Drive-in movie theaters gone but not forgotten in Sonoma County
Looking back, as any social scientist (or grandparent) will tell you, can be instructive. And it can also be comforting in those moments when we need comfort.
Last month we went to the circus. Today, let’s pack up our snacks, put the kids in their “jammies” and go to the drive-in.
Those who are old enough to have made a trip or two to the drive-in movies may not be able to remember what film they saw, but they are sure to come forth with a carload of nostalgia.
We have to be careful about nostalgia. It isn’t history.
It is wistful, sentimental, a longing to retrieve some aspect of one’s past.
History is far more complex. It is, in its simplest form, chronology, a record of past events, a study of a people or an institution, often including a theory or interpretation of those events.
History is more trustworthy by far. Memory is too often pushed off the truth track by emotions, by sentiment if you prefer.
So we save the nostalgia for now. And start with the history. Consider it a hook on which to hang your hatful of memories.
The whole notion of outdoor movies is as quirky as any accidental invention. It was a man named Richard Hollingshead, an auto parts salesman in Camden, New Jersey, who “invented” the drive-in, according to a 2008 article in Smithsonian magazine. The story quoted the head of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners, who told it like this:
“His (Hollingshead’s) mother was - how should I say it? - rather large for indoor theater seats, so he stuck her in a car, put a 1928 projector on the hood and tied two sheets to trees in his yard.”
In 1933 Hollingshead opened the first drive-in theater, but his brilliant idea didn’t really take hold until in-car speakers were developed in the 1940s. And, in the early ’50s, with the war over and at least one car in every garage, the drive-in became a way of life in suburban and rural America, where there was space to work with.
By 1958 there were 4,063 drive-in theaters in the nation. Two were located in Sonoma County, with three more to come and go. The quintet, in order:
The Redwood (1950 or ’51-’84) was first - and lasted longest. Located 5 miles south of the courthouse on the Redwood Highway, at Wilfred Avenue before it was freeway, before there was a Rohnert Park. Along with the Kay-Von east of Napa, it was the drive-in pioneer of the North Bay.
The Village (‘52-’83) opened “way out there” to the east of the new Montgomery Village shopping center. And offered everything “newer” in speakers, snack bars and comfort stations. It was out of the fog belt and would become the favorite of the drive-in crowd as others came and went.
The Midway (early ’60s-mid ’80s) was something else again. The very mention of the Midway Drive-In at the Sonoma-Marin county line produces snickers from those who recall its last years when it not only changed its name to the SonoMarin for a time but changed its program to, well, basically, porno movies. Things like “Behind the Green Door.” This raised the public consciousness of that scruffy little 600-space outpost.
Neighboring ranchers, who could see the screen from their living rooms and had to keep the curtains drawn to protect their children, were vehement and continuous in their protests.
The Midway’s determination to test its right to show such films may have caused a fender bender or two, but it provided a convenient “rest stop” for truckers. One could often see a couple of cross-country rigs stopped on the shoulder.
Along with the long-closed service station in front that sold chenille bedspreads and bathrobes - hanging them out in the breeze to lure customers - the Midway became a landmark before Caltrans finally bought the land and removed the levees that kept the theater from flooding, creating a nesting area for waterfowl. Traffic flow improved. Nobody stops to look at the birds.
The Star-Vue (‘63-’78), the biggest and fanciest of the bunch, opened north of the 3-year-old Coddingtown Shopping Center. The Star-Vue, on Airway Drive, had 1,200 car spaces on 20 acres (almost twice the number of the 7-acre Village) and a playground for the kids.
The Parkway (’79-’86). The last and the one with the shortest lifespan, Parkway’s place in the drive-in derby was behind the wave, really. It was north of Petaluma in the area old-timers call Denman Flat, later more like Telecom Valley.
So many lifestyle changes converged to make the drive-ins vanish from the landscape. Henry Lazzarini, who managed a couple of the biggest, put the causes into one word when asked.
“Money!” he said. And he was correct. As the population pushed the towns outward the land values increased well beyond car spaces. The Star-Vue became a commercial–industrial area. The Village, townhouses and a strip mall.