PICTURED: Comedian Trevor Wallace opened for Super Duper Kyle at the Ventura County Fairgrounds June 26-27. (Photo courtesy of CBF Productions)

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

The drive-in theater is a blast from the past. Dating back to the 1930s (the first true drive-in theater opened in Pennsauken, New Jersey, in 1933), its heyday took place in the 1950s and ’60s, and the very notion of the drive-in brings up images of letterman jackets and poodle skirts. As televisions improved and VCRs made it possible to enjoy feature films at home, drive-ins declined in popularity, going nearly extinct in recent years. The few that have managed to survive through the decades — riding out the ever-cushier multiplexes as well as high-definition TVs, video on demand, prestige television and Netflix — owe their success more to nostalgia than anything else.

Until now.

The drive-in theater is ideal for these times, when social distancing makes many forms of nightlife outside the home unfeasible. And while Ventura County doesn’t have a traditional drive-in per se, promoters are finding ways to recreate the drive-up experience for summer entertainment.

Canyon Carpool Events in Oxnard

The Oxnard Performing Arts and Convention Center (the PACC) offers a large parking lot and, now, a restaurant, and Lance Sterling plans to put both to good use this summer. 

Sterling is the owner of Sterling Venue Ventures, which operates a number of concert venues in Southern California (including Agoura’s Canyon Club) and also hosts events at the PACC and Ojai’s Libbey Bowl. Starting this weekend, he’ll be offering a series of Canyon Carpool Events at the PACC with concerts, films and more.

Neil Diamond Tribute Band Fantastic Diamond headlines the first Canyon Carpool Event on July 5 at the PACC. (Photo submitted)

The first event is a music and movie night on Sunday, July 5. Festivities kick off at 5 p.m. with live music from Dr. T and the Blues Criminals and Kelly’s Lot, followed by Neil Diamond tribute band Fantastic Diamond. After that, Oxnard Musical Youth Theater’s O’My Party Starz will perform music from the Disney animated feature Frozen, followed by a screening of Frozen II. The entire lineup can be safely enjoyed from the comfort of a vehicle — free of charge.

While there’s no cost to attend the first-come, first-served event (Sterling estimates that the lot can accommodate about 100 vehicles), there will be food and nonalcoholic beverages available for purchase at the newly established restaurant. Patrons will be expected to wear masks while making purchases or using the restrooms. For the latter, Sterling said that, “We’ll limit the number of people [at one time] and increase the cleaning and shutdown every other stall.”

Sterling said that the series was designed to provide family-friendly fun for an entertainment-starved community this summer. It’s also a way to experiment with a new operating model. “We figured, let’s figure out how we can make this work.”

“If it’s successful, we’re going to be able to operate it two or three times a week,” he continued. “As much as I can afford until I run out of money.”

Rubicon Goes Retro

Drive-in entertainment at the Ventura County Fairgrounds already debuted last weekend, with live performances from Super Duper Kyle and a live streamed concert featuring Garth Brooks. Now, the Rubicon Theatre Company is getting into the action, presenting its series of musical theater offerings starting July 6. Rubicon Goes Retro will feature Broadway stars entertaining drive-in audiences with musical numbers from some of the best-loved productions, including Jersey Boys, South Pacific and Forever Plaid.

“Very soon after the sheltering began, we began looking for ways to share some joy and healing in this time,” said Karyl Lynn Burns, the Rubicon’s co-founder and producing artistic director. “We first started looking at streaming options but it’s sort of the Wild West out there . . . Live is really what we’re about.”

After hitting on the idea for a “drive-in theatre concert series,” Burns and co-founder Jim O’Neil began talks with Ventura County Fairgrounds CEO Barbara Quaid. They also got in touch with Vincenzo Giammanco of CBF Productions (the company behind the California Beer Festival), who was already developing his Concerts in Your Car series (the Super Duper Kyle show was its first).

Rubicon Goes Retro kicks off July 6-8 with a musical medley performed by Christian Hoff and Travis Cloer. (Photo submitted)

“I reached out to ask if there might be a way to cross-promote and Vincenzo very kindly called back right away,” Burns recalled. “A lot of the costs for us were tied to setting up and taking down the stage and bringing the equipment in and out. It made sense for us to essentially sublease from them on their off-nights. They’ve been amazing friends and partners in this.”

Rubicon Goes Retro runs through early September. In addition to musical theater luminaries, folk rock veteran Jim Messina will take the stage Aug. 17-19, joined by “stars from The Doobie Brothers, The Eagles and, of course, Kenny Loggins,” Burns said.

Safety protocols being followed include spacing cars six feet apart, selling tickets exclusively online and scanning them through car windows. Bathrooms and concessions won’t be available, although guests may bring food from home or a local restaurant.

Rubicon Goes Retro performances are all musical. “We do have more theatrical events in the works, but don’t really feel like they’re right for the fairgrounds venue,” Burns explained.

Instead, Rubicon will stream London performances of Arlene Hutton’s Nibroc Trilogy (The Last Train to Nibroc, See Rock City and Gulf View Drive) in July. There’s no charge to watch, but reservations are required. 

Tonight, July 2, at 5:30 p.m., the theater company is also streaming Voices of America: Songs and Stories of Conflict, Challenge, Hope and Healing. “[It] started as a pre-Fourth of July fundraiser that we hope has developed into a thoughtful reflection and response to what is happening in the world,” Burns explained. “Many diverse perspectives will be shared and we hope it will be illuminating and entertaining.”

Driving for dollars

Even as restaurants, retail stores and hair salons have reopened, the state of California currently places larger gathering venues (such as nightclubs and concert venues) under the final Stage 4 reopening phase — and it’s probably going to be some time before Ventura County reaches it. Both the Rubicon and Sterling Venue Ventures are banking on drive-in entertainment as a way to stay viable during these uncertain economic times.

“For us, the pandemic has been a one-two punch,” Burns said. “Because of the impact of the Thomas Fire (show delay, smoke damage, loss of subscribers who were rebuilding or who moved away), we had two years in the red. This past year (2019 fiscal year), we were able to rebound and finish in the black — but this has certainly been another blow.”

The Rubicon received some Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) loans, which helped keep a “dedicated small core staff” afloat. But according to Burns, the “pivot” to Rubicon Goes Retro and streaming entertainment came with a steep learning curve. “We have all been learning new technologies at the same time. Sometimes it can be overwhelming for the staff.”

Sterling said that he received about $149,000 in Small Business Administration loans — barely enough to cover two weeks of operating costs for a business that employed 200-300 people and put on 1,500 or more concerts a year. 

“The PPP was great, but not for California,” he said. “It paid for two months and that two months is over.”

And without venues to play in, entertainment professionals of all kinds have suffered as well. The rich and famous can afford to ride out these times, but there are many stage actors, touring musicians, set designers and other talents who rely on regular gigs at community theaters and nightclubs to earn an income.

“The Tubes, Berlin, Pat Benatar — you make your money off of 1,000-person clubs,” Sterling said. 

Thus, many venue operators, promoters and musicians are considering the drive-in alternative. 

“I’ve had huge bands call me wanting to do these parking lot concerts,” Sterling said. “I think it opens up a new avenue for musicians.” 

If Canyon Carpool Events prove successful, Sterling might start charging admission, but he intends to keep ticket costs moderate.

“Going forward, I don’t think we’ll overcharge. The goal is to make something that works . . . and keep it family friendly.”

Burns is grateful to have something to offer in a drive-in format, but doesn’t see it as a long-term solution — for the Rubicon, or the theater professionals it employs.

“We are very concerned for all of the actors, directors, designers and crew members who rely on work at the Rubicon for their survival,” she said. “We are so glad to have this opportunity to offer some work, but it’s not enough to sustain them through this crisis.”

Nevertheless, Burns chooses to stay positive.

“We certainly understand that it may be a long time — at least until a vaccine is found — before we can reopen our building and provide the kind of intimate, connected storytelling that is so important, but we remain optimistic. The community has been here for us and we for the community for 20+ years. Together, we will find a way.”

Canyon Carpool Events Music and Movie Night featuring Fantastic Diamond and Frozen II
Sunday, July 5, 5 p.m.
Oxnard Performing Arts and Convention Center, 800 Hobson Way, Oxnard

Rubicon Goes Retro featuring Drive-In Hits (music from Jersey Boys and Million Dollar Quartet)
July 6-8, 8 p.m.
Ventura County Fairgrounds, 10 Harbor Blvd., Parking Lot A, Ventura