At the edge of downtown San Juan Capistrano, in the middle of an orange grove, Marian Patrick tossed letters up to her boyfriend as he prepared a drive-in theater's marque for the week's upcoming film set, Paradise Hawaiian Style and Night of the Grizzly.
It was November 1966, and no more than a dozen cars would drive by the corner of Camino Capistrano and Del Obispo Street on a "busy" night downtown. Drivers would honk their horns when they saw the three Patrick sisters, knowing their father, Robert Patrick, owned the only South County drive-in, the Mission Drive-In Theater.
“It was our identity; everybody knew us from the drive-in,” said Trisha Juenemann, the middle sister.
The drive-in's groovy orange-and-yellow snack bar brought the area's families to her family, sometimes just for the food, Juenemann said.
“My mom’s Italian so she was a really good cook,” Juenemann said.
With kids in pajamas, families would spend the whole evening at the drive-in. It was a close-knit town for the Patrick girls to grow up in, they said.
Shirley Witt, the oldest of the three, and Juenemann remember trying to get away with teenage shenanigans while their father worked weekdays in Hollywood.
“I remember sneaking my friends in, thinking my dad never knew… He always knew,” Witt said.
When La Paz Road was just being built just north of town, the Patrick sisters would go out every weekend in their father’s pick-up truck with an A-frame that advertised the upcoming movies.
“My dad made Shirley drive that truck to San Clemente High School every day,” Juenemann said.
One weekend night, Witt "borrowed" the truck and tried to sneak it back before her father noticed it was gone." Rushing back to the drive-in before her father arrived, she forgot about the A-frame advertisement atop the truck and plowed through the ticket holder arch, taking the whole ticket booth down.
Robert Patrick enlisted help to keep an eye on his girls.
“We’d have a marshal that would stroll around the grounds, tapping on people’s windows when they would get foggy. I remember one night the window he tapped on was mine, and I had to say, ‘Oh excuse me,’ ” Witt said.
When the girls didn’t spend half the night in the projection room, they would do homework in cubbies underneath the snack bar, they said.
But it was hardly all work and no play at the drive-in.
“I learned to drive at age 13 because of my sisters,” youngest daughter Marian Schwenn.
Juenemann's favorite manuever? “What I loved to do was rev up the car in neutral, and put it in drive and fish tale with rocks flying all around."
The Grand Opening
The night before the grand opening, the Patrick family had Mission Basilica’s Father Monsignor Martin bless the theater grounds, only two hour later to find a huge fire inside the concession. A faulty machine and bad timing caused a sticky situation for Monsignor Martin, whom Patrick teased for years after.
Patrick, being the steadfast businessman, got the theater up and running in time, with no delay, for an exciting opening, his middle daughter said.
“The customers were just as excited as we were. There was no entertainment down here before,” Juenemann said. Admission prices were $1.25 for adults, and children under 12 were always free.
Patrick took pride in his modern theater, new technology abound, according to an old newspaper clipping.
“National Theater Supply Co. installed projectors and super-lamps that should give the Mission Drive-In the brightest, clearest picture of any drive-in in America,” according to an article in the Nov. 23, 1966 issue of Independent.
Because Patrick installed, as the Indendent described them, state-of-the-art Bevilite all-plastic speakers with "dramatic stereo tone and sound quality," the speaker's inventor was among the first customers on opening night.
As the weeks rolled by, it didn’t matter what movie was playing, the Patrick sisters would see the exact same families driving into their "designated" parking spots every week, they said. It became a fast-growing tradition.
Flashback Even Further in Time
"I think he built the theater for us," Witt said.
Robert Patrick was determined to make his dream for his daughters a reality. It took five years of Patrick commuting from Los Angeles to San Juan Capistrano City Council meetings every month to get the drive-in approved.
“He was always in the movie business,” Schwenn said.
In his teens, he worked at his hometown theater in Atlanta where he worked the grand opening in 1939 for Gone with the Wind.
After serving in WWII, Patrick was stationed in Denver, where he bought the first theater he set his eyes on. There, he met his wife Carolyn, who worked as a ticket-taker. He then worked for an advertising agency that took pictures to use in commercials for drive-in theaters.
In 1959, the Patrick family, now with three daughters, moved to San Fernando Valley. The sisters settled right in to "ValleyGirl" lives, up until their father moved them to a quiet horse town, known as San Juan Capistrano. He wanted to own a drive-in again.
Orange County’s ninth drive-in entertained the surrounding beach towns, with a population of a mere 15,000 at the time.
Patrick considered the drive-in a hobby with his family, and a great first job for his daughters. Even as he owned the theater, he still worked in Hollywood throughout the week, and Carolyn ran the drive-in with the girls.
After eight years of owning the theater independently, Patrick sold the business to Pacific Drive-In Theaters in 1973.
The drive-in closed and was replaced by a shopping center in 1985.
The Patrick family stayed in San Juan Capistrano and Patrick had a family compound built. Juenemann and Witt still live next door to each other. Their parents lived in the house behind them and their grandparents in the house behind that.
“We were a close-knit family, but the drive-in instilled even more family than we were,” Schwenn said.
Rotary Car Show Tie-in with the Drive-in
The Rotary's upcoming annual Car Show to benefit the Capistrano Animal Rescue Effort is making the old Mission Drive-In the logo for the Feb. 10, 2013 event. Noted local artist Bill Drysdale captured the memory of days gone by in a painting that will be part of advertising the show.
Car Show chairman Paul Fulbright said the goal this year was to take a distinct San Juan Capistrano feature and create a theme :with a recognizable snap shot our community’s past.”
CARE President Matt Gaffney, a lifelong resident of San Juan, was there opening night for the drive-in and many nights after.
“On Friday and Saturday nights the drivein was the social hub in Capo. In the early years, Bob Patrick showed Mexican movies on Sunday nights,” Gaffney remembered.
Fulbright is hoping Drysdale will have some limited-edition prints of his painting availabe for sale at the car show.
“It was kind of a simpler time,” Drysdale said, describing the nostalgia he hopes class car-lovers will experience in seeing his painting.
Drysdale has been a freelance painter since 1976. He has created artworks in animation, clock design, architectural photography, and architectural illustration, among other design. He went on to show his artwork in Laguna Beach’s Festival of Arts for four years.
“The very first place I went when I started driving was a drive-in theater," Drysdale said. "I remember that so distinctly; trying to pull the truck up close enough to the speakers without taking one out."
Drysdale would jump in his buddy’s VW bus along with all of the surfboards, skim boards and snorkel gear, to drive from Upland to T-Street. The beach was such a significant part of Drysdale’s life that he and his wife moved to Dana Point in 1969.
The Mission Drive-In was the Drysdale’s go-to movie spot once they moved down to their little house in Dana Point.
“We were so young then, I remember my wife put her hair in pigtails and she got in for a kids price,” Drysdale said.