Paradise by the Dashboard Light

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Posted October 3, 2007 in Feature Story

Those impossibly populated, unceasingly vocal and oh-so-photogenic counties to the left of the Inland Empire may have their coastlines and piers, their Fashion Islands and Rodeo Drives, their Vladimir Guerreros and Kobe Bryants, their world-class theaters, museums, music venues and universities.

But there’s something about this grand swath of dirt, desert, mountains, dairy farms, wineries, tract homes and asphalt that’s denied to the Botox and Collagen crowd, something as inextricably American as baseball, Wal-Mart and war—the drive-in.

Though drive-ins are mere memories in most parts of SoCal, the screens at Riverside’s Rubidoux and Van Buren drive-ins, as well as Montclair’s Mission Tiki, are still quite alive.

And that’s a good thing. Not just because they’re cheap—six to eight bucks for two full-length films, plus bargain concessions—but because they’re one of the few reminders in a rapidly changing landscape that life in these parts existed before the I-15 corridor.

And while I know it’s difficult for the young-uns to imagine a planet before Xbox, YouTube and MySpace, there really was a time when, for a Riverside teenager, Friday nights meant high school football, Saturday nights meant cruising down Main Street, and every night was the drive-in movie.

Cherries were popped, beers were bonged, wine coolers were chugged, joints were inhaled and, occasionally, a glimpse of whatever movie was being shown could be spied through steamed-up windows. And like anyone who came of age in the IE—which was then the 714 area code—a lot of my growing up happened on the drive-in’s black asphalt surface.

 

A summer night, 1974. My brother and I cram into our older brother’s VW bug and back out of our patch of dead grass that passes for a driveway in Pedley. As we pull away, my mother sticks her head out the battered screen window of our white stucco house and screams, “Don’t take them to that damn Exorcist movie.”

My older brother grunts some kind of affirmation and we putt-putt away. I have no idea what they’re talking about. But it must be something really cool to warrant that kind of maternal concern. We pull into one of the six drive-ins within 15 minutes of home. There are two screens. One is showing The Exorcist; the other, Herbie Rides Again. I know which one I want to see. But instead of projectile green vomit, I get Ken Berry.

Looking back, this publicity stunt by VW, which peppered the film with its beetles in order to boost sagging U.S. sales, was actually a far more prescient film. The Exorcist may have helped turn the horror flick into serious cinema, but the shameless use of product placement, as well as a plot based around a snaky real estate developer trying to gobble up downtown property in order to build a shopping mall, paralleled what was really going on across America at the time.

But back then, I didn’t want George Bailey reincarnated as a miraculous VW bug—I wanted whatever taboo, arcane fare The Exorcist was peddling. I wasn’t even eight years old, but it’s the first hint my still-evolving mind caught that there was a whole world of things I wasn’t supposed to see or know about.

And I learned that at the drive-in.

 

It started, as all great things seem to do (Allen Ginsberg, Tony Soprano, Bruce Springsteen, Abbott & Costello), in New Jersey. It’s 1932, and an auto product store’s sales manager, Richard Hollingshead Jr., places a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car parked in the driveway of his home in Camden, points it at a hanging white sheet, puts a radio behind it for sound, and the drive-in is born.

Launched in the middle of the Great Depression and on the eve of World War II, it took time for the concept to flourish. But as American troops returned home, and as their progeny began popping out of love canals across the country, the drive-in exploded.

By 1958, 4,063 drive-ins dotted the American landscape. By 1967, Southern California boasted 107 drive-ins, with at least 12 in or around Riverside.

A big part of the national appeal was sheer numbers: the mass production of automobiles paralleled the mass production of Americans. Cars enabled the suburbs to become viable population centers. And with so many families moving to the suburbs, and rural areas slowly growing into real places—Corona, Norco, Fontana, Mira Loma—where downtowns and movie theaters didn’t exist, drive-ins provided something simple, spontaneous and economical to do.

Snack bars and playgrounds—some as basic as a swing set, others with miniature golf holes—were erected. The drive-in became a quasi-town center for millions of families. And I’m guessing a lot of zygotes got formed there.

 

Lord knows I tried.

Her name was Tiffany. My first real girlfriend. It’s our second date. I’d just gotten my driver’s license. I stop at the tiny liquor store on a back road in Mira Loma known by every slightly rebellious teenager within a five-mile radius for selling alcohol to anyone with cash in hand.

Tiffany says she likes wine coolers. So be it. We drive to the Rubidoux and settle in. Much fumbling and saliva ensue. Primordial urges flow. I’m thinking of unbuttoning tight jeans and experiencing . . . hell, I don’t know what. A hand gets beneath a bra. This is it, I silently scream.

Suddenly, Tiffany jerks her head away and pukes all over the back seat of my Chevy Chevette. Half a wine cooler, and this chick who weighs 85 pounds soaking wet is a sodden, sobbing wreck.

I spend the rest of the night cleaning out my car and assuring her that, yes, the world will stop spinning soon.

The world isn’t always Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.” And the drive-in taught me that.

 

By the late ‘60s, drive-ins had peaked. The first waves of baby boomers were now teenagers and young adults. Families weren’t as close-knit, TV reigned supreme, multiplexes were emerging and, in Southern California, land values were skyrocketing. By 1977, there were 3,000 drive-ins in America—1,000 less than two decades before.

In Riverside, drive-ins were still around, but most were fading. Several, like the Magnolia on Arlington, were downright creepy, with rusty swings in what passed as the playground area, terrible projection systems and more tumbleweeds swirling through the gravel parking lot than cars.

But we still went, even though there far more entertainment options, like home video games, VCRs and something called ON TV, where you could watch Hair seven nights a week.

By 1990, there were fewer than 1,000 screens in the country and less than a dozen in the greater Los Angeles area. Until the Star-Vu Drive-in opened in May at the Orange County Fairgrounds (not really a drive-in, more like a portable, inflatable screen erected at night on the fairground’s parking lot), there hadn’t been a new drive-in in Southern California since the early 1960s.

Some of them have hung on, tenaciously. My main turf as a teen, the Rubidoux, turns 60 next year. The Van Buren and the Mission Tiki (which I knew as the Mission) turned 40 in 2004.

All the others, from Fontana’s Bel-Air to San Bernardino’s Purple Passion, are gone now. They’re shopping centers, housing developments or highways, existing as fading flickers in the memory banks of anyone over 30.

 

Her name was Rachel, and I fell madly, overwhelmingly in love with her in eighth grade. I carried that blazing torch for five years. But in a time before the Internet and text messaging, I could only express it through written letters. And there were a dozen of them, filled with passion and longing, lamentation and accusation.

My obsession survived beating off to Whitesnake videos and changing high schools. But outside of sweaty hand-holding at Roller Derby 2000, it was painfully unrequited.

Then, shortly after graduation, we’re parked at the Van Buren. After years of torrid love letters, prank phone calls and constant dreaming, we’re in the same car together. Alone. Our mutual friend Eldridge had just split for the bathroom. Rachel’s watching Ghostbusters. I’m thinking of busting something else.

Emboldened by liquid courage, I make my move. I lunge, praying to hear lips open like an uncorked bottle of wine. Instead, I’m paralyzed by nothing more than . . . The Look. No words are exchanged, but a universe of communication is happening.

I am mortified, but somehow, relieved. Because I finally got the balls to actually act, even if I’m as embarrassed as hell. Years later, at our 20-year high school reunion, we chuckle over old memories. I tell her I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without those awkwardly impassioned odes of attention and connection. We toast our respective drinks. I’m 37 years old. And I’m living a Dan Fogelberg song.

It was the last time I’d ever been to a drive-in. And it’s the first time, I think, that I finally felt one of life’s greatest lessons: that all the dreaming, pining, obsessing and fantasizing in the world can’t overcome the fact that some things are just not meant to be.

And I learned that at the drive-in.

 

It’s all gone now, mostly. The Tyler Mall is something called a Galleria. The comic shop on Brockton is long closed. My old high school is a continuation school. Old friends are flung across the country. Some are even dead. The town I grew up in is now one of the fastest-growing areas of the country. By 2025, estimates suggest one in four Southern Californians will live close to the I-15 corridor. Chino Hills is a city.

But vestiges remain. There’s the Santa Ana River, which still feels like something of a waterway north of Prado Dam. There’s the Mission Inn, which I visit anytime my steps lead back to downtown Riverside. There are the towering peaks of Etiwanda and Cucamonga that I can still occasionally glimpse from Fullerton on a clear day.

And there are still the two drive-ins I frequented the most, from adolescence into adulthood.

I know they’re still open, but I’m not sure how well they’re doing. How on earth have they survived DVDs, high-definition TV and multiplexes? How have the owners not sold them to developers?

I don’t know. And, at least for this purpose, I don’t care. Because they’re there. And that’s enough. Like Vin Scully’s voice and the Santa Ana winds, they’re reminders of . . . something. Of a past that really happened, of a life really lived, of innocence lost and wisdom gained, of sins committed and grace received, and a whole lot in between.

And as glaciers melt, fires rage, floodwaters rise, bombs explode and darkness descends, sometimes it’s the little things that help us feel most connected.

So I don’t know who’s going to the drive-ins these days. Maybe drug-dealers and gang-bangers. Maybe professionals and young couples with crying babies. But I hope somewhere in the mix there are teenagers and kids still trying to awkwardly hammer some rough draft of themselves in a very confusing, complicated and gloomy time. I hope they’re getting drunk and getting laid, and that Providence is looking out for them as best she can.

And I hope they’re learning lessons at the drive-in. And that some of those are good ones.

 

 

 


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