By Chris Willman
Updated May 23, 2007 at 04:02 AM EDT

Okay, it’s not quite like a tree growing in Brooklyn. But the idea of a new drive-in theater sprouting up in California’s Orange County made for a great news peg this past weekend, having the air of inevitability (where better for cinema al fresco than the warm climes of the West Coast?) and also utter improbability (what next, a full-scale return to carhop service?). And so, as the Star-Vu Drive-in in Costa Mesa was christened with Shrek the Third on Friday night, just about every TV station and local paper within a 100-mile radius had a crew or reporter on hand, trolling the parking lot for pajama-clad boomers to interview and breathlessly announcing the rebirth of a presumed-dead phenomenon. On the “Man Bites Dog” scale of headline newsworthiness, “New Drive-in Opens” is up there somewhere right alongside “Child Chomps on Chihuahua,” at least.

Now, for reasons that probably no psychoanalyst could completely plumb, I am a complete fetishist and cheerleader when it comes to drive-ins. There are a little more than 400 “ozoners” currently in existence in this great land of ours — only about 10 percent of the number that existed at the drive-in’s 1950s peak, but still, more than, you know, none. And I’ve visited probably about 60 of those, for photographic purposes, if not to see an actual movie. So, knowing that first-run outdoor theaters are not quite as extinct as some of the on-scene reporting imagined (and that there are a couple of other long-running drive-ins not more than a 40-minute drive away), I watched the media descend on this premiere with a mixture of bemusement and hope. But there are at least two truly novel aspects to the Star-Vu:

1. It is a (re)movable feast. The Star-Vu has an “inflatable screen,” which is a slight misnomer, since it’s actually a somewhat conventional movie screen that just happens to be borne aloft by an air-filled proscenium. Each day, the 33-foot-tall, 65-foot-wide screen is taken down and then put up all over again. For three weeks each year, it will be removed entirely; those are the three weeks in late July and early August that the Orange County Fair is on. Because this drive-in’s “grounds” are actually part of the parking lot for the O.C. Fairgrounds, also serving as a swap meet by day. The projection booth has been built into the upper floor of a concessions stand that has long served annual fairgoers and daylight swappers. Can you say “mixed use”?

addCredit(“Drive-in theater: Chris Willman”)

2. It is situated in a land where white people do not fear to tread.In line for concessions, I talked to some folks who were overjoyed thatthey finally had a chance to relive and expose their kids to thedrive-in adventures of their youth, and they were shocked, genuinelyshocked, when I told them that there were two other very well-attendeddrive-ins in the greater Los Angeles area — both four-screeners! — towhich I take my family on a year-round basis. But it just so happensthat those two drive-ins, the Vineland in the City of Industry and theMission Tiki in Montclair, are in areas no one would considerexcessively well-to-do, and where the demographics pretty much resemblemodern-day Southern California’s as a whole, which is to say, notextraordinarily Caucasian. So if you’re an Orange County-ite or L.A.West-Sider looking for a strictly nostalgic experience, and yourdefinition of nostalgia involves being surrounded by ringers for theextended cast of Happy Days, then no, you might not have heard of these other places.

Would this be an all right time to briefly discuss real estate?Thank you. The biggest myth surrounding the “death” of the drive-in isthat they “died” due to public disinterest. This was true to someextent in the 1970s and 1980s, as social mores changed and kids nolonger had to go to a “passion pit” to make out, and as the demand formultiplexes grew. But by the 1990s, families were realizing what agreat deal and what great fun drive-ins could be. Unfortunately, thisroughly coincided with the age of the big-box-store land-grab. I can’tbegin to tell you how many multi-screen drive-ins that were thriving upthrough their very last night of operation went under because the lotjust happened to be the exact acreage needed for a Home Depot. In fact,the last traditional drive-in that operated in Orange County, theHi-Way 39 (one of those old beauties that had a giant mural on thescreen tower, this one with a sailboat scene), was torn down in ’97 soit could be replaced by a Wal-Mart. Showing a double-feature once eachnight for $7 or $8 (kids under 12 free, at most DI’s) doesn’t comparewith a few acres’ worth of bulk household items available 24 hours ading-dong day.

And yet drive-ins continue to thrive and even do turn-away businesswhere the land isn’t so eminently gobble-able. This basically translateto two types of areas: (a) The sticks. (b) “Undesirable,” or at leastungentrified, neighborhoods in the big cities. As I started to intimateearlier, I am the type of guy who will drive 300 miles out of his wayto visit a particularly special drive-in (this means you, Spud Drive-inin Driggs, Idaho!). As a result of my desire to photograph these piecesof Americana in both rural and urban settings, I’ve visited a lot offantastic small towns set against beautiful mountain vistas, and alsosome really, um, interesting inner-city neighborhoods in the Iron Belt.

But the inflatable drive-in set-up offers new hope for drive-insbeing reintroduced in the land of the suburbanites. Who says a drive-inand a Wal-Mart can’t peacefully coexist in the same semi-affluentneighborhood? Not the company Outdoor Movies,which manufactures these blow-up silver screens; one of that company’sprincipals is also one of the four co-owners of the Star-Vu, who arehoping to franchise the idea to other drive-in-starved areas.

Not every aspect of this idea is new. In Michigan, there’s the Compuware Sports Arena Drive-in,the unwieldy name of which may offer some clue as to its nature; it’s athree-screen drive-in set up in an arena parking lot in Plymouth,Michigan, but with (as far as I can tell) permanent, not inflatable,screens. As for the inflatable screens, they’re been in wide use for awhile at a lot of summer festivals, but mostly in sit-down parklandsettings, not put-it-in-park settings. It was only natural that thesetwo phenomena would come together.

How did it work in practice, the opening night of the Star-Vu? I’dhave to give a mixed review. If you’re worried that the screen is goingto be blowing around like a balloon, don’t; it’s designed to easilywithstand 40 mph winds, and from my front-row vantage point, I neversaw the well-tethered thing budge. On the minus side, that 65-foot-widescreen looked awfully small from the back row. There are a fewdrive-ins competing for the claim of “biggest movie screen in thenation,” some with screens as large as 120 feet wide, twice the widthof the Star-Vu’s. They’ll probably never manufacture an inflatable onethat massive, but Outdoor Movies does have a bigger one that theStar-Vu may need to invest in if they want to keep packing this lotout. Light pollution was also a problem, with some of the darker scenesrendered virtually unviewable in Costa Mesa’s far-from-pitch-blacklandscape. Some people may think this is a problem endemic to alldrive-ins, but it’s not. There’s a fairly new projection upgradeprocess called TechnaLightthat makes drive-in images as bright as what you could find in anindoor house; all the other SoCal drive-ins have recently installedthis lamphouse upgrade, and the Star-Vu clearly needs to, as well.

Oh, and one other thing we should get out of the way: There’s a weebit of false advertising in the name of the place. I like to use thephrase “Cinema under the stars” as much as any drive-in enthusiast, butin the greater Los Angeles area, we don’t do stars. Sorry!

All that said, I couldn’t be more thrilled about seeing theturn-away business at the Star-Vu. (When was the last time you loggedonto a drive-in’s website to order advance tickets and saw the words”sold out”? Don’t kid a kidder, now.) Because, as the inventors ofhip-hop know, no matter how successful a phenomenon you’ve got, you’renot going to get the media awareness till you infiltrate — or in thiscase, reinfiltrate — suburbia. And never mind that the Star-Vu is atwo-hour drive through rush-hour traffic from where I live (and a mere50 minutes on the late-night return) — I’m going to be a frequentattendee. Even if the neighbors do wonder why my daughter and I areheaded out to the car in our pajamas at 5:30 on a Friday night.