The marriage of cinema and Americans’ fascination with the automobile caused drive-in theaters to remain a staple of entertainment generations ago. With the advent of the VHS tape, the DVD and now internet streaming for movies, the drive-in slowly disappeared. But with COVID-19 and social distancing the norm, drive-in movies are making a comeback.
Mark Stotzer of Lucky Shoe Productions – a promotor of large-scale concert venues who restored the classic Golden State Theater in Monterey – is hoping his investment of time and money to resurrect the Ceres Drive-In will pay off in the era of TikTok.
The Ripon resident and his crew of 16 have been scurrying to open the Ceres Drive-In the weekend of Sept. 25-27. Plans are to run movies Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and charge $30 per carload.
“The timing was right,” said Stotzer, who has built pop-up theaters all over California. “For us, this is kind of a passion project. I want to keep my people working and frankly there’s nothing to do and it’s getting really boring around here and it’s sad that I have to drive to Sacramento or San Jose to get a true drive-in.”
Because Hollywood isn’t releasing any new movies due to COVID-related government-forced closure of theaters, hit movies from the past will be shown initially. On occasion he would like to blend films with event themes, such as showing the American Graffiti alongside a classic car show.
“We’ll try to do the new movies when we can. We’re also going to do concert live streams. It’s a very dynamic environment right now. But the thing is right now the only way to do entertainment whether it’s concerts or whether it’s film is drive-in. For us it’s all about having a venue to do it.”
Stotzer and his partners obtained a lease from the owner of the property, Harbins Gil of H&H Enterprises. The northern half of the property – which was site of a second movie screen – will remain in use for truck parking while the theater yard perimeter will be screen off for a continuation of the weekend flea market operation. Stotzer and crew have been cleaning up the movie lot, striping the parking lot and making other improvements. It’s been a huge undertaking, including the resurfacing and recoating the giant screen which last saw the flicker of a movie projector about two decades ago.
“This whole lot had gotten filled with garbage because basically the last owners had given up on it years before they sold it,” said Stotzer. “This property had become unmanaged; you can imagine what became of it.”
The Ceres Drive-In will operate under an existing conditional use permit approved by the city years ago. Concessions will be sold from the existing stand which also contains offices.
A special priced “boxed seating” covered area will be designated closest to the screen so that people can view from chairs out of their car and socially distanced.
“It’ll include food and be set up like outdoor dining, still socially distanced. Right now according to state guidance you can sit outside your car, you just have to sit in front of your car. We’re marking each of these spots 12 feet apart and that allows for social distancing. It reduces capacity a little bit but we’re still fine.”
The conditional use permit allows for a sign to be placed at the Whitmore Avenue entrance at Blaker Road. Stotzer said the sign will be temporary sign.
“We’d like this to last forever but it could also last one month. It’ll be interesting to see how the market takes to it and if people want to pay $30. If they want to pay 10 bucks it’s not sustainable. You don’t make much money at this game and it’s a very expensive game to be in.”
He estimates that the drive-in will have to draw 100 vehicles per night to make the theater profitable to operate.
“If we can’t sell hundred cars we shouldn’t be running a movie,” said Stotzer.
Four armed security guards will be posted.
“I will always spend the extra money to make people feel comfortable and to make it legitimately safe. Not that we’re going to have a problem out here but I want people to know we’re not going to have a problem out here.”
Stotzer would like to eventually restore a marque sign which greets cars as they enter along the Whitmore ingress west of the cemetery but it’s so costly he’s seeking donations through GoFundMe.com at gf.me/u/ywg2am
Movies will be advertised on Facebook page under “driveinceres” and also on the website, Ceresdrivein.com
Drive-in theaters go back to the 1930s with the first drive-in theater patented in Camden, New Jersey by chemical company magnate Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. who applied for a patent of his invention on August 6, 1932, and he was given U.S. Patent 1,909,537 on May 16, 1933.
After the end of World War II in 1945 rising car ownership and suburban and rural population led to a boom in drive-in theaters, with hundreds being opened each year. By 1951, the number of drive-in movie theaters in the United States had increased from its 1947 total of 155 to 4,151. Drive-ins’ peak popularity came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in rural areas, with over 4,000 drive-ins spread across the United States in 1958.
Locally, drive-ins operated in Modesto (where there were two), and one in Keyes.