Lost in the ozoner
Filmmaker Melinda Stone brings a traveling festival of celluloid oddities to a dilapidated, almost-forgotten drive-in theater in Fair Oaks
“Thank you for calling.” The craggy voice on Fred Gabriel’s answering machine was nearly a shout. “At the moment, neither I nor Chivas Regal can come to the phone.”
That’s the way it is with Fred; he’s hard to get hold of. When he finally did call back, it was at the last minute: “Come on over; we’re waiting.”
A half-hour drive in rush-hour traffic found Gabriel sitting in his Orangevale living room with Bay Area filmmaker Melinda Stone.
“Hi, we were just having an interesting talk about zoning,” she said, by way of a greeting.
Zoning? I had thought we would be talking about movies.
But did you know that Sacramento County zoning laws don’t allow drive-in movie theaters to hold flea markets during the weekend? It’s important information to Gabriel, who struggles to keep his own drive-in afloat and could use the extra revenue. (Drive-ins in other communities often rely on the flea markets to make ends meet.) And it was interesting to Stone, who has become a connoisseur of these old “ozoners,” as the drive-ins once were called.
They made an unusual pair, those two, sitting on the couch talking zoning.
Gabriel might be in his 70s. He is stooped and slightly hard of hearing, and he talks in the most gravelly voice you’ve ever heard. He’s also the proprietor of the Sunrise Drive-In, a run-down single-screen drive-in theater in Fair Oaks that has been in the Gabriel family for 40 years. The Sunrise seems perpetually on the verge of closing down, and today, it mostly screens big-studio kids’ movies like Finding Nemo and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.
The 30-something Stone is a soft-spoken documentary filmmaker and film historian from San Francisco. She has made an art of guerilla movie screenings, showing avant-garde films—usually without prior permission—in such unique outdoor settings as the Sutro Baths in San Francisco or on a Southern California hillside threatened by sprawl.
Together, they have teamed up to bring Sacramento a most unusual film festival. The California Tour bills itself as an “itinerant film extravaganza in abandoned and not-so-abandoned drive-in movie theaters throughout California.”
The festival is an offbeat collection of documentaries, old and new, with a peculiar take on the Golden State. The show also is aimed at getting people to visit the state’s last remaining drive-ins, while they are still around.
Some of the films were commissioned by Stone specifically for the California Tour, such as Night of the Antlers, which looks at the nocturnal world of the Marin Headlands, and a film about the bloodless Portuguese bullfighting tradition in the Central Valley. Stone’s own work, No Olvidados, a look at unknown California cemeteries, also appears in the show.
Others are obscure documentaries that Stone dug up in her research and wants to share. There’s the 1971 Bucky Goes to Yosemite, which follows an affable looking, possibly not real, antelope on a tour of our most scenic national park. Then there’s Scotch Hop, a piece about a Scottish Rite Masonic festival in Dublin, Calif. The film was made in 1959, and Stone said it’s the only print ever made and that it might not survive much longer. What she likes about the film is that in the background of every scene are the undeveloped hills of the East Bay. “Those hills are all covered with houses now,” she said.
A sense of place and a sense of history, and the preservation of both, have been major themes of Stone’s work. She said she is “completely devoted” to outdoor screenings, which make the landscape as important as the films themselves.
In 1998, she commissioned filmmakers to produce documentaries about a river valley in Ventura County that was threatened with development. It was a popular location for Hollywood studios to shoot films, and it had been on screen in dozens of films and televisions shows. “But it had never been on screen just as itself,” she said.
Stone and her colleagues planted a 30-foot-by-30-foot area on a hillside in the valley area with white flowers to serve as the screen. It didn’t quite work.
“It turned out our filmmaking abilities were much better than our horticultural abilities,” she said, adding that she resorted to all-purpose flour to fill in the holes in the experimental screen.
With the California Tour, Stone is drawing on both place and tradition. “Some of it is a total ripoff from the past,” she explained. “In the 1910s and ’20s, there were these itinerant film programmers who would take these films and tour the country with them.”
The early 20th-century programmers also liked to do screen tests in every town they stopped in, asking locals to act in a short film that would be shown in the evening along with the other movies. It was a good way to get locals interested in coming to see the films, if only because they might see themselves on screen. The California Tour, too, will be doing its own Pioneer Woman Screen Test, somewhere in the city, on the day of the show.
In an effort to get people out of their cars and involved in the show, the California Tour also features free bingo and a sing-along to kick the evening off. Stone insisted the sing-along is an important part of film history and that it’s not included merely because she loves sing-alongs.
“Sing-alongs were a must,” she said, laughing. “People don’t like to do it today, but it was stock feature of these movie screenings back then.”
Even though the California Tour is intended, in part, to highlight the plight of the drive-in, many operators have shied away from the unusual film festival.
A showing at a drive-in in nearby Sutter County fell through because the owner was afraid he would lose money. Others don’t want to be bothered and are content to allow their drive-ins to lie dormant while the owners bide their time and wait for property values to go up. And then there’s just plain anxiety about anything different. “There seems to be this fear that they are somehow going to be associated with something weird,” Stone explained.
Still, she’s lined up shows in Crescent City, Armona, Barstow, San Luis Obispo and San Francisco.
Gabriel, for one, doesn’t seem to be worried about being associated with anything weird. Stone is paying rent for the show, after all, and any attention for the Sunrise probably would help at this point.
The press release for the Sacramento stop of the tour makes it clear that Stone’s intention is to celebrate the drive-in before it’s too late. She notes that there were once more than 200 drive-ins in California. Now, there are less than 40. And the Sunrise is as tenuous as any surviving drive-in. “This could be your last opportunity to visit the Sunrise, as maintenance costs are overwhelming the owner,” she writes. “Come enjoy our unique film event and Fred’s theater, while you can.”
The Sunrise was built in 1963, and it has always been in Gabriel’s family. When drive-in movies were at the peak of their popularity, the area around the Sunrise was completely different from the congested suburb that exists there today.
“The Birdcage [shopping center] was cow pasture. Same with Sunrise Mall,” Gabriel said. “We were out in the middle of a field.” Today, there’s a massive cemetery on one side of the theater, and houses and fast-food places crowd in on the other sides.
And business isn’t what it used to be. The proliferation of corporate multiplex theaters and then the advent and spread of the VCR have hurt the drive-ins, as have changing mores.
“People don’t go there to make out anymore,” Gabriel said. “Parents are so permissive now, the kids just make out on the couch in the living room there, so why go to the drive-in?”
The few drive-ins that remain are often under enormous pressure to make way for something more commercially viable. The land the theater sits on surely would fetch top dollar if someone chose to develop it. That’s what happened to the soon-to-be-shuttered Sacramento One-Six Drive-In off Highway 50 at Bradshaw Road.
“It’s really kind of surprising that Fred’s place is still here and not part of the suburban sprawl,” said Stone. And that is exactly what appealed to her.
“When I finally found Fred and saw the Sunrise, I knew I had to bring the California Tour there.”