On October 3, 2009, George Cohn and his wife, Donna, loaded the cooler into the small trunk of their restored 1970 Jaguar XK-E convertible and drove out to watch their last flick ever at the DeAnza Drive-In Theater in Tucson.
It had been a good run. In the 48 years since the Morenci-born movie and motor buff moved to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona, George Cohn estimates he took in a drive-in flick just about every weekend — first at the short-lived Fiesta Drive-in, then at the Midway, Rodeo, Prince, Apache and Miracle Mile. At the crest of our national love affair with outdoor movies in the mid-1970s, temperate Tucson had eight in operation, including its first multi-plex, the Tucson 5. Back in the Valley there were 17 in all throughout the phenomenon’s peak.
But after the closing of the Tucson 5 in 1988 — and cable TV and the VCR had diminished our fondness for watching movies in our pajamas out of the back of a station wagon — the city was left with only the 4-screen DeAnza, which had originally opened as the single-screen Cactus Drive-In in 1951.
George and Donna became the theater’s most loyal patrons, visiting the site just a little southeast of the Reid Park Zoo at least 50 times a year.
“From 2000 to 2009, we probably only missed one or two weekends a year,” George says. “There’s just something cool about sitting out under the stars, you know, with that huge screen in front of you. Everything’s bigger than life. You can hear the soundtrack wafting across the lot as you walk to the snack bar. And I swear, they must have used fans to spread that smell of popcorn from the concession stand!”
The Cohns themselves were an added draw: two faithful, friendly figureheads poking out of that little red two-seater Jaguar, a picture-postcard symbol of what was often the most fun thing to watch at the drive-in: the people and their cars.
Charlie Spillar made great efforts to save drive-in relics. Photo Credit: Ryn Gargulinski
“They got to know us so well, on the last night we pulled up to the entrance, one of the kids who usually worked at the snack bar yelled, ‘Large popcorn, no butter, two Diet Cokes!’ They wanted to give it to me free that night, but I paid just like always.”
On that final night before the theater’s closing, the couple sat through “Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs,” but left before the second feature.
“We couldn’t stand to see the screens go dark for the last time,” the 66-year-old Cohn explains. “When I drove out of there for the last time, I was heartbroken. I hate to admit it, but I was almost in tears, because I realized that an era had ended. I had literally spent nearly the last 50 years of my life at the drive-in.”
As it turned out, Cohn would return about six months later to take a very big piece of the DeAnza home with him. When word got out that the 60-year-old theater, fallen prey to vandalism and drug use, was about to be demolished by its new owner, Evergreen Development, Cohn found a new hero in Charlie Spillar, a well-known patron of kitschy arts in Tucson who had earlier rescued the oddball statues from the Magic Carpet miniature golf course when that closed.
“Charlie literally put himself in front of a bulldozer until he could get Evergreen on the phone, and managed to get them to salvage the original Cinemascope screen, that was like 70 feet wide and 65 feet high,” Cohn says.
Spillar paints the details a little less heroically. “It wasn’t like me throwing my body in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square,” he says with an easy laugh. “I got an email one Monday morning that Evergreen had gotten a quick-pass demolition permit and the screens were being torn down. Fortunately, I have some good media contacts, so I called Channel 4 and the Arizona Daily Star and they jumped on the story. I drove out there, got a hold of Evergreen, and because of all the pressure being put on them by the media, they decided to save the one screen — which I believe was the first Cinemascope screen in America installed at a drive-in — and they actually paid for the dismantling, which wound up being like a thousand pieces.”
Cohn, a long-time collector of drive-in theater souvenirs like the speakers and posts that used to line so many dusty Arizona acres, volunteered to purchase a lot to store the dismantled screen parts. And a few weeks later, he and Donna, along with Spillar and a few nice guys from the Ely Heavy Haul trucking company, showed up to begin the long process of moving the gargantuan screen slabs and heavy I-beams to Cohn’s property. “It took a big truck and a forklift,” he says proudly, “but we did it.”
He and Spillar teamed with Demion Clinco of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation to set up a non-profit 501c corporation called the Cactus Drive-In Theatre Foundation, with hopes of resurrecting the theater as a community-funded venue — one of several do-it-yourself drive-ins that have been springing up around the country to replace the vanishing icons of American pop culture. “That was probably our first mistake,” Cohn says dryly.
After staging a couple of fundraising “guerrilla drive-in” events, projecting films onto the side of a downtown building in front of a parking lot of cars filled with cult enthusiasts — another trend that’s been taking off nationwide; a kind of flashmob with popcorn and projectors — Cohn and Spillar parted ways with the team, which, Cohn claims, has become a bit too hipster for his taste.
Closing-night marquee at Tucson’s DeAnza Cinemascope. Photo Credit: George Cohn
“They started adding younger people to the board, and they only wanted to show classic films and artsy stuff,” he sniffs. “But that’s not what keeps a drive-in open. You have to market to families that want to see reasonably current, family-oriented movies.”
Nevertheless, Cohn still supports the project — at least to the extent that he’s still willing to store the dismantled screen and the rescued marquee on the space he purchased specifically for it. “I wish them well,” he says, adding, only half-jokingly, “and I wish they’d come and get their stuff off my property!”
A little less than two years following the loss of Tucson’s last drive-in, Phoenix movie fans were dealt a similar blow when the Scottsdale Six, occupying the same plot of land southeast of Hayden and McKellips roads for 34 years, went dark for the last time on August 28, 2011.
Today, nearly a year later, the 29-acre site sits abandoned and neglected, progressively falling victim to the same vandalism and nefarious nighttime activity that inevitably led to the DeAnza’s demolition. Fans on the theater’s Facebook page have been voicing their outrage, and trying, in vain, to organize a community-funded rebirth along the lines of the nascent Tucson effort.
“Sad times,” writes Andrew Lux, a native Arizonan who had been attending the drive-in since childhood. “It’s a shame to see a place like Scottsdale Six in that shape, being neglected, when it once brought happiness to families.”
For drive-in fans, it’s an all-too-familiar sign of the outdoor movie theater’s slow death across the country. When the Scottsdale Six opened in 1977, just a popcorn’s throw away from the similarly iconic Big Surf, Arizona was home to 47 drive-in theaters. Today, only the Glendale 9, on 55th Avenue south of Bethany Home Road, and the single-screen Apache Drive-In near Globe, remain.
The Apache, a dusty diamond just off the US Highway 60 with room for no more than 150 cars and operated only on weekends, and only from May through September, is a genuine blast from the past. With its lone screen dwarfed by the majestic Pinal Mountains behind it and its eerie rows of speaker poles — like most drive-ins since the ‘80s, the Apache now broadcasts movie soundtracks over a low-powered FM radio band directly to car stereos, yet has kept the poles standing — the place looks much the same as photos from 1960, when local theater owner Frank Hollis purchased it. Judging by its spotty Internet presence, the curiosity is probably visited by more photographers of roadside Americana during the day than moviegoers by night: the Google Maps Street View team even took a rare detour to get a closer view from the ticket booth.
George Cohn loads pieces of the DeAnza Cinemascope screen into a moving van. Photo Credit: George Cohn
The Glendale 9, on the other hand, is still a surprisingly thriving enterprise. “Our overall business has grown by 43 percent during the last three years,” says Tony Maniscalco, vice president of marketing for the San Rafael, CA-based West Wind Drive-Ins, which operates seven drive-ins throughout the West, including the Glendale 9. Maniscalco says the 33-year-old Glendale venue has consistently been one of its better performers.
“We’re theater operators, but we also own some health clubs and a small chain of restaurants, and we have a whole division that is about commercial real-estate development,” he says. “But what’s funny is that, doing the math, if Wal-Mart wanted to come in and build a location there, we might still make more money showing movies than we would with a ground lease to Wal-Mart. It’s doing that well for us.”
The key, Maniscalco says, is owning and maintaining the land themselves — an advantage West Wind didn’t have with its other Arizona drive-in, the Scottsdale Six, which was leased from members of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
“That was one of the only properties that we didn’t own, but they finally decided they had other plans for it, so they would not renew our lease,” says Maniscalco.
Salt River’s economic development manager counters that claim, charging West Wind failed to provide all the required documents by the deadline. In any event, the lease agreement was not renewed, and today the site still awaits its uncertain fate. Like hundreds of other now-dead drive-ins purchased as “land banks” decades ago, it’s finally become more valuable as property for car dealers, shopping malls or — as goes the betting money on this particular patch of tribal land — casinos.
Maniscalco vows that West Wind, the drive-in wing of the family-owned Century Theaters started by multi-plex pioneer Raymond Syufy in 1940, won’t allow that to happen to its last remaining drive-in in Arizona. “The family that owns this company got its start in the movie business over 70 years ago,” he says. “We enjoy staying in the theater business, and that’s why we own that property, and why, in fact, we own all the properties around it as well. So that’s not going anywhere for a long time.”
Maniscalco says there’s something about the drive-in in general that the Syufy family feels bent on preserving. “It’s an experience that’s different from anything else. It’s kind of a combination of being at a movie and being at a neighborhood carnival. I mean, you go there on a Friday or Saturday night, and you’ll see kids running around in their pajamas.”
The drive-in also remains the cheapest movie experience going: at the Glendale 9, a first-run blockbuster is $6.50 for adults, and, unbelievably, just a buck for kids between the ages of 5 and 11 — a safety measure, no doubt, to keep recession-strapped parents from squeezing the little ones in the trunk. “And the little kids younger than that are free!” Maniscalco assures.
The Scottsdale Six, opened in 1977, stands abandoned and neglected.
“It’s the world’s cheapest babysitter, because the kids will watch the first movie, fall asleep in the back seat, and then the parents can watch the second feature by themselves. You can talk on the phone if you like, you can smoke a cigarette. You can do whatever you want!”
Indeed, the privacy afforded young couples in their cars under the stars is legendary. It was always an adolescent badge of honor, after Saturday night at the movies, to claim you never got to watch the picture you paid to see.
“They used to call it the ‘passion pit,’” says George Cohn. “It was the only place young people could go to get privacy, where they could park and neck. Of course, I always had two-seaters, so there was no back seat to make out in,” he says with a chuckle. “So for us, it was always about the movie.
“Not that we didn’t see some crap!” he adds quickly, recalling the shifting fare, from beach blanket musicals, spaghetti westerns and B-movie horror flicks through Tunnelvision and Porky’s Revenge, that passed through the drive-in.
“We’d see some truly horrible films. But just that whole feeling of being there, under the stars, with that big screen, made ‘em worth watching. It’s a hard thing to explain to someone who’s never had the experience.”
DIY Backyard Cinemas
Once a month, for at least most months of the year, Chris Ayers and his friends host a running film series in his backyard.
Ayers, a 34-year-old on-air graphics director for CBS 5, KPHO-TV, got the idea from some college friends in Athens, who had attracted a bit of a following by showing avant garde and indie films in their backyard using a large sheet and a borrowed projector. Lately, a number of enterprising companies have begun cashing in on the growing DIY backyard cinema trend, renting or selling giant inflatable movie screens paired with HD projectors to the residential consumer. Target now sells a 16-foot screen made by Open Air Cinema for $1,150.
Ayers’ set-up is somewhere between DIY punk and professional grade: an anamorphic widescreen, complete with masking for showing smaller-ratio classics, made out of drywall and permanently affixed by 2x4s to the back of his garage.
“We have an equipment rack out there that we built, which houses an HD projector, and we’ve got surround sound and subwoofers,” says the central Phoenix resident, whose first job was working as a projectionist for a United Artist’s movie house in Greenville, SC. “We’re kind of A/V nerds, so we probably care more about everything being perfect than the people who just come to watch a free movie.”
Chris Ayers’ backyard in Central Phoenix transformed into a do-it-yourself drive-in. Photo Credit: Chris Ayers
Selection-wise, Ayers and his friends tend to favor indie, foreign and art house films, from Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” to a mash-up of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” scored with the music of Radiohead.
It’s a cultured, hipster taste shared by the younger board now running the Cactus Drive-In Theatre Foundation, whose plans for the resurrection of the classic Arizona drive-in sound like something Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein might pitch their offbeat mayor in a Portlandia episode.
“We want to do something along the lines of how bowling has been reinvented, where it’s now the ‘bowling lounge’ and a little more upper scale,” says board chair Herb Stratford, a local film critic who hosts weekly TV and radio segments on the arts. “We’re hoping that we can kind of reinvent the drive-in, and make it something for families but also something that’s hip and urban and cool. A two-screen theater with first-run hit films for families, but also another screen for folks that are interested in seeing art house or classic horror films, with better concessions. Like Frankenstein, but outside, with a great cocktail.”
For his part, George Cohn isn’t interested in reinventing anything, just recreating, as best he can, the experience he’d grown to love over the last 50 years.
“I have a 12-by-12-foot screen in my backyard that I made from leftover pieces of pipe and a vinyl billboard that I turned back side out,” he says, describing his own DIY set-up. “And every weekend my wife and I choose a couple of movies, throw our lawn chairs in front of the screen and pretend we’re at the drive-in.”
Features at the Cohn’s backyard cinema run more toward movies like the 1977 Star Wars, classics their neighbors remember but the kids on the block may have never seen.
“Occasionally my next-door neighbors and their young kids will come over and watch something that’s new to them,” Cohn says. “We make popcorn and bring sodas and candy and just have a great time, much like it used to be at the ‘real’ drive-ins.”
Once in a while, George and Donna will even roll the Jaguar into the backyard, park it by the speaker post Cohn’s installed and hang one of those authentic Cactus Drive-In speakers over the door.
“It’ll never be exactly the same experience,” he says with a sigh. “But it’s as close to the real thing as we can get.”
Cover photo credit: Rob Svirskas