April 26, 2020

A Tropical Escape In a Time of Adversity: Mission Tiki Drive-In (Updated for 2023—Closed)

[Last updated 1/23/23 8:41 PM PT—Mission Tiki Drive-In's last day of operation was Sunday, January 22, 2023. The swap meet remains open for one additional weekend.]

In one form or another, Mission Tiki Drive-In was owned and operated by De Anza Land and Leisure Corporation since it first opened as the "Mission Drive-In" in 1956. The 9-acre, single screen drive-in was the brainchild of William Oldknow, whose daughter Teri rebranded it with a tiki theme in 2006.

But that all changed last year, when Mission Tiki was sold to a developer to turn it into a "technology park."

The initial announcement declared the drive-in theater would only operate until around Christmastime 2019. (Fortunately, SoCal weather makes the drive-in a year-round attraction.) But then at the end of last year, the drive-in announced it would stay open through Summer 2020.

And then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Public assembly of groups of any size—beyond members of the same household—were forbidden. All theaters closed—from movies to the opera to all of Broadway.

But there's one place in SoCal you can still catch a movie, without catching the virus—Mission Tiki Drive-In.

It took a major health crisis—and a dearth of other options—to get me to drive the 40 miles out east to cross the place off my bucket list. I'm glad it did—and I hope others follow suit.

When The Mission Drive-In first opened, it was in what was then known as the Monte Vista tract—the far outskirts of any major city, surrounded by orange groves). Monte Vista incorporated as a city that same year, but it was renamed Montclair in 1958.

An open-air market (a.k.a. swap meet) was aded to its daytime operations in the 1960s. In 1975, the original screen was demolished and the drive-in theater was multiplexed. Now expanded to 27 acres, it shows double features of first-run movies on 4 screens, 7 days a week.

It wasn't until 2006—upon its 50th anniversary—that the Mission Drive-In became the Mission Tiki Drive-In, thanks to creative input from tiki artist Tiki Diablo.

Besides adding an Easter Island-type Moai statue garden, Tiki Diablo redesigned the ticket boots with tiki masks and thatches roofs.

The snack bar and restroom building were redone as well...

...while keeping some of its original 1950s flavor.

After all, drive-in movies weren't just for the high school greasers, girl gangs, and poodle-skirted goodie-goodies you'd find at the car hops and sock hops alike.

In terms of the historical timeline, the drive-in craze more or less coincided with the tiki craze. They pretty much emerged, peaked, and waned at the same time. I can't imagine a more perfect union.

And I can't believe I'd never gone before (though I had suffered through hot, humid, mosquito-ridden nights in the back of my father's car, windows rolled down and no A/C at a drive-in or two in Central New York as a kid).

The 2006 rebranding and renovation also phased out the window-mounted car speakers in favor of broadcasting sound on the FM dial. The year 2013 brought the arrival of a digital projection system to replace the four film reel projectors.

The night we decided to get in our separate cars and give Mission Tiki a try, we caught a rare revival of Raiders of the Lost Ark (in a double feature with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which started and would end too late for us to stay on a Thursday night).

An adventure film—even one that takes place in Nepal and Egypt and not the South Seas—seemed terribly appropriate at a tiki-themed drive-in, during balmy weather.

And I thought that this drive-in could singlehandedly get a lot of people—unpaired individuals like me, and families too—through a potentially protracted period of time when there's nothing else we can do to distract ourselves.

Obviously, Mission Tiki had given up on itself when it sold, but the world was an entirely different place just a few months ago.

Is there any chance of saving it now? And if not in the long term, maybe just for a couple more years?

Movies thrived during the Great Depression, when people had no disposable income but found a way to scrounge up enough money for a ticket—just to get a laugh or be transported from the current day's hard time to somewhere, anywhere else.

At some point, masses of people are going to tire of watching TV and movies at home and will be desperate to go out.

And who knows when we'll be able to cram our germy bodies back into mall-based multiplexes again?

During all of this, I feel pretty much safer in my car than I do anywhere else outside my apartment. I can't be alone in that.

So, could this be the opportunity for others—maybe those who didn't grow up going to the drive-in, like I did—to discover the beauty and utter joy of watching a movie under the stars?

Someone started a petition to keep Mission Tiki Drive-In in Montclair last year. As of today it's got nearly 9,000 signatures (including mine). I don't know whether the horse has already left the barn, so to speak—but to add your signature and follow updates, see the petition here.

Update 1/23/23: Despite all efforts to save it, Mission Tiki Drive-In has finally closed for good—and we're back to going to the mall and movies as though nothing ever happened.

Here's the episode Huell Howser devoted to Mission Tiki Drive-In in its entirety:

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  1. Fantastic article..thank you for this...unfortunately from last I heard the property is sold. The developer had to wait until fall of 2020 to begin demolition so the theater operators asked if they could continue operating until the end of the summer 2020 season. It would be so wonderful if it could be saved...And btw, not only do I appear in that Huel Howser segment with my buddy Dennis as co-founders of the "Southern California Drive-in Movie Society" but I can say proudly that it was I who dogged Huell Howser with emails enticing him to do a segment of one of his television programs profiling one of our local drive-in theaters. After several phone calls we set him up with the owners and the rest is history. We also still have the Vineland Drive-in in the City of Industry as well as the Paramount Drive-in in the City of Paramount which was recently used in the film "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.