Emotions are running at a fever pitch after plans for demolishing the Mission Tiki Drive-In Theater in south Montclair to make room for eight warehouse buildings were submitted for approval to City Hall in January.
The proposal has prompted an online petition by Robert Wilkiewicz, of Pomona, who is asking folks to sign if they want the open-air movie theater to remain. As of Thursday, Feb. 17, 783 people signed the petition and the numbers keep rising, records show.
In the petition preamble, Wilkiewicz called the drive-in to an “iconic staple” and said losing it for a bunch of warehouses would be tantamount to “a stab in the hearts of the community.”
After mentioning how families for more than six decades have enjoyed watching movies at the drive-in, Wilkiewicz said the signatories are prepared to fight to save it. “The community is coming for you City of Montclair. You will hear our voice!!” hey. concluded
“The drive-in is part of American history. Hollywood history. Our local history. We need more creative people to take this thing over,” he said Thursday, Feb. 17.
The iconic drive-in has been operating for 66 years on the corner of Mission Boulevard and Ramona Avenue in Montclair, creating multi-generational memories for patrons who’ve come from across the San Gabriel Valley, the San Fernando Valley and the Inland Empire to enjoy an open-air flick from the comfort of their cars.
For decades, it was owned and operated by De Anza Land and Leisure until the 27-acre property was sold in August 2019 for $34.4 million. The news of the sale and pending demise of the drive-in prompted a different online petition in 2019 that has attracted 10,379 signatures, mostly from two years ago.
The developer, Mission Boulevard Industrial Owner LP, submitted plans and an Environmental Impact Report on Jan. 10, 2022. The warehouse project could be heard by the city’s Planning Commission in March or April, then by the City Council, officials said. The public has until 6 pm Thursday, Feb. 24, to submit comments to Michael Diaz, community development director, City of Montclair, 5111 Benito St., Montclair, CA 91763. Comments may also be emailed to [email protected]
Earlier plans to develop the site stalled and in spring 2020, the theater suddenly found new life as the coronavirus pandemic surged through the region.
During 2020 and 2021, the drive-in’s popularity soared and it remains open today. In 2020, during strict stay-at-home orders, the theater was allowed to operate by the city of Montclair, becoming one of the only forms of family entertainment available, with the caveat that people stayed inside their cars to adhere to social distancing guidelines , a requirement of the city at the time.
“It’s a COVID-19-proof way to get out of the house and still practice social distancing. And to think, the city is going to let it get torn down at the end of summer,” wrote Bruce Culp, Montclair resident and city hall watcher on the “Montclair Connects” Facebook page on March 20, 2020.
Culp, who has signed the new online petition, said the site should be a national landmark.
“These drive-ins are going away,” he added. “They are a piece of history. It’s hard to see things you grew up with go away.”
Many drive-ins have gone out of business over the years, mostly because the property they occupy can be sold for huge profits. These include the Winnetka in Chatsworth, the Mt. Vernon in San Bernardino and the Foothill in Azusa.
Montclair Mayor Pro-Tem Bill Ruh often reminisces about the former landmarks in the city and its environs. He said Montclair is in a tough position: It doesn’t own the theater and can’t prevent an owner from selling.
“It is a historic site,” Ruh said. “In a perfect world, I’d say let it stay as it is. But I don’t own it and the city doesn’t own it.”
Other than ensure the development complies with city codes and zoning, there’s not much officials can do, he said. Ruh suggested that the sign be saved as a historic element, much like the sign from the Azusa theater was saved when Azusa Pacific University bought the property for educational buildings.
“The drive-in theater was a part of everyone’s life and there is an attachment to it,” Ruh said. “I understand that. But we can’t tell the property owner what to build there.”
Many signers on the most recent petition left comments, saying they remembered their parents taking them to the drive-in and taking their own kids there.
“This is my childhood,” Ashley Figueroa wrote on the petition. “This place has been my favorite place since I was a kid,” commented Charlie Cortes on the site.
Pomona resident Elizabeth Cole wrote that old buildings often are not preserved in Southern California. “I have seen so much history destroyed and it is time to end this. Instead of developers thinking of only profit, we need to save Mission Tiki Drive-In.”
Could community opposition save the drive-in?
D. Edward Vogel, vice president of the United Drive-in Theater Owners Association based in Maryland, said community protests stopped the destruction of the Mahoning Drive-In in Lehighton, Pennsylvania. In July 2021, developers announced they would build a solar farm on the property. But after much community protest, that project has been placed on indefinite hold, Vogel said.
“There were people up in arms and in the end, the company who wanted to buy it backed away from it,” Vogel said.
Drive-in theaters have been in decline for more than 60 years. For example, there were 4,063 drive-in theaters in the United States in 1958, an industry high, according to the United Drive-In Theater Owners website. As of October 2021, 318 drive-ins remained, Vogel said.
If the Mission Tiki Drive-In cannot be saved, it may be San Bernardino County’s last brush with the auto-friendly moviegoing experience. The Skyline Drive-In in Barstow is closed but may reopen this summer. Two other drive-ins are operating in Riverside County, the Van Buren Drive-In Theater and the Rubidoux Drive-In and Swap Meet.
“We are all broken up about the Mission Tiki Drive-In,” said Vogel, who visited the site a few years ago. But he said he understands the owner’s decision to sell the land for a warehouse development.
Culp said the city of Montclair has been known for decades as a regional entertainment and shopping venue, with the Montclair Plaza, now Montclair Place, and many incarnations of theaters, including the new AMC Dine-In Montclair Place 12 off the 10 Freeway.
He said it will be ironic if the Mission Tiki goes away, leaving only the murals of the famous drive-in painted on the walls inside City Hall and the city library. Montclair will lose some of its cachet as a place to go for fun, he said.
“People don’t come to town to visit warehouses,” Culp said.