H-CENTRAL COAST

May 15, 2013 8:45 PM by Christina Favuzzi

Drive-in theatres becoming a rare sight

It's lights out for many drive-in movie theatres across the nation as they struggle to transition into the digital age.

Two local drive-ins in Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo are still thriving; however, the same cannot be said for the Lompoc Valley Drive-In, at least in terms of movies.

The property was converted into the Drive-In Recycling Center in the late 1990s. It sat for several years as nothing more than a vacant lot.

Even though the Lompoc Drive-in doesn't show movies anymore, it's still a fixture in the community.

"It's a landmark. People come from all over the world to take pictures," says Theron Smith, owner/operator of the Drive-In Recycling Center. "They've had different swimsuit contests and car shows, so it's a good background for a lot of photography."

The drive-in market is a shadow of its former self. Nearly 4,000 drive-in theatres dotted the U.S. in the 1950s. Today, there are fewer than 400.

Many drive-ins across the nation have closed their gates but here on the Central Coast, cars keep rolling in, keeping the American pastime alive.

Mariel Mendoza, manager of the HiWay Drive-In, says as long as people keep coming, they will be the last drive-in in America.

"We just have loyal customers. We have customers that come every single weekend," Mendoza says.

Just weeks ago, the HiWay Drive-In was number two in the West in their grosses.

The HiWay Drive-In is also taking steps into the digital age. They take credit cards now and most importantly, they are upgrading to digital films.

By the end of this year, movie studios will stop making the old-fashioned 35-millimeter films that drive-ins use to play their movies.

This leaves many drive-ins reeling as they struggle to pay for the $70,000 upgrade.

But, the sun won't set on the Santa Maria HiWay or San Luis Obispo Sunset Drive-Ins. Both will convert to digital before the year is out.

"It let's you know that our drive-in is here to stay for a long time," Mendoza says.

Amidst all the changes, one thing remains the same; the HiWay Drive-In still uses the original 1950s speakers.

On Sunday mornings, the lots of the HiWay and Sunset Drive-Ins transform into swap meets.

That extra cash is helping to pay for the pricey but worthwhile upgrades to keep the drive-in experience alive.

"It's nostalgia, you know it's part of history. Keep a little of the original instead of throwing it out and bringing in the new all the time," Atascadero resident Oliver Marcs says. "There's something to be said about old stuff."

Anyone who's been to the drive-in has their own favorite memory.

One local we talked to was hesitant to tell us the details of his favorite memory.

"Oh I don't know if I can talk about that," Chris Felt said. "That's another good thing about (the) drive-in; sometimes you miss a lot of the movie but you just have to go see it again."

Locals say it's important for our drive-ins to stay open.

"When other people have kids they want to take their children to the drive-ins, just like how when they were children and their parents took them to the drive-ins," Makayla Nettleson says.

The Sunset and HiWay Drive-Ins are open every night, showing double features for less than $10.

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