El Rey nostalgia

Richard Elk is a Retired Chico State University journalism professor and frequent contributor to the CN&R

The nostalgia in Chico’s air was almost palpable last week when the El Rey Theatre went dark, but to me its closing didn’t impart the sense of loss generated by the dismantling during October, 1989, of the Starlite drive-in theater on the Midway, which had been dark for three years. I chronicled and photographed that event for a big centerfold spread in the News & Review that ran Oct. 12 of that year.

Although sentimentalists wanted to save the 30-foot-long Starlite marquee, with its neon tube lighting, it proved too cumbersome and delicate to mount anywhere. In the end, it languished in a nearby vacant lot for several years until it mysteriously disappeared. The huge screen, made of 4 x 8 painted plywood sheets locked against a massive structural steel framework and widened by 34 feet to show Cinemascope movies, moved to Butte College to be resurrected as a wall behind center field at the ballpark to break up the open view that some athletics faculty thought too expansive. The big majority of students considered this a cockamamie idea and mounted an effective campaign against it, leaving the screen parts to waste away in a nearby field.

Historically, the “ozones” mated Americans’ dual love affair with the automobile and the motion picture, and they made their biggest gains right after World War II—the Starlite opened in 1948—when auto registrations zoomed and young families rushed to the suburbs. Everybody piled into the family car and went to the drive-ins, which catered to them with snack bars, playgrounds, warm milk, fresh diapers and even laundry facilities. There was something magical about watching an outdoor movie with the actors and the scene, bigger than life, bleeding off the edges of the screen into the summer night as sound came through a single wired speaker hooked onto your car window. The ozones all but disappeared in the ‘80s and ‘90s, done in by rising land values, multi-screen “hardtops” and cable TV.

But it appears the grave opened too soon. I learned the other day that ozones are making something of a comeback, mostly in the Sunshine states, riding a nostalgia wave energized, I think, by the realization that these days we see too many rapid changes in too many things, usually not for the better. Drive-in theaters represent a slice of Americana too important to bury. If I were wealthy, I would right away buy the original 20-acre theater site and bring back the Starlite. It would feature cheap tickets, proven hits from all eras, an intermission local-talent act and stereo car speakers all in good repair.