Where the hell are the speakers?
It didn’t seem right, not right at all. The Redwood Drive-In was supposed to be a place for a journey back to the Happy Days. Memories of watching the original Rocky from the back seat of an oversized American car, or spending teenage summers half-watching a bad horror film in the bed of a pickup—these were what a visit to the drive-in was going to inspire. Even in the unfamiliar daylight of a March morning, the Redwood’s parking lots were supposed to be orchards of gunmetal posts, each hung with a pair of bulky speakers. Instead, there was undulating pavement stripped strangely bare, the spots where the speakers once stood marked by disc-shaped concrete scars.
“Sometimes, people say they miss them,” says the Redwood’s manager Larry Healey of the traditional drive-in speakers. “I hated to see them go,” admits the theater’s long-time projectionist Earl Shafer, a hint of regret creeping into his voice. By the early ’90s, however, patrons seemed far happier with the FM stereo broadcasts directly to car radios. The sound was better, and there was none of that inconvenient fumbling with a chunk of steel hanging from the car window. It just made good business sense.
The thing is, good business sense wasn’t going to be part of the story. The six-screen theater at 3688 S. Redwood Road was supposed to be an anachronistic monument, the last drive-in remaining open in Salt Lake County. Half the residents didn’t seem to be aware that there is still a drive-in open in Salt Lake County. Ah, the fanciful evocations of a bygone era that would come from a visit to the drive-in on a Friday or Saturday night.
But where the hell were the speakers? Where was John Travolta singing plaintive love songs in the theater’s playground—and for that matter, where was the playground? Where were the teenagers making out in their convertibles (or the beds of pickup trucks)? Had the drive-in movie theater somehow had the bad taste to bypass the status of aging novelty and stroll gracefully into the 21st century?
The Redwood Drive-In sits in a limbo between nostalgic curiosity and vital business with a devoted clientele. And it appears to sit there quite comfortably—out in the open air, with a smattering of lawn chairs on a spring night, the car radios playing the triumphant scores of Hollywood films.
THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE DRIVE-IN
Good business sense, as it turns out, played a significant role in the birth of the drive-in. In 1929, a Camden, New Jersey auto parts dealer named Richard Hollingshead was looking for a way to find customers at a time when car owners were relatively few and far between. In a stroke of inspiration, he decided not to go looking for car owners, but to bring car owners to him by creating an outdoor theater. After experimenting with the ultimate in low-tech exhibition—from a projector propped on the hood of his own car to a bed sheet tied up between trees—he eventually developed the format he patented in 1932, including ramps to point cars up towards the screen. Hollingshead’s Automobile Movie Theatre opened in Camden on June 6, 1933.
Of course, it was the post-World War II generation, with its proliferation of car ownership and disposable income, that made the drive-in a phenomenon. The drive-in was the ideal place for the all-American nuclear family to see a movie together, and a great date spot for a growing, increasingly independent teenage demographic. In 1948, there were about 820 drive-ins in North America. In 1958, there were 4063.
And then came the big slide. In the 1970s and 1980s, drive-ins formerly on the outskirts of towns became an endangered species, forced out of their habitat by the rising land values of encroaching suburban sprawl. Then there was the “baby bust,” decreasing the family and youth demographic, and the rise of VCRs and cable television as alternative entertainment options. Strip mall multiplexes appeared around the corner. Even the shrinking sizes of cars after the 1970s gas crunch contributed to the drive-in’s demise. Cheap horror and sex films kept many drive-ins alive through lean years, but eventually most could not survive. By 1990, the number of drive-in theaters had shrunk to around 500, the smallest number in over 40 years. Locally, drive-ins like the Hyland, the Ute, the Woodland and the Park Vu (all operated at one time by Redwood’s parent company, DeAnza Land & Leisure Corp.) all went dark.
Throughout the contraction of the industry, however, there remained a fascination with the drive-in as an institution. Syndicated writer Joe Bob Briggs (a character created by writer/actor John Bloom) devoted his humorous column and later a gig hosting movies on cable’s TNT network to the preservation of drive-in theaters. Fond memories have inspired dozens of Internet sites devoted to drive-ins, including one created by 19-year-old Chris Greenwell in memory of West Valley’s Valley Vu Drive-In (members.nbci.com/valleyvu/), which closed in 1997 to make way for senior condominiums. “I wanted to honor a place where I kind of grew up,” says Greenwell, whose father was a projectionist and manager of the Valley Vu for 20 years. “I just wanted to show people how much fun [drive-ins] were. It’s an original American experience.”
Then there are nationally-focused sites like Drive-ins.com, founded by Ohio native Jennifer Sherer. A self-described enthusiast for “all things associated with the ’50s and ‘60s,” Sherer became interested, along with her brother, in collecting data and memorabilia related to drive-ins. When she talks about drive-ins, she speaks with passion tinged with urgency. “Drive-ins brought together a lot of our interests,” Sherer says. “Here was an American icon disappearing right before our eyes.”
After starting the website, Sherer discovered that she was not alone in her affection for the drive-in. “A lot of people will tell you that a drive-in can make even a bad movie good,” she says. “It turns out there’s a whole sub-culture of people who think that drive-ins are really neat.”
That sub-culture is large enough that there’s now a professional organization dedicated exclusively to the industry. In 1999, Randy Loy and his wife Debrean founded the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association (UDITOA). It was the culmination of a decade spent touring the country to visit and photograph surviving drive-ins.
“As we [visited], we often got to meet the owners, and a lot of them became friends,” Randy Loy says. “We would start putting people in contact with one another. Eventually, one of the owners said, ‘You know, we need our own trade organization.’”
When Loy talks, it’s clearly the voice of the industry advocate. UDITOA even held its first convention in 2001, and Loy’s message is that the industry—which actually saw 49 theaters re-opened and 18 new theaters built in the 1990s—isn’t on the verge of extinction. But that advocate’s voice is one without a trace of disingenuity. He bubbles over with descriptions of drive-in viewing like, “The experience is just awesome. To see Armageddon on a huge screen with a really nice image … some movies, I think, can’t be beat on a 60 by 120 foot screen.”
“If you look at drive-ins just as nostalgia, people will think of them as that place where my parents went to the movies,” Loy emphasizes. “The drive-in is every bit as good today as it was in the past.”
SWAP MEET THIS WEEKEND!
It may be every bit as good, but that doesn’t mean the business hasn’t changed considerably. The economic viability of drive-in locations has come to depend on ancillary revenue, specifically from weekend swap meets. According to Larry Healey, income from the swap meet runs about even over the course of the year with income from movie exhibition.
Ralph Nardoni, vice president and COO of DeAnza Land & Leisure Corp., is more blunt: “If you don’t have a swap meet, you’re out of business. The drive-in theater business itself does not justify the market value of the land.” Even the context in which he conducts a phone interview emphasizes financial realities—on a Friday afternoon, this COO was overseeing the re-model of a snack bar in San Diego. “When there’s a lot of attrition from a company,” he laughs, “you end up wearing a lot of different hats.”
Swap meet income is particularly crucial in a market like Salt Lake City, where winter weather conditions permit only a limited operating season for movies. On March 16, the Redwood re-opened for movies after a nearly six-month hiatus. The swap meet had been open all winter, with vendors occupying year-round indoor stalls lining the circumference of the largest theater space.
Like the drive-in itself, there is as much business reality to the swap meet as there is nostalgia value. Attendees expecting from the title “swap meet” to find a place full of yard sale trinkets and doodads will find something considerably more … contemporary. For every seller hawking previously-owned toys or flea market classics like framed portraits of Jesus, there are a half-dozen selling new clothing at wholesale prices. When weather permits additional vendors to occupy the open theater parking area, boxes of food items spill onto the pavement near the odd produce vendor. Multiple tables display the identical Spanish-language CDs, consumer electronics, specialty tools, made-in-China quickie knock-off action figures and—most disturbing of all—bobble-head animal figurines. It doesn’t exactly strike an observer as the place to find that buried treasure you’ll bring to Antiques Roadshow. It’s closer to an open-air Costco.
Betty Campbell’s B & C Toys booth at the Redwood swap meet is one of the rare places visitors can go to find those treasures. The retiree is surrounded by vintage Fisher-Price playsets, action figures and fast food kids’ meal prizes; she waves to the “regulars” as they pass. “When we first started six years ago,” says Campbell in a raspy but gentle voice, “there were a lot more people selling older things. Now it’s mostly the new clothes or electronic equipment.”
Jason Randlett, co-owner of WOW Wireless, stands at the opposite end of the spectrum. Randlett only recently started pitching his cell phone services at the Redwood swap meet—and pitching is what he does, engaging the passers-by where many others sit quietly with knitting—and he’s already found it a perfect place to sell. “It’s a very lucrative place,” he says, “because there’s very little overhead. People come in with a trailer full of stuff, sell it and walk away with the money. Anything you can buy wholesale and sell at a huge discount is there.”
Whatever the vendors are selling, plenty of people are buying. On a typical sunny Saturday during the spring or summer, between 3,000 and 4,000 buyers come through the gates to visit 350 vendors. On a Sunday, it’s between 8,000 and 9,000 buyers for over 500 vendors. Every vendor pays rent. Every buyer pays an admission fee. And every one of them helps subsidize the continued existence of the Redwood as a drive-in movie theater.
A NIGHT AT THE REDWOOD
Near dusk on a weekend evening, a dozen or so cars wait on the Redwood’s driveway for the ticket booths to open. A separate line forms for each of the Redwood’s six double features, with a marquee announcing the FM frequency to tune in for that theater’s audio. Another practical (though un-sanctioned) reality of the Redwood: If you realize you’re watching a lousy movie, a quick scan of your radio dial can sometimes turn up a good one.
In one line, the passengers in a pair of cars get out to chat while they’re waiting. In another line, bags of fast food are passed from one car to another. Patrons appear to be getting ready for something besides a movie. They’re getting ready for a social event.
The gates open, and the patrons begin winding their way towards their respective theaters. Cars cruise slowly over the rises and falls of the asphalt like boats on choppy water, the headlights bouncing on and off the blank white screens. And suddenly it becomes clear that the drive-in army consists largely of a cavalry of SUVs, each one facing away from the screen so the cargo area can become a private screening room. Elsewhere, some younger patrons take advantage of the mild evening to pull out lawn chairs and crank up the movie sound on portable stereos; in other cars, the faint red glow of cigarettes illuminate the interior. But in many of the vehicles, it’s a family night on the town.
The place is abuzz with parents and their young children, this on an early-season night when perhaps 200 cars come to all six shows. Throughout the evening, adults make their way to the concession area and restrooms with kids already in their jammies, their sneaker heels blinking a red signal to oncoming traffic. Forget Lover’s Lane—the Redwood feels more like Disneyland.
David Skalka, a Bountiful resident for whom trips to the Redwood with his family are regular weekend events, seems typical. After finding his space in a middle row, he sets up his car for his 5- and 3-year-old kids, propping up pillows and blankets. “One of the main attractions,” Skalka says, “is you’re here together with your family. My own parents started taking me when I was little, and I remember fun times.”
“It’s a much more flexible environment,” says Drive-On-In’s Sherer of the drive-in theater. “If you’re a smoker, you can smoke in your own car. If you’re bringing smaller children, you don’t have to worry about them making noise. There are not many places where people of multiple ages can go and spend time together, and have it still be affordable.”
Skalka also seems typical of the repeat visitors that the Redwood draws. Angela Rowley of South Salt Lake, who enjoyed the “kickback environment” of watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from a hatchback, notes that she and friends generally go “at least once a month” during the summer. And projectionist Shafer recalls a summer season when a church youth group van—specially modified to turn the roof into a viewing platform—would come every weekend.
In many ways, the Redwood does feel like a place caught in a time warp. The restrooms are painted in that decorative orange and brown motif characteristic of your mother’s circa-1970 living room furniture. The concession stands sell not just popcorn and candy, but also pizza and burgers. Before the feature is a “coming attractions” leader that looks like it may have been tacked on before Superfly. Between the features, the theater shows vintage intermission trailers featuring animated leprechauns.
Yet despite the appeals to nostalgia—some intentional, some incidental—there’s no sense that the Redwood is about to join the Hyland, the Ute and the Valley Vu as a memory. “It’s not uncommon for us to sell out every Saturday all summer long,” says Healey. And a sell-out means 2,000 cars are packing the place. Nardoni adds, “If the Redwood operated for a full season, it would be the most profitable [in the DeAnza chain] by far. I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”
So there the Redwood stays—no longer as much “that place my parents went to the movies” as that place you might go to the movies when you’re a parent, or just to take in a double feature under the stars. Retro-chic has bonded with practical consumer need.
Saturday has turned into Sunday by the time the last cars trickle out of the Redwood lot. That leaves around seven hours to clean up for the crowds of the Sunday swap meet. The gates close, and a drive-in theater prepares once again for life in the 21st century, life in a wide-open space without speakers.