Big Screen Summer at the Drive-in
It was a warm summer night on Friday, June 3, 1955. East Long Beach families were lining up in their cars on Spring St. and Bellflower Blvd. to be the first ones to see a movie at the new Los Altos Drive-In. That night was a double-feature: Howard Hughes’ “Son of Sinbad” (the first showing in the Long Beach area!) and “Rage at Dawn” (presented in Technicolor and Super-Scope). Prominent local advertisements lured the people in.
World’s Largest Screen! 10 stories high.
Super Giant Snack Bar! Counter span extends quarter of a city block.
Spacious Kiddie Playground! The latest facilities to entertain the tiny tots while parents view the picture.
Come As You Are In The Family Car!
If you lived in East Long Beach anytime from 1955 to 1996, you spent at least a night (or 20) at the Los Altos Drive-In.
“Sometimes it was a date place. Sometimes it was more families. Sometimes people would bring in alcohol and it would turn into a big party,” recalls South of Conant resident Hannah Culhno who frequented the drive-in from childhood through high school. “My mom had a 1984 Coupe Deville, the biggest Cadillac ever. We could fit six of us girls inside and five football players in the trunk. We’d ride into the place with the car so low to the ground [from all the weight].”
The Los Altos Drive-In was built in 1955 as part of developer Lloyd Whaley’s master-planned community of East Long Beach. When it opened, it was the “biggest drive-in in the West,” with the “largest screen in the world.” Able to accommodate 1,200 cars, it was quickly filled to capacity on the weekends and was expanded into a tri-plex in the 1970s. Now able to accommodate 2,100 cars, the Los Altos Drive-In became the default hangout for everyone in East Long Beach, from grandparents to high schoolers.
“It was either the Naugles parking lot or the drive-in. But Naugles was guaranteed to have the cops there by 9:45 pm, busting kids for curfew. At the drive-in you could hang out longer – until 11 pm or midnight,” says Hannah.
All practicality aside, every local has a memory of the Los Altos Drive In.
“My most memorable recollection of the Los Altos Drive-In was going with the Millikan High School ‘social service club’ I was rushing. Going to the drive-in was one of the tasks we did together as a group,” continues Hannah.
“We were paired up with the boys social club. But boys never had any money; so they were always trying to sneak in – over the fence, in the trunk of the car, however they could.”
Apparently, they weren’t the only ones.
Julie Edwards, lifetime East Long Beach resident, grew up on Bellflower Blvd., directly across the street from the Los Altos Drive-In. She recalls, “When I was a toddler, summer nights were warm. Of course we had no air conditioning in our tiny, less than 1,000 square-foot home, so we would leave the front door open. Cars would stop right in front of our house to prepare themselves to go to the drive-in. The passengers would get out and they would load as many people into the trunk of one car as possible. Then they would drive to the drive-in and only have to pay for one or two cars.”
But some people didn’t want to pay at all.
“I used to frequent the drive-in, almost every night,” recalls a local 908 resident on a cinema nostalgia discussion board. He goes by the screen name “fordking.” “We would sneak into the exit, covering the spikes using phone books or carpet from Carpeteria across the street. [Ironically] now I work for the Cal Worthington Ford that leases part of the property.”
Aerial map of Los Altos Drive-in’s three big screens
with Bellflower Blvd. on the West
Warm summer nights at the Los Altos Drive-In came to an end in 1996 when the property was closed and demolished to make way for the new shopping center. Hannah recalls that many residents living near the drive-in were happy to see it go, as the screen was bright and the attendees were loud. That is until they found out a Super-K was supposed to be built in its place. Then the drive-in seemed like a much better option. But, alas, it was too late, and all East Long Beach residents have left of summer drive-in movies are the memories.
“I think that parents want to recreate the drive-in experience that they loved from their youth,” explains Hannah. “And now days we have such great technology, neighborhoods can create their own drive-in by projecting a movie on a sheet in their driveway.”
Maybe we can start a new Los Altos Drive-In, right in our own front yard.