The Return of the Drive-In

The Star-Vu delivers the biggest screen for your buck

Fred Armendiraz never set out to be in the entertainment industry. In fact, one might say he was at the opposite end of the spectrum—working for the Bush administration! But one day three and a half years ago, the then-deputy administrator in charge of small businesses was walking across the National Mall in Washington, D.C., when he came upon 20,000 people watching a movie on a giant inflatable screen.

"I said to myself, If they can do that here in Washington, why can't we do that in California, where we have the weather for it 24/7?" he remembers.

After making some calls, he reached the person in charge of the screening, Bob Deutsch, a local entrepreneur and former radio marketing man who was now facilitating outdoor screenings via his company, Outdoor Movies (www.outdoor-movies.com). That conversation led to Orange County's first drive-in theater in a decade.

Located on the parking lot of the Orange County fairgrounds, the Star-Vu recently opened its gates to sellout crowds who came to see Shrek the Third "under the stars, as God intended," to quote drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs. At $8.50 per person, the Star-Vu delivers the biggest screen for your buck (65 feet wide) in the area. The sound is broadcast directly to your car stereo through an FM transmitter so you can adjust the volume yourself (it shouldn't drain your car battery too much, but just in case, there are jumper cables on the premises). It's a nice way to avoid typical theater distractions such as people talking loudly, kicking the seats and sending text messages.

"The drive-in never really went away," says Mary Jean Duran, a D.C. colleague of Armendiraz who now helps him run the Star-Vu. "People never stopped going. . . . It's just the value of commercial real estate: Are you going to build a drive-in, or are you going to build strip malls and a condo?" In this case, the choice doesn't have to be made. By day, it's a parking lot. On weekends, it's a marketplace. At night, it becomes a theater.

And unlike a traditional drive-in screen, this one has a "theatrical screen surface" made of PVC instead of painted wood. "It has very specific color properties," Deutsch says. "Its color temperature has to be neutral." By day, the 2,000-pound screen has to be folded onto a 10-foot-by-five-foot pallet, then hoisted by forklift into a trailer. The folding process doesn't damage the screen itself, which is weatherproof.

The key to securing the location was Jeff Teller, whose father started the marketplace in 1969 and had previously run a drive-in theater in Phoenix. The elder Teller later sold the theater and moved to California, where he sold frozen bananas on the Balboa peninsula. The younger Teller put himself through school by working at the market and is now in charge of food service at the Star-Vu. Opening-night concessions included burgers, hot dogs, churros, chili cheese fries with hand-grated cheese, and a McRib-style pork sandwich. The burgers were adequate and the fries were outstanding. The chili was badly in need of some hot sauce, a condiment not yet available. And although Teller guaranteed Mountain Dew—"maybe even more than one kind of Mountain Dew"—there wasn't any. "It's one thing to start a business, but I think getting things done after the novelty wears off is where you can stumble," he admits. "One of the things we'll continue to keep doing is adding and enhancing the experience for the patron." Mountain Dew and hot sauce, please!

Teller likes the idea of someday having a beer garden, but acknowledges that perhaps "the liability is just too high." Cars and beer aren't the best combination, even if the atmosphere at times feels like that of the world's largest tailgater, with people bringing in their own coolers, deck chairs, stereos and classic hot rods. The theater opens about an hour before sunset, leaving plenty of time to socialize, eat, and let the kids play in the bouncy castle and on the bungee jump.

On opening night, an Austin Powers impersonator roamed the grounds, although he seemed to gross out some of the children instead of amusing them—I was freaked out by him! "I was really bothered by his teeth!" says Armendiraz with a laugh, adding that the impersonator will likely be back, although he may play different characters.

Though the drive-in has often been a home for fare considerably grosser than British dentures more of a grindhouse than a playhouse everyone here emphasizes that the Star-Vu is very much a family-friendly venture.

"One thing I've been hearing from a lot of people in their 30s and 40s: They don't really remember going to the drive-in themselves as teenagers because most of them [drive-ins] were gone by then," Duran says. "But they remember their parents putting them in the back of their station wagon in their jammies and staying up as long as they can, and then falling asleep in the back of the car."

That's not to say families are the only desired demographic. Unlike many predecessors, the Star-Vu runs two shows per night, and Armendiraz says he's already learned that "when you run a cartoon movie on a 10:30 p.m. showing during the week, that's a little rough." Deutsch predicts they'll probably stick to mostly PG-13 fare, so college kids aren't completely turned off. Plus, each one of the founders has his or her own idea about possible R-rated exceptions: Armendiraz says he'd be okay with Saving Private Ryan, while Teller has hopes to show Halloween on Halloween.

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