Mission Tiki Drive-In in Montclair closes for good after 67 years

The last cars have driven out of the Mission Tiki Drive-In.

Opened in 1956, the open-air theater in Montclair showed its last films — “M3GAN,” “Plane” and “A Man Called Otto” — on Sunday night to a modest number of people willing to sit in their cars in 40-degree temperatures to see a movie.

Although the theater’s days were numbered after the owner sold the land in 2019 to an industrial developer, its last night was not announced in advance.

Still, word spread among the diehards. Variety’s Chris Willman tweeted the rumor Sunday morning.

“Hearing tonight is the last night of operation for the Mission Tiki Drive-In, which was sold years ago but somehow lived on borrowed time till now, being discovered by new generations during the pandemic,” Willman wrote. “Been going there regularly for 30 years; it’s like a death in the family.”

I might have gone myself Sunday night, but a flat tire earlier in the day but the kibosh on going anywhere. Ah, well. I’d been there before and enjoyed it. Drive-ins are a piece of Americana that’s fading away as land values rise.

With popcorn and drinks at hand, Abraham Hilman and Jasmine Choi watch “Ant-Man and the Wasp” in summer 2018 at Mission Tiki Drive-In in Montclair. The theater property was sold in 2019 but the theater stayed open through the pandemic, finally closing on Jan. 22, 2023. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

The Mission, its original name, kept plugging away decades after other nearby drive-ins — the Bel-Air in Fontana, the Mount Vernon in San Bernardino and the Mt. Baldy in La Verne, among others — packed it in. One reason is that the theater successfully reinvented itself more than once.

In 1975 the Mission expanded to four screens, one at each corner of the property. Montclair’s indoor multiplexes had all died off by the turn of the 20th century, but the Mission’s owners doubled down on their drive-in, giving it a makeover in 2006 in time for its 50th anniversary.

Rebranded as the Mission Tiki, the drive-in got brighter screens, fresh asphalt and an FM radio sound system to replace individual speakers. The makeover included a ticket booth and concession stand resembling grass huts, tiki idols set amid lush foliage and Hawaiian shirts for the staff. Huell Howser visited for a TV segment.

In 2013, the drive-in was doing well enough to upgrade to digital projection, an expensive proposition when you have four screens.

In car-centric Montclair, the drive-in was pretty much the city’s only cultural offering, unless the Bowlium counts.

Still, the plan all along was to eventually sell.

Frank Huttinger, CEO of De Anza Land and Leisure, the drive-in’s owner, put it this way to me by phone Monday: “We’re sad, but the company was founded by the original partnership, who were former movie distributors, with the idea they would buy substantial acreage in outlying areas of major metro areas and watch the land appreciate.”

De Anza has by now sold the majority of its drive-ins around the country. Montclair’s 27 acres eventually appreciated enough in value to fetch $34.4 million.

The buyer, however, allowed the drive-in to continue operating until plans and permits were approved by Montclair City Hall. That was originally going to be fall 2020, giving the drive-in one last summer. Then progress was paused by the pandemic.

Coronavirus gave the Mission Tiki a final blaze of glory.

Families and couples descended on the Mission Tiki Drive-In during the pandemic. For months the open-air theater was the only place to go to see a movie and, despite its age, was seemingly designed for social distancing. (File photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

In April 2020, after a short closure, the drive-in was allowed to reopen by city officials. Couples and families flocked there to enjoy a movie from their car. I saw “Knives Out,” which I’d missed during its theatrical run pre-COVID.

As Huttinger told me that May: “We’re seeing weeknight business like it’s midsummer with schools out and big movies. Folks want to get out of the house.”

And the long goodbye meant people had a rare window — or windshield? — to appreciate the drive-in experience before it went away. Some brought their children, who got to visit a drive-in for the first time.

The 16 months from spring 2020 to fall 2021, Huttinger told me Monday, “were probably among the best grosses our theater chain had ever seen. It was fun.”

By fall 2021, indoor theaters had reopened, streaming remained popular and few new releases seemed to appeal to the drive-in audience. “It’s been two years of diminishing returns,” Huttinger lamented.

After recently getting all necessary approvals from the city for a technology-focused industrial park, the buyer notified De Anza in early January that the theater would need to be out by the end of the month, Huttinger said.

The Mission Tiki Drive-In marquee at Mission Boulevard and Ramona Avenue in Montclair is seen Monday. The drive-in, in business since 1956, closed for good on Sunday. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

The end was kept low-key, but loyal customers figured it out.

Offerings at the snack bar grew scant. First one screen went dark, then a second, to allow the projection equipment to be disassembled and crated for possible resale. If you searched the website for showings from Monday on, no results were returned.

“We didn’t really want to have people put up a hue and cry about losing a drive-in theater. We didn’t want to have to hire security to keep people from pilfering,” Huttinger explained.

The swap meet’s last day is Sunday. Vendors have been encouraged to migrate to the other local De Anza-owned drive-in, the Van Buren in Riverside.

The Van Buren seems solid for now. “The theater is a good performer,” Huttinger said. “Even with three screens it generally outperformed the Mission.”

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Chris Nichols, a chronicler of midcentury Southern California, tweeted a farewell: “Goodbye to the Mission Tiki Drive-In theater. Thank you for 67 years of movie magic under the stars.”

See me in Chino

I’ll be speaking at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Chino Community Building, 5443 B St., in an appearance sponsored by the Chino Valley Historical Society. I’ll blab about Chino and Chino Hills, read from “100 Years of the Los Angeles County Fair, 25 Years of Stories,” and take your questions about whatever. Come see me. Then buy my books!

brIEfly

A New York Times travel feature headlined “52 Places to Go in 2023” included our own Palm Springs amid such far-flung locales as Morioka, Japan; the Namib Desert, Southern Africa; and the Vjosa River, Albania. Well, out of 52 places, at least I’ll get to one this year.

David Allen sets the bar low Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Email dallen@scng.com, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter. 

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