Home Arts & Entertainment 75 years of Sunset Drive-In

75 years of Sunset Drive-In

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Sunset Drive-In roadside sign. Photo by Joey Batista

The Sunset Drive-In movie theater is the only one of its kind in San Luis Obispo, and among the last remaining drive-in theaters in all of California.

With regularly operated drive-in movie theaters closing around the nation, and in-door movie theaters dominating the live movie experience, a handful remain operative in California. Sunset Drive-In is one of 16 left in the state. 

Since its opening in June 1950, the Sunset Drive-In has offered a fun way of viewing old and new movies from the comfort of your car. It is as easy as buying your ticket at the box office, and finding a spot in their 600-car lot. 

Whether a patron is looking for a full meal or a quick snack, the Sunset Drive-In snack bar has guests covered. Located in the center of the parking lot, the snack bar offers hot dogs, nachos, pizza, pretzels, burritos, candy, soft drinks and much more.

Charles Pasquini Sr. and the Pasquini family were the original owners of the Sunset Drive-In, and managed the business for its first 20 years. 

Larry Rodkey, the current owner of Sunset Drive-In, took over its management in place of his father in 1985. Since then, Rodkey, and eventually his granddaughter Marissa Verschoor, have facilitated the screenings of just under 4,000 different movies (two movies every week). Although the exact number is not attainable, it is calculated that around 9,000 different movies have been played since Sunset Drive-In first opened. 

On Sundays, Sunset Drive-In puts on a swap meet in their lot. This is where enthusiasts, collectors and all types of people gather to trade items of common value or interest. 

Including those who work on Sundays for the swap meets, Sunset Drive-In has 10 employees who all work to keep their well-oiled machine running. A big part of that process is deciding which movies to play, and getting access to play them.

“It’s always difficult to choose the movie we want to play, being that we have only one screen,” Rodkey said. “We also must play the movies for a certain number of weeks, so we have to look at our scheduling options.”

One of Sunset Drive-In’s employees is specifically involved in this process. He works with movie companies to book the movies they decide to play each week. Rodkey says they try to stick to new movies, especially pushing for family-oriented films, as they are generally the best-selling. 

Their team of employees all work together though to organize a typical night at the drive-in movie theater. 

A typical evening begins with making sure the projector is ready to go by getting it turned on and running. Then snack bar preparations begin. This includes preparing food items and having fresh popcorn for customers.

The time before the gates open isn’t strictly for physical preparation though.

“After all the employees get here, we close the gates and turn on some fun music to get us ready for the night,” Rodkey said.

As the gates open and customers start to come up to the box office, they will be asked to turn on Sunset Drive-In’s radio station to get audio for the movie playing that evening. 

Second-year Cal Poly student and avid moviegoer, Dylan Mack, was impressed with Sunset Drive-In after seeing “The First Omen” from his car. 

“This is the first time I’ve gotten around to seeing a movie here,” Mack said. “I was surprised how well the audio from the radio station synced to the movie.”

Every night there are two movies played and an intermission in between. The goal before each movie is the same. 

“Opening consists of getting the customers in and parked and ready to watch the movie with snacks in hand,” Rodkey said. 

After 4-5 hours of screening movies, they clean up the snack bar, shut down the projector and head home for the night to do it all again the next day.  

Sunset Drive-In has been a staple of San Luis Obispo County and the Central Coast for nearly 75 years. With no signs of slowing down, this unique drive-in experience is ingrained in San Luis Obispo’s culture. 

Sunset Drive-In was recently showing the films “Abigail” and “Monkey Man.”

Tickets for the Sunset Drive-In can be purchased only in cash at the box office. Children under 4 years old are allowed free access. For more information on the Sunset Drive-In’s prices, movies, start times and more visit their Facebook page.

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