If you’re looking for a drive-in theater Los Angeles moviegoers can enjoy within the general area, your options just significantly dropped. After over 60 years, the iconic Mission Tiki Drive-In has closed its gates for the final time. The Montclair theater has staved off closure for years and was briefly revitalized by the global pandemic. However, after a valiant second life, the drive-in theater Los Angeles movie buffs loved has finally shuttered for good.
If only we could say that somehow Mission Tiki was coming back from the grave. No, unfortunately, that particular miracle isn’t likely to happen. However, if you’re searching for a drive-in theater Los Angeles moviegoers don’t have to visit the outskirts of the city to enjoy, you’re in luck. The city just granted Tesla approval to begin work on a planned drive-in theater/diner in the heart of Hollywood. While it will have a decidedly retro 1950s theme, it will also be very Tesla focused. Will it have the authenticity and heart of Mission Tiki? That’s a tall order. But at the very least, we won’t be able to say there are no drive-in theater options in LA.
Doing Business on Borrowed Time
For anyone even passingly familiar with the Mission Tiki Drive-In, the news of closure is no surprise. Perhaps the more surprising news is that the theater remained in operation for as long as it did. That’s because it was sold to developers in 2019. But while the global pandemic immobilized much of the world, it gave the Mission Tiki Drive-In a second chance… albeit one on borrowed time.
The Drive-In Theater Los Angeles Pandemic Refugees Needed
At the height of the pandemic, cabin fever had set in to the point that a trip to the grocery store felt like a Saturday night at the club. And with in-door theaters closed, the great American drive-in theater Los Angeles residents so desperately needed gained new fans.
This faithful JohnHart correspondent even ventured out to the Mission Tiki Drive-In for a rare mid-pandemic date night. And while the movie on the screen, an abysmal little horror film called The Wretched, lived up to its name, the drive-in theater itself offered an experience I’ll not soon forget. Especially in the stagnating mid-Covid world, escaping to a silver screen under a field of stars was pure magic.
The Early Single-Screen Nights
It was 1956 when the Mission Tiki Drive-In fired up its first projector. Named for its placement on Montclair’s stretch of Mission Boulevard, the theater only had one screen at the time. But its popularity was undeniable and by 1975, it had expanded to a four-screen multiplex that could accommodate a full house of 2,000 carloads on a busy night.
The Era of the Great American Drive-In
In those days, you could find a drive-in theater Los Angeles moviegoers frequented much more easily than you can today. But not all was right in the world of the drive-in theater. It was the rise of car culture in America that ultimately inspired the success of the early drive-ins. Midcentury America was just hitting the point where virtually every family could own a car. America was automobile-obsessed (just take a look at our blog on Googie architecture for another example). So, combining America’s other great love, movies, seemed like a no-brainer. Throw in some cheeseburgers, fries, nachos, and sodas and you’d have the highlight of the week. Maybe even the month.
The Death of Drive-In Culture
And so the good times continued to roll… until they didn’t. America didn’t lose its fascination with cars, but cinema became more convenient. Over the decades it became easier to go to a cozy in-door theater with better sound and more viewing options. With the rise of the television and home theater systems, you didn’t even need to leave your home.
Soon, the drive-in theater had been relegated to a nostalgic relic; an undead novelty reserved for discount movies. In Hollywood where subcultures could make nostalgia profitable, a drive-in theater Los Angeles residents could easily commute to still stood a ghost of a chance. But drive-ins across America were going the way of the dodo.
The numbers are pretty staggering. In 1995, the U.S. boasted 593 drive-in theaters. By 2020, that number had dwindled to 321 theaters. And as of January 23, 2023, the U.S. can count one less drive-in.
2006 Refurbishment of Mission Tiki
During the decline of the American drive-in theater, Mission Tiki managed to keep its gates open and projectors fired up. However, much of its equipment and amenities had seen better times. So, the family that owned the drive-in began an ambitious refurbishment in 2006. Some of the changes made at that time included:
- Upgrading to FM transmitters to allow sound through car stereos
- Adding a state-of-the-art Technalight projection system
- Repaving the parking lot
- Ticket booth and concession stand tiki-themed redesign
- Addition of the iconic Easter Island stone head garden
- Expansion of concession stand menu
Locking the Gates with the Mission Tiki Swap Meet
While Mission Tiki will be most remembered as a drive-in theater Los Angeles movie lovers could casually visit on a weekend, it was also home to a long-running swap meet. Started in the 1960s, the swap meet further established Mission Tiki as a presence in its community. And ultimately, the swap meet outlived the drive-in itself. It remained in operation until close of business on Sunday, January 30th.
The Unlikely Afterlife of a Drive-In Theater Los Angeles Residents Frequented
During its strange and limited afterlife afforded by Covid-19, the Mission Tiki Drive-In made new fans with its dynamic programming. It was host to four genre-spanning simulcast concerts, hosted private premiers, and even became the only venue to see certain foreign and independent films in Southern California. All this while juggling a fair number of blockbusters and indie films. They even briefly partnered with American Cinematheque, a favorite of LA film buffs, as a venue for the organization’s revered Beyond Fest.
The End of Mission Tiki Drive-In
But every peak ultimately contrasted against the great impending valley around the bend. It was a mostly unspoken conclusion that the land developers would eventually move forward with their plans for the land. Speaking with Los Angeles Magazine in 2020, former owner of Mission Tiki Drive-In, Frank Huttinger, admitted that the sale of the land netted him a lump sum that easily exceeded a decade’s worth of the drive-in’s profits. And though his family started Mission Tiki back in 1956, he’s not swayed by wistful nostalgia. Rather, he’s investing the money in business enterprises firmly ensconced in America’s present. As for those seeking a drive-in theater Los Angeles commuters can easily reach? Huttinger recommends another spot that he owns: the Van Buren Drive-In in Riverside. And with his pragmatic view on drive-ins, you may want to go before it’s gone too.
There’s still the Electric Dusk Drive-In in Glendale, the Paramount Drive-In in Paramount, and Vineland Drive-In in City of Industry. And let’s not forget the pop-ups, most of which started during the pandemic, and a few of which still soldier onward. But, despite a valiant second act, the Mission Tiki Drive-In powered down its projectors for the final time on January 23. Still, nothing can dim the glow of 60 years of magical movie memories provided by one of the LA area’s last great drive-in theaters.