SPEND AN EVENING AT THE DRIVE-IN Three Bay Area enterprises have yet to yield their land to development

Dusk unrolls its blue-black backdrop earlier and earlier these days. Fussy weather patterns blow hot and cold, forcing Bay Area residents to make costume changes faster than Superman in a public telephone booth (or, these days, a three-minute souvenir/passport photo booth).

This fleeting interim the respite between hot, languid summer nights and drawn-out, damp winter darkness this is the time for bucket-seat viewing at the drive-in theater. Not as many teen-agers pop out of old Chevrolet trunks, like clowns from the circusmobile. Rolled-up windows shut out ambient sounds of kids tussling over king-size candy bars or running commentary on the movie.

Earlier nights mean old fogies like me can watch a double feature and burrow under the bedcover by 1 a.m. Outdoor types can wrap themselves in a favorite security blanket while lounging in lawn chairs. Best yet, the slight nip in the air gives a ready excuse to snuggle up (with the most chaste intentions, of course).

We are so dependent on our cars here in the Bay Area, yet we’ve eliminated most true vehicular hangouts. Land and auto alike have changed their layout: the first bulldozed for development, the second squeezed by efficiency and luxury options. The Island Drive In right outside Alameda’s Webster Tube has long given way to condominiums and pristine green lawns. White screens stare out blankly over Interstate 880 from Alameda’s Coliseum Drive In, which opened in 1964. The swap meet, usually symbiotic partner to the drive-in, still gathers five days a week, but a projector hasn’t flickered there in years.

Drive-ins have been slowly dying since the 1960s, according to authors Don and Susan Sanders in “The American Drive-In Movie Theatre” (Motorbooks International, $29.95). Television killed the convenience, insurance took away its fancy food kitchens and playgrounds, and relaxed dress standards allowed informal attire in more and more public places. Teen-age schlock films shut out family viewers and the brief X-rated experiment downgraded the so-called “passion pits” into four-wheeled dens of iniquity.

Once numbering more than 5,000 across the United States, the breed today falls well under 1,000. In the Bay Area, a hardy few remain in Concord, Burlingame and San Jose; Daly City’s Geneva Drive In closed down just two weekends ago.

The three Bay Area drive-ins are part of the Century chain, owned by the Syufy family of Marin County. According to its Web site (www.centurytheatres.com), Century numbers 13 on national exhibitors list, and wants to double its 500 screens by 2000. Last year’s shutdown of the Union City Drive In is part of the master plan. The site next year will hold a 25-screen multiplex and shopping center..

In the late 1950s, a trip to the drive-in meant pony rides for the kids and roller-skating ushers. Those days are over. But the three drive-ins that survive in the Bay Area all serve the mission of combining two American institutions: the movie and the automobile.

Solano Drive In

In 1968, the cars that lined up for the Solano’s first features were Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Fords. On one screen, Walter Matthau was throwing a plate of spaghetti with lethal intent at Jack Lemmon in “The Odd Couple.” Paul Newman, meanwhile, had a mouth full of hard-boiled eggs in “Cool Hand Luke.”

Tonight we’re watching Wesley Snipes slice and dice vampires in “Blade.” We had crept through at least three different spots, since the old-hands have staked out the coveted center-lot areas. The concrete undulations turn out to be most unforgiving for cars with sagging underbellies.

My co-worker Deirdre and I pass by the cars and a few lawn chairs to get to the snack bar. Right by the outdoor grill, kids are scrabbling happily in the brown sand. Some are running back and forth from the swings and slides, big enough to qualify as a true playground. The family atmosphere predominates, with children looking like delirious escapees from a pajama party. After school starts, though, the audiences tend to be a little older.

The weekend outdoor hamburger stand offers grilled patties, wieners and marinated teriyaki sticks, the last positively glamorous. The sticks have gotten off to a late start, so we enter the bright snack bar, ringed with video arcades and movie posters. Burgers and hot dogs are wrapped in silver aluminum bags for a quick pick-up, and Deirdre reaches in the ice cream freezer for a push-up.

Had we asked, the counter people probably would have ladled more hot cheese on the nachos and maybe given us fresher Reese’s peanut butter cups, which had been slightly melted and reformed. The frozen push-ups, purchased in a nostalgic fit, are a little stale. But the hot dogs, though the buns could have been fresher, turn out to be quite good.

A thin beam from my key chain flashlight guides us back to the car. We tune to the appropriate frequency. All sound comes through radio waves now, and the speakers hanging off poles have long gone. Any vehicle too old for its own radio (or unlucky enough to have lost one to an enterprising thief) can at least bring in a portable.

The best benefit of the system is the surreal experience of watching one movie and listening to the dialogue of another. Then again, with no script to speak of in “The Avengers” and an utterly grim storyline of “Saving Private Ryan, ” we stick to vampire talk.

Burlingame Drive In

Burlingame’s looping highway exits deposit my companions and me near the Coyote Regional Park. I’m with two friends trying to navigate serpentine back roads crisscrossing the overpass.

We circle glimmering office towers and a business traveler hotel, knowing the theater is just several hundred feet away. The encroaching glass and steel leave me claustrophobic, both by their physical presence and their symbolic erasure of open space.

The lit marquee and the concrete lot beyond, by contrast, provide a reservoir of breathing room. If 1,520 automobiles ever decided to leave the steel crush of the highway, they could all fit in the 32-year-old drive-in. If these cars did so every night, maybe it would dissuade land developers from consuming the last bit of open real estate. Then again, maybe not.

A Century Theatre spokeswoman says the chain plans to keep operating the Burlingame 4 as a drive-in, but the land belongs to Golden Crown Land & Investment Inc. of San Francisco, which put the property on the market in 1996 with an assessed $7.5 million value. DWI Development, also a San Francisco firm, has a proposal pending for hotels and offices on the site.

Still, it doesn’t feel like we’re in an era coming to a close. But the era is long past, so, really, we’re just parking in the past. Ironic how the confines of work threaten the expanse of leisure.

We enjoy it while we can. The first slot turns out to be too flat, so we move before settling in our position. The angles are reasonably good, not spectacular, but we’ll never have to complain about a tall person slouched on our hood blocking our windshield views or of tiny screens reminiscent of the classroom roll-downs.

Here, too, the usual playset of slides and swings siphons off youthful energy. The snack bar circles a central counter, where the staff serves up the usual fast foods and sodas. We buy our drinks here but, this time, we indulge in the other drive-in tradition: bringing your own food, which in our case is pastrami sandwiches and gigantic eclairs from nearby Max’s Diner.

The convivial drive-in atmosphere generally prevails, but it is here, in Burlingame of all places, that I nearly get into a fight. At the snack bar, my friend Wella and I suddenly find ourselves faced with a flame-haired, scrawny little teen who kept repeating, “I don’t appreciate people pushing my friend.” I recognize her as the girl from the bathroom; she had been roaming the stalls complaining about the smell to her two friends and then, as I passed, asked me (in less delicate terms) if I had gaseous expulsions.

Apparently, she was busy talking when Wella, saying “excuse me, ” squeezed past her friend to get to a stall. I don’t know this at the time. All I do know is this irksome teen is in my face, I’m holding a heavy Maglite, and I can snap her in half by sitting on her.

An apologetic third friend inserts herself between us to assure us everything is OK. Despite our glowering brows, we are outwardly calm (we do, after all, have to act like adults) and I content myself with sarcastic diplomacy by offering to call the police or an ambulance before we walk off. She is still yapping, but the urge to hang her off the marquee by her sweatshirt hood passes. Sort of. You meet all kinds of people in the women’s bathroom.

Capitol Drive In

The entryway splits into two paths, one to the Capitol Drive In, the other to the Century 16. The multiplex opened in 1994, but the two seem to co-exist harmoniously. They cater to different audiences, even though they are watching the same medium. Capitol also commands a faithful congregation. At 27 years old with six screens, the drive-in is the youngest and largest of the chain.

In the back seat, Lorrie balances a stupendous mound of nachos, perfectly oozing with swirling gold cheese, chunks of ground beef and sliced peppers. She has the best buy of the lot, which includes two hot dogs one American, one Polish one cheeseburger, two orders of surprisingly light and crunchy french fries and a cherry Icee. The bounty comes to less than $15, with the Capitol’s nachos costing less than $4 and reigning as best menu item of the drive-ins.

To get to and from the snack bar from screen one, though, requires crossing in front of the car entrance. Once there, younger viewers have their usual choices of slides and a swing set, which look smaller than Solano’s, or a staggering array of video arcades inside the snack bar.

As for sightlines, sharply rising bumps angle the parked cars like cannons ready to lob balls over enemy fortresses.

The drive-in apparently lies below flight paths from nearby San Jose airport and next to train tracks. I see a plane slip behind the on-screen blue Caribbean waters from “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” and later a train rumbling by, but both pass discreetly and without distracting viewers.

The Capitol hasn’t disappointed Lorrie, who has reminisced about her teen years when she would hide in the car trunk as her friends snuck her in. Earlier in the night, she even points out the gas station where the transfer to the trunk would be made.

It is just as well we didn’t try to relive her youth. During a quick supermarket stop, I locked the keys in the car with the engine running. Since my back seat doesn’t pop down, Lorrie would have probably passed out in the 40 minutes it took to have the car unlocked. (I’d like to again thank my friend who gave me the Buddhist charm dangling from the rear-view mirror and allowed me to park next to a man who owns a key shop, and to thank the man’s son who unlocked my door in less than a minute.)

You can always learn a lesson from the movies.

Directions
  • Solano Drive In and Swap Meet, 1611 Solano Way, Concord; 925-825-1951. Admission: $5.50 general, free for age 11 and under; $3.50 general on Tuesday. Directions: Exit Solano Way off Highway 4 just east of Interstate 680.
  • Burlingame Drive In, 450 Beach Road, Burlingame; 650-343-2213. $5.75 general, free for age 11 and under; $3.50 Tuesdays. Directions: From San Francisco, take U.S. 101 south, exit Broadway (stay left at the fork), exit right toward overpass, right onto Rollins Road, right onto Broadway, right onto Bayshore Highway, left onto Airport Boulevard, right onto Beach Road.
  • Capitol Drive In, 3630 Hillcap Ave. (Capitol Expressway and Snell Avenue), San Jose; 408-226-2251. Admission: $5.75 general, free for age 11 and under; $3.50 Tuesdays. Directions: From I-680 south, take U.S. 101 south, exit Capitol Expressway west, right on Snell Avenue, right on Hillcap.
  • Other: Sacramento Drive In, 9616 Oates Drive, Sacramento

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times

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