Ozoners and the Open Road
A drive-in tour of the Southwest
A generation (maybe two) ago, summertime meant one thing: the return of the drive-in theater. Throughout most of the country--owing to climatic conditions--drive-in theaters had to remain closed during the winter months. (Hard to watch a movie when it's snowing on your windshield.) Given that indoor theaters can stay open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, it's not too shocking that “hardtops” eventually replaced the old “ozoners.” But there are those who still harbor fond, nostalgic feelings for those old drive-in “passion pits.”
Outdoor theaters allowed people the comfort and isolation of their own vehicles (and any illicit behavior that might occur in said). But, if people were feeling a bit more social, they could wander the grounds, look for friends, show off their cars, hang out at the snack bar or take a turn on the merry-go-round (all the better-equipped drive-ins had playgrounds for the kiddies). All of this could be accomplished without disturbing the other people who just came to take in a double feature. Drive-ins were always more of an event than a movie.
Sadly, due to population growth (because of light leakage issues, drive-in theaters used to be located on the edge of town), real estate booms (all those big tracts of land that drive-ins were built on became highly valuable) and the above-mentioned economic issues (one show a night for part of the year versus multiple screenings year round), the drive-ins' days were numbered.
Though drive-ins seem like a relic from the past, a few of them linger on in small-town America. New Mexico has its fair share of small towns and--believe it or not--there are actually three drive-ins still operating in the state. That's a long way down from the high of 50 in the late '50s, but it's still better than a lot of states that have lost all their ozoners.
The biggest drive-in remaining in New Mexico is the Fiesta Drive-In in Carlsbad (401 W. Fiesta). Remodeled and reopened in 1990 by Bob Light, the theater's history dates back to 1948. Fiesta has neat, well-maintained grounds boasting three screens, all hooked up to FM sound (no more tinny speakers). The 600-vehicle theater is open year-round, but ramps up to seven days a week June through August. General admission is $8 a carload or $4 a person. You can contact the theater at (505) 885-4126 or on their nicely designed website (www.fiestadrivein.com). Check out the live concession cam for a taste of what awaits you.
The Ft. Union Drive-In in Las Vegas, N.M. (3300 Seventh Street) isn't quite as lushly appointed, but it's only a short two-hour drive from Albuquerque. Its single screen sits on the northern edge of town, just past the new Wal-Mart (ah, progress). The theater is open May through September and can be reached at (505) 425-9934.
Further up near the Colorado border is Raton's 85 Drive-In (1391 Second Street). This small, 350-car theater is set to open June through September. The phone number is (505) 445-3672, but they don't always answer, so keep trying.
Other notable drive-ins just outside our state's borders include the Star Drive-In--better known as the Best Western Movie Manor--in Monte Vista, Colo. (2830 W. Hwy. 160). This unique, luxury (by drive-in standards) destination is the last lingering member of an ill-fated Best Western chain built around theaters. The clean, simply appointed rooms (named after classic Hollywood stars) all have large picture windows facing the screen. Speakers pump the sound into the rooms. A second screen was added in 2003, but is harder to see from the motel rooms. Contact the property at (719) 852-2613 or check it out online at www.bestwestern.com/prop_06029.
Colorado, with at least 10 operational drive-ins, is a great destination for those seeking open-air entertainment. Log on to www.carload.com for up-to-date info on all Colorado drive-ins. Other theaters just across our northern border include the three-screen Mesa Theater in Pueblo, Colo.
Despite being the setting for The Last Picture Show, Texas still has a number of small towns supporting drive-in theaters (nearly 20 by some counts). Among the crown jewels to our southeast is the Sky-Vue in Lamesa. (About 70 miles over the border from Hobbs.) The Sky-Vue gets packed on the weekends with pick-up trucks full of entertainment-hungry farmers, oil field workers and teens. The massive snack bar is legendary (and is open even when the theater is not). Be sure to order one of the famous “Chihuahuas” (Texas chili and pimento cheese sandwiched between two fried corn tortillas and garnished with cabbage--sounds weird, tastes divine!). You can visit Sky-Vu online at http://skyvue1.homestead.com/skyvue1.html.
It may take a few hours of driving to get to some of these places, but it's worth it. What better way to spend your summer than cruising the Southwest during the heat of the day and watching movies in the cool of the night?