Butter the popcorn, park the car, and head back in time at the buzzing Concord drive-in

Oct 7, 2015

 

Nowadays, all young lovebirds need to get the romance flowing is a Netflix account and a bag of Microwave popcorn. Back in the 1950's and 60's, date night happened at the drive-in. Imagine rows of cars with couples inside, and steam on the windows—think of the movie Grease.

Well, despite the general decline of the movie theater business, night after night, dozens drive over to a parking lot in Concord to watch movies outside. In fact, Westwind Drive-in, which runs that lot, claims to be the largest drive-in chain in the world, and their business is booming.

Two car-less girls head to the drive-in

When their editors asked Holly J. McDede and Allison Lee to put together a radio feature about Westwind, the Bay Area’s last remaining drive-in chain, Holly thought it was a great idea. Allison thought they might need a car. Neither had one.

But Tony Maniscalco was willing to help. “My job is to try to get people to come to the drive-ins,” he explained. He’s the marketing director at Westwind Drive-Ins. When Allison told him about the predicament, he offered to pick them up at the Bart in Concord. Hey, it’d be free publicity. Neither of them had ever been to a drive-in before, or even knew that one existed in the Bay Area. He wanted to get the word out. 

Dim the lights

Back in the 1950's, there were about 4,000 open-air cinemas in the US. Now, that number is more like 350.

But at At the Westwind Drive in on Solano Way in Concord, an hour before show time on a Tuesday evening, the place is buzzing like it’s 1952. 

“I would say that there's probably about 70 cars in line from the entrance," Maniscalco observes. "The line at a drive-in doesn't move quite as fast as lines with people.” 

All these folks took the journey in just to squeeze tightly in their cars and to gaze up at a big faraway screen, in a parking lot?

Yes.

Make it digital

Maniscalco rolls down his window at the ticket booth. Gone are the days of old speaker boxes attached to the windows. The movie’s soundtracks now play through FM radio frequencies, and there are two huge digital screens.

“And there’s not a bad seat in the house because the screen is about 98 feet wide,” Maniscalco says. “So you can’t really miss the movie.”

He turns the dial. And the trailer begins.

Get some snacks, socialize, and kill some zombies

But Allison and Holly aren’t there just to watch a movie. In fact, that’s one of the draws of the drive-in: you can get up and wander around, whenever you want. Some people are sitting in their cars, facing the screen, others have brought lawn chairs to lounge in. There’s a playground between the 2 screens.

The line at the snack bar can get long, so if you’re too impatient for Nachos there’s the video game arcade. Christine Davidson and Willie Shearer have teamed up to kill zombies in a Simpson’s themed game. Shearer must be a master zombie slayer by now: he says he’s grown up at the drive-in, since his first visit with his family twenty years ago. He’s brought dates here.

"It's way more intimate than the movies because you're in your own car. It's not like you're sitting next to some slob who is 300 pounds and you're having a bad time because someone's yelling in your ear. You're in your own car. It's way better than an actual movie theater,” Shearer said.

But a trip to the movies in the Bay Area can cost up to $15 a ticket, and that’s not even counting coke and popcorn.

Cracking out some orange juice, putting on pajamas, and having a Netflix marathon on a Friday night is a little lonelier, but certainly cheaper. The Concord drive-in closed down in 2003, one of the many movie theaters hit by the change in viewing habits.

“Drive-in theaters sort of gave way to real estate development...you can imagine what a piece of property like this is worth,” Maniscalco said.

The Concord Drive-In’s parent company, Syufy, owns seven drive-ins, and uses the land for flea markets in the daytime.

Bargain hunters

When the recession struck, and people started hunting for bargains, Syufy decided to give the Concord drive in another shot. Maniscalco still gets poetic just thinking about it: going back to the abandoned drive-in, clearing away the dust... the lights flickering back on...

“Back in those days we had these magnificent, old theaters with these platters, these giant platters the film would run on, and I fired it up and turned the switch and low and behold, the projector still worked. So, it was like, you know what? Why don't we reopen again and see what happens,” Maniscalco said.

A rainy Thursday

It was a rainy Thursday, Maniscalco, recalls. He says that people were tired of paying so much for indoor theaters when a double feature could be had for less than $8, $1 dollar for kids. Plus, there was the nostalgia factor. People wanted to escape to the drive-in again, like they did when they were kids.

“We had people actually crying in line, they were so happy that the drive in was open again,” Maniscalco said. “We had a...couple that were celebrating their fifteenth wedding anniversary. They had met at the drive-in.”

Romance aside, business has been booming for Westwind’s Drive-Ins ever since.

“Our business is up a lot. It is....over the last three years I would say that our business, as a circuit, is up probably 45%, far outpacing walk in theaters,” Maniscalco said.

Nostalgia is good for business. But to stay afloat, the next generation needs to get on board, too.

“The playground is very good for our five year old,” Becky Ahmadi said. “The ones I went to when I was a kid had one too, so it's nice to have a place that reminds me of my childhood.”

Ahmadi’s brought five kids here tonight, to experience their first drive-in, crammed into her minivan. Becky’s niece Nel is nostalgic for a world she never got to experience.

“So far it's really good. It seems like from an Old fashioned Grease movie...without the guys standing on car and singing,” Nel said.

The magic of the movies

Back in the arcade, Willie Shearer and Christine Davidson are still waiting for the second movie to start. Davidson says she enjoys the nostalgic aspect of the drive-in, but it’s kind of sad, too.

“I think it's a dying way of appreciating media and culture, that's for sure, but it's also the reason I'm willing to drive 40, 30 minutes to go to this...it's about the architecture, too, the food...the way it makes you feel...even the palm trees,” Davidson said.

Magic can happen at the drive-in...for instance, two girls without cars can find themselves sitting in one, kickin' back while the movie rolls—thanks to the kindness of a stranger.

Turned out, Allison and Holly had spent two hours wandering around...just talking to people. But it was a double feature. The next movie was just beginning.