as an alternative to the 9-5 grind. I remember being impressed by them. But a few things in the movie also disturbed me. When they said they collected hair from different "family" members' hair and made it into a vest for Charles Manson. That seemed weird. They said a few odd things about following the leader, basically, that seemed to juxtapose the freedom rap they had, but still, I remember leaving the movie and saying to my sister that we needed to find these people and hang out with them. Very shortly, their names were in the news for murders, and I was shocked that the movie we had just seen was about those people. To this day I have never met anyone other than my sister who has seen that movie, and I have no idea what the name of that movie was. It was short, and it was shown before the regular featured movie around 1976, at the Van Nuys Drive-in, I can attest to that.
The drive-in theaters I remember going to most as a kid (1960's - early 1970's) are the Van Nuys, Reseda, Victory, Canoga and Sepulveda Drive-ins. We also went to a drive-in theater out in the Saugus area as kids, as well. In my teens (mid-late 1970's), I went to the Winnetka Drive-in a lot with teen friends. You could see the large drive-in movie screens often from the freeways in the Valley at night, and more than once I have sat with friends in a car a distance from the movie theater, on a side street from some advantageous point, watching a movie without sound.
I moved to Seattle as an adult, but returned to the Valley later to go back to school. The first time I took my son to the Valley, in 1995, when he was 10 years old, one of the first things I did was to take him to the Van Nuys Drive-in. The place was pretty much the same as it was in the 1960's and 1970's, except that there were no more bulky metal speakers. The poles in between the cars remained, but now they had these little clips you put onto your car's antennae and then you turned on your radio, and the movie soundtrack played through your car's radio and your car's speakers. I am sad to say that all of the San Fernando Valley drive-in theaters I loved as a kid, and a teen, and even a parent, are now gone. And with the disappearance of those theaters, is also the disappearance of an entire culture.
Kirsten Anderberg. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint/publish, please contact Kirsten at firstname.lastname@example.org.