(Photo courtesy of Lucas Cohen-d'Arbeloff)
Harvard-Westlake High School

Drive-in cinemas shine during quarantine

As cars whizz by on Highland Avenue, past the glimmering lights of the Best Western and the bolted-up doors and closed signs of nearby restaurants up onto the 101 Freeway, the Hollywood Legion Theater is easy to miss. But one by one, several vehicles take a sharp left turn into a small alleyway before parking in their assigned space and preparing for the show to begin.

Located on the grounds of a chapter of the American Legion, a military veterans’ nonprofit organization, the Hollywood Legion drive-in is open seven nights a week and plays a variety of new releases and classic films. After a remodel of its 482-seat indoor theater in 2019 and a year of successful screenings, the pandemic stopped the Hollywood Legion staff in their tracks.

Theater Director Bill Steele said that while a staff member did initially suggest a drive-in alternative in the parking lot, it took months of planning to set it up.

“We got bids to erect a temporary screen system and rent a projector that cost more than $50,000 for just a weekend of shows,” Steele said. “We decided to try and figure it out ourselves instead. [Chief Projectionist Taylor Umphenour] had a lot of contacts with technical people in the industry who were willing to help us out, and I took the lead coordinating the architecture, engineering, permitting and so forth.”

Starting this process in April 2020, Steele had to reach out to the city of Los Angeles to get laws amended, allowing them to run the 30-car theater in a residential neighborhood. The theater also recently received a temporary long-term use permit from the city that will allow them to operate the drive-in for another year.

“We’ve run new releases like Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ and ‘Wonder Woman 1984,’ and we’re going to be showing Oscar best-picture contender ‘Nomadland,’’’ Steele said. “We’ve run classic films from the 1940s like ‘Casablanca’ and ‘Double Indemnity’ and concert films with Stevie Nicks and Elvis Presley. In November we showed a silent film, ‘The Freshman,’ and had a pianist play an electric organ in the back of a pickup truck.”

When patrons purchase tickets online, they must indicate which variety of car they drive so that organizers can properly assign spots. Steele said this is to prevent some patrons’ views from being blocked since the theater could not afford a ramp.

“Luckily, because the natural slope of the Legion’s parking lot — it slopes down gently from back to front, like an amphitheater — we realized that if we could park cars with low rooflines near the front of the screen, midsize cars in the middle and SUVs in the back of the lot, we might get enough roof clearance between each row of cars so that no one’s view is blocked,” Steele said.

While the drive-in was originally seen as a temporary solution, Steele said he is unsure whether the project will continue long-term.

“No one knows when the pandemic will officially end,” Steele said. “We think that even when movie theaters reopen a lot of people, especially older people, will feel uncomfortable going back inside. So drive-ins may continue to operate well after the pandemic ends, but how long that may be is anyone’s guess at this point. We will just wait and see what happens.”

According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, open-air movie theaters pose a much less serious threat than traditional theaters in terms of spreading COVID-19.

“The state guidance for counties in the purple [highest COVID] tier are as follows: movie theaters are outdoor only with modifications,” the Department said in a statement to the Harvard-Westlake High School Chronicle.

The Inland Empire is home to a set of drive-ins as well. Harvard-Westlake sophomore Raisa Effress described the scene as she traveled over the summer to Montclair, California to see “My Spy” at the Mission Tiki Drive-In Theatre.

“We thought, most of us had never been to a drive-in movie before, so this would be a good opportunity,” Effress said. “The Mission Tiki was the only one that had spots left for that night, and when we got there, the line was so long — all the way down the street with cars. It had been forever since everyone was in a regular movie theater.”

Even after the 27-acre property was sold for development a year ago, increased interest during the pandemic has helped keep the Mission Tiki alive for the time being. Adorned with Polynesian-themed embellishments and centered around four screens that tower high above the vehicles, the lot also hosts a popular Swap Meet market.

“In the lot, there were a bunch of different screens: different areas for different movies,” Effress said. “We brought my dad’s truck, we took a bunch of blankets and cushions and we sat in the back and had popcorn.”

With a variety of mainstream studio movies, independent films, foreign flicks and simulcast concerts, Mission Tiki has embraced atypical fare. It will continue through 2021 by partnering with the Sundance Film Festival and coordinating showtimes of new releases.

“Even though the film we watched was not my favorite, it was still nice to have the moviegoing experience again,” Effress said. “I remember the wonderful nights I spent at Century City watching new films, and this felt like a little piece of normal for once.”

Drive-ins across the country are also working to provide entertainment during troubling times. Lake Elmo, Minnesota is the birthplace of the Vali-Hi Drive-In, open only during the spring and summer. Serving the Twin Cities area since 1984, this family-owned theater provides a variety of films under the stars with an old-timey theme.

While in the area, sophomore Maddy Redmond frequented Vali-Hi, viewing both the Disney Pixar movie “Inside Out” as well as “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.”

“The whole experience had a really family-oriented and nostalgic vibe,” Redmond said. “We could hear the sound booming through our car radio, almost like a real movie theater. It was a really lovely opportunity that I’m not sure I would have gotten had it not been for this pandemic.”

Looking toward the future, Redmond also mentioned her hope that drive-ins will see a resurgence even as life goes back to normal.

“Going to a drive-in is simply refreshing,” Redmond said. “I think this format has real potential as an entertainment medium, especially as people are just aching to get out of the house.”