AZUSA, Calif. -- At the last drive-in theater on the Southern California leg of historic Route 66, families with children hunker down under blankets as couples sip iced tea before the evening's double feature.
While some come for the nostalgia of Americana and bargain $5 tickets, others say they made the trip because, simply put, nothing compares to a movie at the drive-in.
"We didn't come for years and recently we just started coming again," said Mike Hobbs, 34, who brought his wife and 3-year-old son to the Azusa Foothill Drive-in. "I just said today, 'Hey, let's go to the show."'
Once feared on the brink of extinction, drive-ins have managed to survive through low attendance by hosting weekend swap meets, serviced by concession stands that keep popping and selling popcorn.
To the credit of devoted fans who keep buying tickets and business-savvy owners who found other sources of profit, the two have kept drive-in theaters thriving.
In fact, the number of drive-ins in America has held steady at about 500 for the past decade, said Don Sanders, author of "The American Drive-in Theater." While it's nowhere near the peak of 5,000 in 1958, there's no sign that the drive-in will fade to black.
"There's never going to be more than there are today, but I don't think there'll be less," Sanders said of California's 35 or so remaining drive-ins.
Many have died out in major cities because of rising real estate prices and a housing crunch, but drive-ins are still scattered off rural and suburban highways, he said.
In Jefferson, Wis., the old Highway 18 Outdoor Theater collected weeds for five years until a new owner reopened it in May. And the family-owned Starlite Drive-in in Neligh, Neb., has been a popular destination since 1979.
Invented in 1933 by Richard Hollingshead in Camden, N.J., the drive-in was a marketing scheme intended to lure customers to the gas station at night, said Sanders.
Soon, giant screens, murals, neon lights and in-car speakers followed the post-World War II boom. Families became the drive-in's main staple in the 1950s until teens gave it a new reputation as "the passion pit" in the 1960s.
For a variety of reasons, including competition from television and later VCRs, the drive-in began to droop from the late 1960s on. Some owners even blamed customer decline on the adoption of daylight-saving time in 1967, arguing that families didn't want to stay out late.
Land value and ever-expanding cities forced many drive-ins to sell in the 1980s, making many believe that the very American institution would be lost.
"I took my first picture of a drive-in in 1987 and I thought there wouldn't be any left in 2000," Sanders said.
But while drive-ins seem to have weathered the worst, there's still pressure to sell. The Foothill Drive-in, about 20 miles east of Los Angeles, continues to fight rumors that neighboring Azusa Pacific University will buy the land for classrooms.
Manager Leo Aceves firmly said the owner, Los Angeles-based Pacific Theaters, has no plans to sell.
"The younger generation is used to megaplexes, CD sound and stadium seating, but you still get the regulars who are looking for drive-ins," Aceves said.
Baby boomers such as Mike and Judy Williams admit to being regulars. The couple, both 49, shared dinner with their friends on lawn chairs in front of their new sport utility vehicle.
Drive-ins have always been a big part of their lives.
"Back when they still charged by the car, we used to hide people in the trunk," said Mike Williams, of Covina.
He even remembers taking his wife on dates at a drive-in near their home until it was torn down in the 1980s. Nowadays, they don't mind driving a few extra miles to Azusa.
"There's nothing like it," he said.
On the Net:
Drive-in information from enthusiasts: http://www.drive-ins.com
Fan site: http://www.driveintheater.com
The League of Historic American Theatres: http://www.lhat.org
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