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Drive-in movies back in style in Concord

July 9, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
When is the last time you went to a drive-in movie? Most of them disappeared a long time ago, but recently we found one and it had a sign tacked to the screen that read, "Still open." That was all the invitation we needed.

In an era of digital bits, multi-channel surround sound, and 24/7 streaming, let's not underestimate the safe and seductive lure of going retro.

At the resurrected Solano Drive-In Theatres in Concord, movie-goers enter a time warp in what appears to be a thriving antique.

"We came here, we tried the projector, it still worked, and thought what the heck, let's try it again," says Tony Manisalco of SYUFI Theaters.

"No experience like the drive-in," says employee Linda Alley. "Once you've gone to the drive-in, you get hooked on the drive-in."

If it's retro in looks, it's really retro in staff.

Alley went on her first date there. Then her husband proposed there. And she even went into labor there.

Her daughter Herminia Hernandez has grown up to be the manager.

"At home she's mom and at work, for the sake of work, we have to say first names," says Hernandez.

"Well, when she started, I was her boss," says Alley.

Drive-in movies peaked in the 1950s and 60s. Back then, there were 272 screens in California alone. Now, only 18 remain. Is this a revival or a requiem?

Drive-in movies rode in on a wave of post-war, upwardly mobile car culture. A time of Technicolor dreams and Panavision prospects in a land of plenty. But that was then.

"They've pretty much turned into a cemetery, a trailer park, or a Walmart at this point." says theater historian Scott Neff.

Go to a drive-in these days and you're likely to a corrugated screen flapping in the breeze. A dead end derelict waiting for bulldozers or subdivisions. Most drive-ins exist only in old photographs now.

Remember the Island Automovie in Alameda? Long gone. Same for the Parkway in Petaluma, which used to flood anyway.

"It's a driving range now," says Dan Tocchini, an inevitable victim of entertainment evolution. Not only did Tocchini build the Parkway, 35 years later he sold it and put the money into multiplexes.

Drive-ins, he says, cannot compete with 14 simultaneous screens drawing 3,000 people a day in one 45,000-square foot building. That makes the Solano Theatre's resurrection all the more remarkable.

On a summer weeknight, the place swells with bargain hunters who pay $6.75 a head.

"Plus, you get double features," says Alley.

They load up on a menu of all the gluttonous gourmet delights such an evening demands, and then they settle in.

"They were excited that we were going to be outdoors sitting on the truck," said a woman who brought her family to the drive-in.

At a drive-in these days, forget those window speakers of old. Now the sound arrives via your car radio. Just curl up, relax, and bring a blanket.

So, perhaps this proves that what goes around really does sometimes come back around. Explain it as vintage, time-worn, primeval, primordial, nostalgic, wistful, and enduring. Or maybe the lure of a drive-in is as simple as something embedded in our collective DNA.

The drive-in... not dead, still flickering.

NOTE: You may have noticed the excellent still pictures in this story. We used them with permission from some talented photographers. Check out their work on Flicker at these links:

Dave Glass of San Francisco too the black and whites. You can find more of his work at: www.flickr.com/photos/daveglass/

Kyle Graham, from the South Bay, also contributed. Check out his fine work at: www.flickr.com/photos/51190946@N08/

And finally, thanks to Bob Weston, who took that nice photo of the Star-Vue theater. Here is his link: www.flickr.com/photos/reweston-sat/


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