And then there were none

Sacramento is poised to lose its last drive-in picture shows to the economics of real estate

The Sacramento 6 Drive-In does brisk business on weekends, but its owners say the land could be more profitable with more intensive development.

The Sacramento 6 Drive-In does brisk business on weekends, but its owners say the land could be more profitable with more intensive development.

Photo by Larry Dalton

It’s Thursday night, and the Sacramento 6 Drive-In theater looks more like an abandoned highway rest stop than the one of the county’s most popular entertainment venues. But it’s still early, well before the second features begin.

The air inside the concession building is stifling because the air-conditioner isn’t running, perhaps to save money on electricity. None of the rows of video games is turned on, perhaps to save electricity.

Four out of the six soft-drink flavors are unavailable. The Mr. Pibb is flat, but the Diet Coke seems lively enough. The hot-dog cookers are dogless.

In the men’s restroom, half the urinals are covered with black plastic, several of the bathroom mirrors are broken, and most of the paper towel and soap dispensers have been ripped from the walls.

Despite all the apparent decay, patron Pamela Aragon is surprised to learn that the Sacramento 6 will be closed by spring, if not sooner.

“That sucks,” Aragon remarks succinctly.

Aragon, who has come with her young daughter to see Signs, relies heavily on the drive-in for family entertainment. She comes to the Sacramento 6 at least once a month. At the drive-in, she explains, it doesn’t matter if your baby gets fidgety after slurping down Mr. Pibb and scarfing gummy bears; there are no strangers in the next seat for you to annoy—or to annoy you.

And then there’s cost. “You can see two first-run movies for the price of one,” she says—a rare treat at a time of exorbitant ticket prices at the walk-ins.

The Sacramento 6 is scheduled to close sometime in April to make way for Bradshaw Landing, a 360,000-square-foot theater and retail project being developed by Syufy Enterprises. Syufy is the parent company of the Century Theaters chain and the same company that has owned the Sacramento 6 since the mid-1970s.

The project will feature a new 20-screen Century movie theater, one big-box retail outlet, several smaller retail stores and four restaurants.

Mike Plymesser, chief operating officer for Syufy Enterprises, wouldn’t reveal the identities of the new tenants, other than Century. But he did say, “You would definitely recognize them. They are all national players.”

That doesn’t impress Jenelle McCormack or her friends who have joined her at the drive-ins. McCormack rolls her eyes when asked if she looks forward to Bradshaw Landing being built. “I might come just to check it out, but I’m really not a walk-in person,” she explains, adding that, come spring, she is likely to take her money somewhere else.

“I guess I’ll go to the 49er.”

Unfortunately for McCormack, the 49er Drive-In on Marysville Boulevard closed two years ago. That theater also was owned by Syufy. Plymesser explained that the company has no immediate plans for the parcel and is biding its time waiting for the building boom in the Natomas area to spill over into the somewhat depressed area that is home to the 49er.

“The timing’s not right,” Plymesser explained. “Right now, that’s kind of the middle of the donut.”

And so, the 49er lies fallow. Its screens tower over a weed-covered lot amid weed-covered lots. The ticket booths are boarded up, and the whole site is surrounded by a cyclone fence.

Since its closure, someone has painted a curious mural along side the old 49er sign. It shows a sleeping campesino dozing in his sombrero under a tree; a sunset on an open field; and a giant, green hand labeled with a dollar sign grasping onto a flailing, ghostlike human form.

At their peak, drive-ins in Sacramento County numbered more than a dozen. By 1990, the number was down to three—the Sacramento 6, the Sunrise Drive-in in Orangevale and the 49er. Now, the 49er is gone, the Sacramento 6 is going, and the Sunrise appears to have struggled during the past decade.

The bathrooms and snack bar are in disrepair, but the patrons still come for the unique entertainment.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Nationally, the number of drive-ins crashed from more than 3,000 in 1980 to just more than 900 by 1990. Today, there are a little more than 400 drive-ins in the whole country. VCRs are likely the biggest drive-in killer, but the culprits are many: ranging from spiraling land values to the fact that amorous teens often don’t have to leave the house to make out anymore.

Still, judging from the number of drive-in nostalgia and preservation Web sites on the Internet, Americans have been loath to let go of their drive-ins.

“It’s a special thing,” said Jennifer Sherer with Drive-On-In Inc., a clearinghouse for drive-in buffs and operators. “And, once it’s gone, it’s very hard to get it back.”

McCormack, for one, doesn’t understand why Syufy and Century would close the Sacramento 6 when “there’s a huge, long line every Friday night.” Indeed, the drive-ins still draw crowds every weekend.

“I know it’s a little run-down,” she adds, “but if they just put some money into it, it would be great.”

The closure may have less to do with the popularity of drive-ins than it does with the economics of real-estate development. Plymesser acknowledged that the Bradshaw Road location is one of Syufy’s top-performing drive-ins, but he noted that it sits on prime real estate that would draw far more profits with a more intensive use. “It’s profitable,” he said, “but the value of the land doesn’t justify a drive-in.”

Plymesser said the Rancho Cordova community has a dearth of restaurants and no indoor movie theaters. County officials also are pleased with the tax revenue the new project will generate. Although no estimates are available at this time, it is sure to exceed the current property value by far.

Plymesser denied the company has allowed the Sacramento 6 to fall into disrepair intentionally, although the place clearly is in bad shape.

“We have continued to maintain it. If it’s in poor shape, that’s news to me,” he said.

The Syufy/Century chain actually built itself up on drive-ins and then, in the 1980s, began tearing those drive-ins down to build indoor theaters. The chain may purge all of its drive-ins within the next five years.

“The drive-in business of the ’60s and ’70s really bankrolled the indoor theaters,” he said. “Drive-ins have been very instrumental in the success of our company.”

Century Theaters currently owns about 65 percent of the Sacramento region’s movie screens, Plymesser said, and the Bradshaw Landing project, along with the replacement of the existing Century Cinedome with another multiplex, will increase the company’s market share even more.

Although his job is to develop the Bradshaw Landing project, Plymesser said he has a soft spot for drive-ins, even as he tries to divert blame for the death of Sacramento 6. “It’s sad. It’s sad that the public was unable to support drive-ins for the last 20 years,” he said.

When the Sacramento 6 closes, the number of drive-in screens in Sacramento County will be left hovering somewhere between zero and one.

The Sunrise Drive-In in Orangevale is similarly weed-strewn, with its 1950s-era sign falling apart. The blacktop is cracked, and weeds grow up throughout. When SN&R asked for directions to the drive-in at a nearby fast-food restaurant, we were told not to bother because “that place has been closed for years.”

That’s not completely true. The Sunrise Drive-In was open intermittently during the summer, recently re-opened for weekends only and then closed again because of a broken projector. The single screen will be open for a few weeks, only to close again for the winter.

Owner Fred Gabriel did not respond to requests for an interview, but the rumor is that the Sunrise will undergo improvements over the winter season, and may be able to capitalize on its position as the last drive-in after the Sacramento 6 closes in the spring.

Ironically, drive-ins are making a bit of a comeback in some parts of the country, especially in the South and Midwestern states, said Sherer at Drive-On-In Inc. She said several drive-ins have reopened, and several more have been built in the last five years. “And we have been hearing that many drive-ins are selling out consistently on weekends and recording their best years ever,” she said.

“No one is predicting that drive-ins will be the mass-market entertainment choice that it was in the late 1950s,” Sherer said. “However, the industry has seen healthy signs in the last several years that we feel reflects drive-ins serving an increasing number of families that seek affordable family entertainment.”

Although Sherer is hopeful about the resurgence, California has been a different story. “We’re not seeing much happening in California, where real estate is so valuable,” she said.

So, if Bradshaw Landing means the loss of something rare in favor of the kind of retail development that can be found just about anywhere, that’s just economics. For good or ill, there are no lines on the balance sheet for sentimental value.