There is only one surviving drive-in movie screen in the Goleta Valley, and it has been dark for nearly 20 years. Until last April, that is, when it sprang to life to display the antics of, first, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and, three weeks later, Iron Man 2.
Showing Bueller, a 1986 John Hughes coming-of-age film, benefited Haitian quake relief, and was organized and propelled by then-San Marcos High School senior Dominique O’Neill. Vehicles stuffed the potholed drive-in lot, and nearly $3,000 was raised after expenses, she estimated.
Following the fund-raiser, O’Neill posted a Facebook page urging people to tell the owners they want the drive-in theater open year-round. Some 6,500 people signed the petition in the first nine days, many commenting how “cool” drive-in movies could be.
Such local enthusiasm led Syufy Enterprises, owner of the 13-acre property on South Kellogg Avenue, to resuscitate drive-in screenings on May 7, at least for the summer. A decision about continued, or even expanded, showing of first-run double features at the Santa Barbara Drive-in is expected by the end of September.
Within its West Wind chain of drive-ins, the San Rafael, California-based company had been mulling the fate of its deteriorating theater facilities at Goleta “for a long time,” said Tony Maniscalco, vice president of marketing. For decades the parking lot’s main use was as a Sunday flea market, known as the Santa Barbara Public Market.
According to Maniscalco, O’Neill’s fundraiser and Facebook initiative provided “a kick in the pants, a final nudge” to test the depth of Goletans’ nostalgia and the appeal of drive-in prices. “People go to drive-ins for nostalgic reasons; they want their children to experience what they did,” he said. “And they go for the value. It’s terrific for families.”
At $6.75 most nights for adults ($4.75 on Tuesdays) and $1 every night for kids 5 to 11, it’s difficult to argue with that assertion. However, a recent visit convinced me that channeling some of that revenue into repaving the lot and better restroom maintenance would go a long way toward restoring the nostalgia.
Though he won’t divulge attendance numbers for the first 14 weeks of operation, Maniscalco said, “We’ve been pleased with results so far.” He said that the chain is planning a free “customer appreciation night” in Goleta on September 30. “This is not our swan song,” he added quickly.
Easing the company’s summer decision were investments already made for the Haiti benefit in rebuilding the special projector and improving the projection booth as well as the concession area. Due to the salt air, the original projection equipment was so rusted it had to be replaced.
It turned out that renting a projector that could cast an image 480 feet to the screen was almost as expensive as rebuilding one. So the chain scavenged projector parts from equipment found at its other drive-ins. The electrical power box was the only item in the Goleta location that could be salvaged, said Chris Markiewicz, West Wind’s technical supervisor.
In addition, the old sound boxes and posts had to be torn out. Instead, FM transmits the film sound track in Dolby stereo to each car radio.
The benefit also boosted the commercial reopening with a professionally repainted, 88-foot-wide single screen, which O’Neill had arranged for through her circle of friends. “Mr. Mitch Moore, who is a house painter, did it himself,” she told me. “He even used a roller when his sprayer did not work.” Milpas Rental also pitched in, loaning Moore one of its lifts without charge.
Ken Krummes, general manager of the drive-in and flea market, added that his staff had patched some wooden panels that compose the screen and removed nails and other odds and ends. For the benefit they also spruced up the old restrooms.
After West Wind officials decided on the summer trial, Krummes installed new food machines and drink dispensers under the concession dome. He added a video game console and a basketball throw game for kids’ intermission entertainment. Unfortunately, air circulation remains poor and the ventilation system awaits improvement.
Company officials seem concerned about profits from food and drink sales and the traditionally lower-priced admissions of drive-ins. Maniscalco, the marketing veep, noted that while most indoor theaters survive on their concession sales, one cannot control what is inside the cars. He hopes patrons will continue to buy West Wind food and beverages. Directions and other details are online at westwinddriveins.com.
As for Dominique O’Neill, the spark that brought back the drive-in to Goleta, she will attend UC San Diego this fall but has not yet decided on a major. She might well consider business economics with an emphasis on social needs and local development.