Sun setting on city's last drive-in

Thursday, October 22, 1998
By Paul L. Allen
Tucson Daily Citizen

For more than 20 years, it provided isolation for teens in love and cheap entertainment for families.

But not even a surge of nostalgia is likely to save the De Anza, Tucson's last drive-in movie theater and one of only four left in the state.

The four -screens facility's days are numbered - not because business is bad, but because it's 11.3-acre parcel near South Alvernon Way and East 22nd Street has more value for other uses.

Ewart Edwards, who has managed the De Anza since it opened Feb. 1, 1977, said the Los Angelas-based owners told him to explain the situation this way:

"We have determined that the best use for this property is a big retail store or small shopping center, and that is what we are going to pursue."

Although the owners have not yet listed the property with a real estate agent, "If the right offer came along, we're going to listen to it," Edwards said.

In other words, the De Anza almost certainly will disappear, if not this year, soon.

"I'd feel very sad if it closed," said Michael Noriega, who brought his two children to the drive-in last night to catch the horror film, "Bride of Chucky".

"It's disheartening to see that this is the last one in town, "Noriega said. "Drive-ins are American, like apple pie."

At one point, De Anza's owners operated more than three dozen drive-in theaters in Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and Georgia. Today, the number is seven.

Edwards, who will be 65 later this year, had planned to retire at the end of December, but the owners asked him to remain until June 30 - expecting that the future use of the property will be decided by then.

Many of the drive-ins devotees say they won't switch to indoor theaters when the De Anza closes.

"We'd probably stay home and rent videos," said John Klatz, nestled in the back of his Jeep Comanche pickup truck with his wife, Marnie Klatz, and three children - Nathan Mejia -, 9; Daniel Mejia - 8; and Stephanie Mejia, 4. "It's so much more of a bargain,"

The family sees movies at the drive-in about once a month, paying $5 for each adult. Children 12 and younger get in free.

"I like the bigger screen." said Nathan, "There's not so many people," Daniel piped in.

Steve Licurse, 21, who has seen five movies at the De Anza in the past three months, said he is more likely to wait for a video to come out than go to an indoor theater.

If De Anza closes, "I'd be pissed off," said Licurse, who gave numerous reasons why drive-ins are superior to indoor theaters.

"You're not all crammed in the seats, you can drink beer and bring in your food," he said. "You mind your own business and don't have to deal with others."

Many Tucsonans have simply assumed that drive-ins always would be there, believing that although they , personally, had not been to one of the outdoor facilities for some years, others were attending regularly.

It startles them to learn that the 10 drive-ins gracing Tucson since the '60's, - including the Fiesta, the Cactus, the Midway, the Prince, The Miracle Mile, the 22nd Street, The Rodeo, The Tucson Five and the Apache - only the De Anza survives.

For now.

"It's kind of sad to see all of this come to an end," said Edwards, whose office is a small building near the drive-ins snack bar.

Tucsons first outdoor theater was the Tucson Driv-In. It opened during World War II near what is now Southgate Shopping Center at Ajo Way and Interstate 10.

Drive-in movies in Tucson and in Arizona at large, have Seen two "swells" of patronage, Edwards said, including the first peak of popularity during the late 1950's and early 1960's when beach and motorcycle films were produced to target teenagers.

It was the so called "passion pit" era, when young viewers discovered that darkened vehicles and relative isolation provided ideal trysting place.

It also was a time when speaker replacement became a costly situation as teens eager for auxiliary speakers for their car radios snipped them off.

"They never did have very good quality, but they would work," said Edwards.

This crest waned with the advent of mall-based, multi screen indoor theaters and the proliferation of videocassette players and video stores.

There followed several years of lukewarm business, during which several of the drive-ins closed, particularly the single-screen facilities that simply could not compete.

In other areas of the country, drive-ins capitalized on their real estate and ready built parking areas by hosting daytime swap meets, sharing revenues with the swap-meet operators.

The Cactus had a successful swap meet for a time, Edwards said, but when it was closed for upgrading to its new incarnation as the multi screen De Anza its patrons shifted their allegiance to the very successful Tanque Verde Swap Meet.

Repeated efforts to woo them back were unsuccessful, Edwards said.

Despite that, the outdoor movie business was to undergo another wave of success.

"About the middle '80s, the Walt Disney Company began to make family films again. They were not G-rated, but they were family oriented and entertainment.

We began to get back young adult families, where Mom and Dad had small children and didn't have to hire a baby sitter to go to an indoor. Or the indoors were already charging for small children, and price was a factor."

Despite the resurgence in family films, only two drive ins remained in Tucson in the l990s. But the Apache closed in August 1994.

The wall behind Edwards' desk at the De Anza is arrayed with plaques and framed awards and honors that he has earned during a 50 year career in the movie business, a 42 year membership in the Downtown Lions Club and a 38 year stint with the Elks Iodge.

Edwards' family moved to Wilcox in the early part of World War II and spent nine years there before moving to Tucson. A 15-year-old Ewart found work at the indoor theater there.

"I did everything they asked me to do - took tickets, changed the marquee, popped corn, gave the cashier breaks, and before I left, I could give the projectionist two hours off on Saturday and Sunday.

When the family moved to Tucson in 1951, Edwards put movie expertise to work, gaining employment at the Lyric Theater. He began as an Usher and worked his Way up to assistant manager.

He moved to Yuma, where he was assistant manager of the Fox-Yuma for a year, before returning here as manager of the Lyric.

In 1962, he went to work for his current employers, managing both the 22nd Street Drive-in and Midway Drive In. The company had opened the Cactus in 1951, bought the Rodeo, built the Fiesta, then bought the Midway, Prince and 22nd Street theaters.

With the advent of multiple screens, Tucson boomed from 13 screens to more than 50 - indoor and outdoor - in only two years.

But then the drive ins began to fall by the wayside.

"Seeing it end makes me sad," Edwards said, "yeah, it does."

With a touch of irony, he added:

"It seems like nobody paid any attention to drive-ins when we had all of them."

Citizen Staff Writer Joyesha Chesnick contributed to this report.

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Last Updated Jan 13, 1999 GWC