One of our memento pictures of De Anza Drive-in's last night
There was something I noticed last night at the De Anza drive-in’s final night. There were an awful lot of Tucson natives and not so many newcomer suburban soccer moms.
Was this because the De Anza was too “ghetto” for them? While I wholeheartedly admit to having ghetto taste with the De Anza at the top of my list for Tucson destinations, I don’t think that was the real reason. I think most who are not long-time Tucson residents were not even aware we had a drive-in at all. In fact, I heard that a lot when I suggested the drive-in to other parents at my son’s school. So it’s loss probably did not have a lot of meaning for them.
The De Anza Drive-in had a lot against it, yet survived against the odds.
The De Anza had no website and no advertising that I was aware of. It was hard to find movie listings that identified what movies were playing together (important when you have kids) and the phone number listed for the De Anza in publications was often incorrect.
The future of the theater was so vague that those of us who loved it never had tangible motivation for organized support. Because the future was vague, there was no reason for major investment by the owners.
The snack bar and bathrooms were cleaned up and painted, but because of their age (over half a century old), always seemed dingy. They always ran out of toilet paper and paper towels and were so busy with so few employees, it didn’t get checked a lot.
When you entered or exited the theater, you risked losing a tire or half your car to pot holes. In short, it was neglected. Seriously neglected.
Yet the De Anza retained a faithful following of long-time Tucsonans as well as new ones who stumbled upon it. The place would still get packed in the summer when school was out.
Passing the theater at night was comforting to many of us. The four big screens were like big ships in the night with the green “D E A N Z A” lights glowing on the back of screen #1 alongside the bright marqee. Glimpses of the movies playing made you wish you were inside.
For a place with so much against it and supposedly drive-ins being a dying breed, the turn out last night was nothing short of amazing. It was like a Hollywood premier except we drove down the red carpet. Has there been anything equal for the closing of a Tucson establishment?
When we arrived, there were multiple lines to get in and the shortest we found was at least a mile long. The wait to get in wasn’t so bad with the perfect weather and bright full moon illuminating the edges of clouds crossing the sky – a beautiful and dramatic backdrop for the night. The drive-in gods must have arranged it for us. It was cool enough to be able to bury yourself in a mound of blankets and pillows.
As we got closer we saw news crew vans as well as patrons entering on foot trying to navigate past the hordes of cars while carrying loads of blankets, pillows and chairs. I even saw one lady on foot carrying in a tower of pizza boxes.
I was worried we wouldn’t make it in.
The De Anza was a very casual establishment and didn’t have intrusive management or strict rules. They didn’t notice those bags of chili dogs in the front seat or the ice chests in back. They would even suggest after your double feature was over, to turn your car around to see a third movie. The only time I was approached by an employee when we were facing a different direction, was to show us a passage into that theater if we wanted to get closer. Many of you might remember those used to be big no-no’s at the drive-ins.
Luckily, last night they continued their casual “do it their own way” approach and let us cram ourselves in like sardines. I’m surprised I didn’t see any fender benders. Plenty of cars needed a jump start due to dead batteries though.
We bought our tickets from a motley crew of cigarette-smoking men in a booth plastered with various movie posters from over the years. The booth was like a miniature version of a rocker teen’s bedroom in the 80′s. It didn’t take very much imagination to see those guys in that room as teens. The ticket-taker bid us adios saying it might be full, but we might find a place to park in back by the poles.
We navigated past cameras and news crews all over – even atop the snack bar.
The night was accented by camera flashes as patrons took pictures of the theater and themselves enjoying the last night. Many sat and shared memories with each other and lamented over the theater closing.
We found a good spot in the back and set up shop. My son sadly arranged his movie watching spot in the back of the CR-V and we settled in to watch the same movies we had seen just two weeks before. Usually the back of the car is his spot while mom and dad sit outside on chairs. This time he asked me to crawl into the back with him and he put his arms around me in a big bear hug and watched the movie from that position. He said he was going to always remember the night.
We went to the snack bar for the last time and took pictures while getting candy, popcorn and soda. I even took pictures of the worn-down bathrooms. I’m going to miss it that much.
We managed to see four movies by turning the car around. We tried to hold out till the end to be the last people to leave – but when we all had a hard time keeping awake, we realized we had to go.
We drove out in silence (except for me repeatedly moaning “I don’t want to go”) and I looked back at my son who was quietly trying to take it all in with big saucer-like eyes.
Construction gets halted due to endangered species in order to protect them. What about our past and culture? What about places like the De Anza Theater? With proper attention and marketing it could be more profitable. While the city steps in to save and assist various businesses – why not this one? Why not give them special incentives to keep the drive-in going?
I hope somebody with the resources sees the treasure here, and what it might be with better marketing before the place is torn down and gone forever.
Hopefully tomorrow I will post some of the video we took of the night.