Like the famous Mark Twain quip on premature reports on his passing, the death of the American drive-in movie has also been ‘greatly exaggerated.’ Not only is the drive-in movie not dead, but like the biblical Lazarus, miraculously enjoying new life. The American drive-in renaissance is underway in pockets around Colorado and the nation. In Pueblo, the landmark Mesa Drive-In is testament to this American cinematic tradition and, like the iconic line in the original ‘Frankenstein,’ “It’s Alive!”
The American drive-in movie began innocently enough on June 6, 1933, in Camden, New Jersey. For a quarter, you could drive onto the huge lot of The Park-In theater, attach a clunky speaker that delivered a scratchy, but acceptable audio quality to the driver-side window and enjoy a newsreel and double feature of Hollywood’s latest and greatest. Cars of three or more at The Park In---not including ‘trunkers,’ those hiding in the trunk---had to pony up another 75-cents.
In their heyday, drive-in movies were ubiquitous. Americans flocked to their local drive-ins---the Fiesta, the Route 66, the Starlite and Galaxy---to enjoy a uniquely American tradition. At their peak in 1958, there were more than 4,000 of these larger-than-life movie draws dotting the American landscape. But the drive-in eventually lost its luster and by 2018 had shrunk to around 300 nationwide. Had it not been for Puebloans Marianne and Chuck James, it would have been 299. They stepped up and bought the landmark Pueblo Mesa Drive-In and rescued it from the jaws of death.
“This one was scheduled for demolition,” said Chuck James in a recent phone interview. “This was the last one in Pueblo,” he said. Its long ago counterparts, The Lake, the Pueblo and 96 drive-ins each had fallen victim to changing times. “We thought it would be nice if we could save it,” he said. When they took ownership in 1994, they had no idea the work it would take to restore and modernize the old landmark.
The Mesa---located just outside the city limits in Blende---has been a staple for Pueblo’s outdoor movie fans since August 1951, when it debuted with a showing of ‘The Texas Rangers,’ along with a couple of Disney shorts, ‘Ichabod and Mr. Toad’ and The Three Little Pigs.’
While the industry has endured its ups and downs, the COVID pandemic may, in its own ironic way, have breathed new life into outdoor cinema. With in-door movies all but shuttered by the virus, drive-ins gave people an option for actually watching a movie on a big screen. Counting The Mesa, Colorado now has eight drive-ins.
Over the years, neglect and regular upgrades to The Mesa had resulted in a less than desirable movie experience. The James had to invest a lot of muscle and money into creating a 21st Century movie experience for customers. The work continues. The marquee remains one of The Mesa’s few original pieces.
Gone, too, are the anachronistic metal speakers replaced by sound that is played via an FM signal. The old speakers if you can even imagine, said James, required tubes. “Good luck getting those parts.”
While the days of 25-cent admissions are long gone, a drive-in still offers an affordable night of entertainment for a family, said James. He prices his movies at $11 for adults but kids under twelve are admitted free. He also tries to offer the same movies that walk-in theaters provide. The Mesa was showing ‘Cruella,’ a first-run movie, at press time. “We’ll be starting ‘Black Widow,’ next week,” he said. ‘Boss Baby,’ and ‘Space Jam,’ two highly anticipated summer blockbusters, will also be on one of The Mesa’s three screens soon. Also, unlike walk-in theaters where guests are ushered out at the end of a single movie, “We still run double features.”
No longer part of the drive-in experience, though, are the playgrounds that once included slides, merry-go-rounds, swings and monkey bars. Liability for injuries, said James, pretty much erased them from the drive-in landscape. But the concession bar, which James has also refurbished, still has hot dogs, hamburgers, burritos, soda and ice cream. Another incentive at The Mesa, said James, is no prohibition on bringing your own food and drink, though alcoholic beverages are forbidden.
James said he’s also explored ‘novelty nights, which might include featuring a double feature of ‘American Graffiti,’ and “Grease.” It might work, he said. Or it might not. As in everything, the bottom line is money. He worries that as fun as it might be, “I may not make the same money.”
James said he and his wife still invest plenty of time each week in this cinematic venture. Labor at a drive-in ‘is the price of admission.’ The Mesa, like all drive-ins, are competing with a ton of other movie watching options, including Netflix, HBO and more. Right now, he said, there are no plans to rethink The Mesa. “We do it because it’s a challenge,” he said. You can visit Facebook for information on the The Mesa’s playbill.