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Arts Beat: Will drive-in theaters sustain a comeback?

Beth Thornton
Showtime at the West Wind drive-in theater in Goleta.

Movie theaters and cineplexes across the Central Coast now have clearance to start reopening. But for the past several weeks, there’s been another way to go out for an evening to see a film. A staple of life in the 1950s and ‘60s, drive-in theaters fell out of popularity for the past few decades—but may be making a comeback. Drive-ins offer a safe option for people of all ages and social distancing is easily managed.

On a recent visit to the newly reopened West Wind drive-in theater in Goleta, children were anxiously awaiting a double-feature.

This outdoor theater has been here since 1966, originally called the Twin Drive-In, though there have been several years of down-time since its heyday. It was permanently closed even before the pandemic hit, but with renewed interest from the Santa Barbara community, West Wind reopened at the end of May.

Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart said members of the community contacted his office about reopening the venue.

“We probably received more than 500 emails from local residents who want to take their families to the movies and enjoy the drive-in that they remember so fondly from years ago,” Hart said.

Once West Wind realized the level of interest, Hart says the company worked with his office to navigate the process of reopening.

“We made that point to our local public health officer that there’s a lot of interest in this,” said Hart. “So they were able to accommodate that and create authority for them to reopen.”

On a recent Tuesday “Family Night,” cars were lined up well before show time. Hatchbacks and trucks backed into their spots for open-air seating, and when the sun set and darkness fell, all eyes were on the big screen.

Audio-visual quality has definitely improved with the times. With digital projection, and audio coming through your car’s FM radio, the experience is as much about the movie as it is about being outside under the stars.

It’s unclear if the enthusiasm will hold now that traditional theaters will be reopening. But for now, DriveInMovie.com—a website that tracks the history and locations of drive-in theaters throughout the world—says traffic to their website for the month of May increased by 500%. That’s five times the online visitors it had a year ago.

San Luis Obispo’s Sunset Drive-in is back in business as well. Per the theater’s recorded message, they are open seven nights a week. It’s currently showing classic movies like 'JAWS' and 'American Graffiti'—films anyone born after the '70s hasn’t had a chance to see on the big screen in a theater setting.

The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Shanbrom Family Foundation.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.