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Hey Daddy-O, Let's Go to the Drive-In!

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Out here in Tinseltown, movies are part of our livelihood. They are meant to be an event, an experience, a true artform to be appreciated. It is ironic then, that the one of the great moviegoing traditions of yesteryear, the drive-in theater, has been nearly wiped out from the Southern California landscape.

But this past weekend marked a comeback of sorts with the grand opening of the Star-Vu Drive-In in Costa Mesa. Located at the Orange County Fairgrounds, the Star-Vu is the first drive-in to run in Orange County since the Highway 39 Drive-In in Westminster was razed in 1997 to build a Wal-Mart. (Ain’t progress grand?) Currently, the Vineland Drive-In in City of Industry is the only other drive-in in LA/OC.

The Star-Vu runs off of an inflatable, 65’ by 33’ screen, with a capacity of 300 vehicles. It has the usual amenities of a drive-in, with a Fairgrounds-operated concession stand in the back, as well as a kiddie play area. The audio is transmitted via FM radio. Tickets run $8.50 per person and $5 for kids (with a $.50 surcharge if you purchase online), and the theater plays two shows a night, seven days a week.

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I was able to catch the 8 pm Saturday showing of Shrek the Third, and while the movie left something to be desired (read: save your money and catch it on Netflix), the uniqueness of the drive-in experience still made it a worthwhile trip. The energy in the sold-out crowd made it feel more like a tailgate party, with kids running around and people hanging out while the sun went down. There were a lot of people who came out in their pickups and watched in the bed of the truck to make it an evening under the stars, as well as countless others in the standard-issue Orange County big-ass SUVs and minivans that popped the trunk open. Of course, because of the theater’s vehicle policy, I was able to secure some prime front center seats in my Accord because all of the big cars are required to park in the back or on the sides.

There are some other distinct advantages of drive-ins. For one, you can actually talk during the movie without disrupting other people, particularly when things get boring (and there were unfortunately far too many of those moments during Shrek). And while it's not technically legal, it's quite a bit easier to smuggle in your own refreshments since you don't have to try to fit a sandwich in your pocket or a bag of popcorn under your shirt.

The major drawback of the Star-Vu is the poor contrast ratio of the screen. The picture (not surprisingly for an outdoor venue) isn't super bright, and it's difficult to make out the screen images during scenes at night or in the dark. With a movie like Shrek where the animators stick little hidden jokes in the periphery, it's a bit harder to keep tabs on what's going on. Still, the picture quality is actually quite good for a projector of that magnitude, though it's nowhere close to as sharp as being in a real theater.

Now, some tips for those planning on making the trip down to Costa Mesa. Make sure to purchase your tickets online, as the limited capacity and high initial demand will make it near impossible to drive up and get tickets. Also, get there early to secure a good viewing location. My viewing angle was fine since I was in the third row of cars, but the back rows are like sitting in the rear of the Hollywood Bowl (i.e., you need binoculars).

With all of the sprawling megaplexes currently dominating the industry, the Star-Vu definitely brings a refreshing twist to movie-viewing. Though most of us are too young to remember when drive-ins were the thing to do on a Saturday night, it's nice to be able to restore the tradition in the 21st century. It will be even more enjoyable when they start showing some better movies.

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Star-Vu Drive-In
Orange County Fairgrounds
Enter at Gate 2 (Fairview/Vanguard)
Costa Mesa, CA 92626

photo by Oberonia Photography
video by Sal Gomez of the Southern California Drive-In Movie Society who has a review and photos here