Due to Oregon’s rainy weather my local drive-in growing up, the 99W, only operated seasonally, opening sometime in the late spring and staying open until autumn. So summer was really drive-in season, nights spent with friends and popcorn in front of a massive screen. Because of this, despite now living in California, where the remaining drive-ins operate all year long, I still associate drive-ins with summer. And for one nearby drive-in, this summer will be its last, as Montclair’s Mission Tiki Drive-In will finally close. We went recently to see Jurassic World: Dominion, but I fully expect to be back a few more times before the year it out.
Opening May 28, 1956 under the name “The Mission” it featured one ginormous screen measuring 50 by 122 feet, large enough for Cinemascope films, and could fit 1,350 cars. Named after the street it was located on, Mission Boulevard, the drive-in was an early adopter of the day-time swap meet, staring sometime in the 1960s, and still runs to this day. To compete with the rise of the multi-plex, the Mission demolished its single massive single screen in 1974 and carved the property up to accommodate for four screens. The original sign (which you can view in its heyday here) was left to rust and be consumed by the nearby vegetation as a towering marquee to advertise the films on the four screens was built. In its 50th year, 2006, the drive-in underwent a rename and revamp, becoming the Mission Tiki. The towering marquee (which today no longer advertises the movies, just information), ticket booths, and concession stand received the tiki treatment, and they ditched car speakers, switching to FM radio for sound.
The last few years have been a roller coaster for the Mission Tiki. Owned by De Anza Land and Leisure (who also own the Van Buren and Rubidoux Drive-Ins) sold the Mission Tiki for $34.4 million in August of 2019 to a developer, and the last movie was slated to flicker near Christmas 2019, much to the devastation of the locals. In the years leading up to 2019, Mission Tiki noted they had seen a steady decline in revenue, with only a small, but loyal, group of people who attended, going as far as to say “We don’t get new customers.” Shortly after the news of the sale, they announced they were staying open through at least summer 2020. The developers, who are demolishing the drive-in to make way for a “technology-focused business park” and warehouses, said they didn’t want to “come in until the third quarter 2020.” Then COVID hit, and the Mission Tiki received a new lease of life, even if it was on borrowed time.
COVID brought a lot of new people to the drive-in, and bolstered the locals’ attempt save the it. Petitions and pleas to the city were made, some noting “It’s wrong to look at this place and go, ‘OK let’s tear it down and put up warehouses’ when there is a dirt lot right down the street.” And while they aren’t wrong, in fact, there are many vacant lots near Mission Tiki, they are a quarter to half the size of the drive-in.
The days are certainly numbered at the Mission Tiki, and you can really see it. Foliage grows up and over some of the screens and the snack bar is a faded version of its once glorious thatched self, with peeling stickers, blocked off portions, and stacked chairs and tables. Soon it will all be rubble. I just hope they salvage the unique carved tikis, perhaps an auction or sale would be in order.
Mission Tiki has been my drive-in of choice since moving to California, but more out of connivence than anything else. While the Paramount Drive-In is technically closer, and the Van Buren Drive-In (which we went to once last summer) is only about five miles further than Mission Tiki, both can take longer to get to thanks to California traffic. But as the sun sets on the Mission Tiki, I’ll be venturing out to other drive-ins. As to the exact last day, it was unclear when I asked at the snack bar.
I didn’t often write about my visits to Mission Tiki (in fact, looking back I only wrote about it once) simply because it really lacks the charm of the 99W. I hate to trash talk any drive-in that still operates, but I have yet to still visit a drive-in that matches the home-spun and family run warmth of the 99W. At Mission Tiki and Van Buren you’re subject to multiple commercials instead of a birthday announcements and vintage intermission reels, pulling you out of the time-travel feeling you may have otherwise felt.
For those in the Southern California area, make one last visit to the Mission Tiki Drive-In at 10798 Ramona Avenue in Montclair. For those elsewhere interested in finding a drive-in to go to this summer, check out this website.
January 23, 2023 UPDATE: On January 22nd, without any fanfare, the Mission Tiki Drive-In went dark.