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News and Features
11.28.07

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Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Parking Recreation: Since 1949 the projector house at the Skyview Drive-In has been beaming pictures at the big screen.

American Idyll

As the Skyview Drive-In Theater prepares to go dark, Santa Cruzans fondly reminisce on six decades of shivering, smooching and underage drinking at the movies.

By Steve Hahn


Thomas Hickenbottom remembers how the cars would be arranged in a perfect line, groups of teens weaving between the brightly painted, chrome-adorned machines. Outside one car, someone would be grilling up hot dogs for the whole party, inside another two teenagers would be groping each other. Beyond the cars were the shine of the screen and the crackle of the speakers, the sights and sounds of the latest Frankie Avalon beach-party flick providing a backdrop to the weekend gathering of restless kids.

This is how Hickenbottom and many of the baby boomers who came of age in Santa Cruz during the '60s will always remember the Skyview Drive-in."The drive-in was one of those spots you could always retreat to. It was one of those places that never changed," says Hickenbottom. "You could sit in your car, which is a lot of times much more comfortable than the seats of an indoor theater, and you could have intimate conversation with the people you were with."Of course, many of those intimate conversations often developed into something more substantial.

"I would say that many residents of Santa Cruz County might have been conceived at the drive-in," he says, laughing.

The next generation of Santa Cruz teens and families will miss out on the unique set of experiences the drive-in movie theater offers. The Skyview, which has been showing films every weekend since 1949, is scheduled to feature its last screening on Dec. 2. After that the property will be transferred over to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, an affiliate of Sutter Health. Sutter plans to disassemble the screens and begin preparations for construction of an extension to its nearby Maternity and Surgery hospital.

"A lot of the stuff that's going on in town right now is all around money and profit," says Hickenbottom, a Santa Cruz-based novelist. "A lot of the real soulful stuff has been plowed under because of that. I feel that way about the drive-in."

The closing of Santa Cruz's beloved Skyview Drive-in Theater is far from an isolated event. Drive-ins have been in a nosedive since the '80s. Fewer than 500 theaters remain of the more than 4,000 that dotted the American landscape during their peak in 1958.A variety of economic, social and cultural factors—from rising land values to the proliferation of increasingly personalized media—have conspired to destroy one of the most iconic symbols of postwar American culture.

The Perfect Marriage
In order to understand why the drive-in theater industry has hit on hard times, one must first look back at the factors leading to its rise. Drive-in experts, including UCSC professor of film history Shelley Stamp and Texas-based nonfiction author Susan Sanders, attribute the sharp rise in drive-in theater construction during the '50s to a "perfect marriage" of film industry politics, car culture, suburbanization, post-war economics and the constraints of pre-sexual revolution America.

One of the most important events leading up to the explosion in drive-in theater construction was a 1948 Supreme Court decision that came to be known as the "Paramount Decree."

"The major studios all owned the national theater chains from the '20s through the '40s. They completely controlled the exhibition market, guaranteeing a market for their own products and keeping everyone else out," explains Stamp, who teaches a class on the history of film from 1930 to 1960 at UCSC. "This was ruled an illegal monopoly in 1948, and the studios had to divest their holdings in the theater chains. They were called the 'divorced chains,' and they were prevented from acquiring any more theaters. This opened the exhibition market to independent exhibitors for the first time in decades."At the same time Hollywood was facing pressure from the courts, it was blindsided by a young industry growing at an amazing rate: Television.

"TV begins commercial expansion in '48 as well," notes Stamp. "Within that next decade, movie theaters lose half of their audience and 90 percent of Americans own TVs. Hollywood didn't see that coming at all."As the "Big Five" studios lost their grip on the film industry, the postwar American landscape was shifting to sprawling suburban developments. An economic upswing and the GI Bill, which helped World War II veterans purchase housing, spurred this revolution in land use."Well, once people lived away from town, they had to have transportation to get to work, to school, and so on and so forth," explains Sanders, who co-authored The American Drive-in Movie Theater with her husband, Don. "So there was this overnight, unprecedented increase in demand for automobiles. It wasn't just the wealthy that could now afford the car, but it was Middle America. Detroit's response was to build not just utilitarian cars, but what I call 'rolling sculptures.' They were so beautiful. If you have something really good-looking it's really good to show it off. It's good to have someplace to show it off, rather than just driving down the road."

So, with people moving away from the older theaters located in the city, using their cars more and more for life's necessities, and the holders of capital in the film industry unable to build suburban theaters, a new theater form emerged that could be built easily and with little money: the drive-in theater.

"One thing to keep in mind was that the drive-in was a pretty affordable business venture for a lot of people after the war," explains Sanders. "If you could scrape together around 10 acres, you didn't really need much construction to build a drive-in theater. You needed a screen tower, a ticket booth, and a projection booth. The drive-in was a great cash cow to have on the land until the land appreciated in value. A mom and pop usually owned it, it wasn't owned by the studios."

A Movie Park
These economic factors created more than a new industry. The drive-ins presented a whole new way of watching films. For longtime Santa Cruz local and retired PG&E electrician Larry Packer, the Skyview Drive-in was an affordable way for his parents and nine siblings to entertain themselves for a night.

"We moved from the Midwest in 1950 to Scotts Valley and bought a small poultry ranch, and there wasn't much to do," remembers Packer. "We didn't have a TV, so Mom and Dad would pile all the smaller kids into the car (the teenagers were on their own) and we'd go to dollar night, where the whole carload could go in for a dollar."

In fact, the family-friendliness of drive-in theaters was one of the characteristics that set them apart from the traditional urban theaters, where noisy children were often not welcome. Playgrounds, pony rides and even merry-go-rounds were offered at numerous drive-ins across the country. Of course the thick layers of metal and glass separating viewers also allowed children to cry to their heart's content—over the death of Bambi's mother or just because—without disturbing neighbors.

"I can't tell you how many thousands of people we talked to in preparation for our book that said how great the drive-in was because they didn't have to hire a babysitter," says Sanders. "One drive-in owner even staged a picket line with young teenage girls that said 'Unfair to babysitters.'"

Hickenbottom remembers how valuable these drive-in outings were to his relationship with his parents, and later, his relationship to his own son.

"A lot of times when you're sitting around your house there's something that pops into your mind, like paying bills or the fact that you have to go to the store, or cleaning the house," says Hickenbottom. "But at the drive-in your family can escape all that. You can just go out there and have some intimate time. You go into a world of your own making that's all about being with your family and having a great time talking and laughing together."

Families weren't the only ones who found respite within the borders of the drive-in theater. Teenagers, liberated by freshly printed driver's licenses, flocked to the outdoor theaters to see the string of beach party, teen romance, and teen horror movies made especially for them.

Extravagant marketing stunts were a major magnet for bored teens as well. During an appearance at a Dallas, Texas, drive-in, actor John Wayne climbed the concession stand and shot off his six-shooters to entertain the crowd. Some drive-ins would feature Halloween specials in which a "dead body" would be promised to the first hundred customers. True to their word, the owners would hand out dead chickens to the lucky winners.

There was another reason teenagers were heading to drive-ins in unprecedented numbers: the absence of authority figures.

"This was pre-sexual revolution, so there weren't a lot of safe places to go and make out. The drive-in was a safe place to do that," says Sanders. "You could be as naughty as you wanted to in your car. It's hard for younger people now to imagine what life was like before the sexual revolution, but I'm 56, I've raised two daughters who are 21 and 24, and believe me, it was very different."

The drive-ins were also a great place to indulge in the time-honored tradition of underage drinking: just pour a little whisky into that coke and no one was the wiser. Newly minted Mayor Ryan Coonerty remembers sneaking booze into the Skyview during his high school years."My first car was a '66 Mustang and we were all hanging out in it watching a movie, maybe having an adult beverage or two before we were adults," says Coonerty, laughing.The communal atmosphere at the drive-in often extended past groups of teenagers and individual family units to the community as a whole.

"The drive-in was for everyone. The richest people in town might have their car next to the family that owned the service station," explains Sanders. "In many parts of the country, they weren't segregated, so blacks would be free to mingle with the whites, although that wasn't true in the South. I think a lot of people felt no class distinction or anything like that going to the drive-in. That had a lot of appeal after the war."

Wal-Mart Checks and Home Theaters
With all their allure, and with land use now organized around the car more than ever, it seems perplexing that drive-ins are in a state of such critical decline.

Yet the facts are well-documented: By the end of the '80s fewer than 1,000 drive-ins remained open, and many of those resorted to showing X-rated films because it was cheaper than buying second-run or B movies. By the end of the century, the number of drive-ins had dipped below 800, although many converted back from X-rated to first-run films.

The reasons for this sharp decline can be found, at least partially, in yet another transformation of the film industry. Stamp notes that the big studios in Hollywood never really recovered from the proliferation of TV technology and the increasing tendency of Americans to organize their leisure activities around the domestic space. So when cable movie channels, VCRs and now DVD technology and pay-per-view hit the entertainment market, theaters in general lost even more of their audience.

"I think the decline in drive-ins is also part of the decline of the theatrical exhibition of films. Such a small proportion of the population sees films in theaters these days compared to the height of their time," says Stamp. "In 1946 there was something like 90 million tickets sold a week, which is much more than they sell now even with a larger population. It's partly the cost of going to see a movie. Even though the drive-in is cheaper than a theater, it's still more expensive than renting a DVD."Economics also play into the second reason for the decline in drive-ins, a factor that can be seen starkly in the case of Santa Cruz's Skyview. The price of land has skyrocketed since the early days of suburbanization, and prime land next to population centers is getting scarce in many regions of the country, especially California."A lot of drive-ins were created as a way to warehouse land," explains Sanders. "If I'm the owner of that drive-in and somebody walks up to me and writes me a check for several million dollars for my land—well, I've been toiling at that drive-in year in and year out, made a pretty good living, but now here's an opportunity to cash out. I can't really blame them."

Whatever the ultimate fate of drive-ins as an industry, it's rather clear there isn't much that can be done to save the Skyview. The county is unable to stop the property sale between two consenting parties, and the Skyview's owners, the Martins, have already approved the sale.

For many in the community, Dec. 2 will be an emotional night as the lights go out one last time on the Skyview's silver screen."I'm not sure what exactly it is," reflects Coonerty. "I just know that drive-ins have something special you can't get in other places. It's an institution, a great American experience.."

Check www.skyviewsantacruzonline.com for show times on Dec. 2. The Skyview is located at 2260 Soquel Drive, Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz's premier noncar drive-in option, the Guerilla Drive-in, just wrapped up its last season, but be sure to check in with the group at www.guerilladrivein.org. Locations vary, but it's always free.


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