From the archives: Ceres Drive-In bucks the theater trend

07/17/2006 10:51 AM

03/18/2009 1:57 PM

Editor's note: This is a story written by staff writer Anna Scianna and published on July 17, 2006, about the plight of drive-in theaters.

CERES — The smell of popcorn wafts through the air as children make sure their pillows are propped at the right angle.

An older couple sits on lawn chairs in the back of their truck, holding hands and remembering the past.

Starry-eyed lovers gaze at each other, ignoring the big screen in front of them.

These scenes capture the essence of a dying tradition — the American drive-in.

At the Ceres Drive-In on Friday night, no one would have guessed.

The 436-car lot was nearly full for the double feature "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and "Click." "Superman Returns" and "Nacho Libre" in the 350-car lot also attracted a crowd.

Tina Urrutia's family packed a car and truck with seven people from three generations to head to the drive-in from Stockton.

The family spent all day getting ready, Urrutia said. They were well-prepared with an assortment of food, including hot dogs, popcorn and chips.

Urrutia's daughter, Michelle Gonzalez, 31, remembers going to the Hammer Drive-In in Stockton as a child. It and others from her youth have been closed for a long time.

The Ceres Drive-In is the closest one left.

She wants to pass on the tradition to her daughters Tiana, 8, and Leah, 4.

A smiling Tiana, resting in the truck bed filled with pillows and blankets, said, "I like that we get to lay in the back of the truck."

To do that and watch a movie is becoming increasingly difficult.

Walt Effinger, president of Maryland-based United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association, said about 425 drive-ins remain in the United States, down from 5,000 in their heyday during the 1950s and 1960s.

He said there are 21 in California. Other than the Ceres drive-in, the closest for Northern San Joaquin Valley residents is in Madera. The Sacramento Drive-In Theaters closed after the 2004 season.

As for the decline of drive-ins, most people point to increased land costs, pressure from developers and a saturation of TV sets in homes.

The first drive-in theater was opened by Richard Hollingshead and Willis Warren Smith on June 6, 1933, in Camden, N.J. It had spaces for 500 cars. Hollingshead wanted to create an open-air theater where patrons could sit in or around their cars and enjoy a movie.

Effinger has owned a drive-in in Lancaster, Ohio, for 14 years but worked there for 41 years. He was drawn to that type of environment.

People at the Ceres Drive-In feel the same way.

"I really like the relaxed atmosphere," said Sonora's Ben Schoettgen, who was eating sandwiches in the back of a truck with Lisa Grimes of Modesto.

The two recalled piling into cars and driving to the theater when they were in college. Not only is the experience relaxing, it's also affordable, Grimes said.

Ceres charges $10 a carload for a double feature. Friday, some sedans were packed with as many as six.

Michelle Gonzalez said it normally costs her family about $60 to go an indoor theater, where a single ticket can go for nearly as much, if not more, than what she'd pay for a carload in Ceres.

Moviegoers can bring in their own snacks if they want to avoid concession stand prices.

Atwater's Megan Brudzinski, 17, goes to the drive-in every summer with her family. She brought a friend, Nicole Noriega, 18, who never had been to the drive-in.

Noriega was having a good time because she was seeing two movies for the price of one and could freely talk to her friend.

"I like being kind of separated from everyone instead of being cramped in the seats," she said.

Lourdes Perez, the general manager at Ceres, said showing first-run movies such as "Pirates," although expensive, keeps people coming back.

If you haven't been for a long time, the sound is much better. Gone are those clunky speakers hooked precariously on the window. Seven years ago, Ceres switched to the popular FM radio signal that can be picked up on any car stereo.

Perez said operators rely heavily on concessions to help offset the cost of maintaining the equipment.

As for business this year -- Ceres is open seven days a week from the first weekend in May to the first weekend in September -she would say only that attendance has been good.

That's great news for Charlie and Jan Leffingwell of Modesto.

They came to the drive-in Friday for the first time in more than 20 years. They grew up going to a Hayward drive-in but hadn't been to one in a long time.

"We hated to see these things go by the way," Charlie Leffingwell said.

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