Classic Ceres Drive-In to reopen as COVID-19 keeps other movie theaters closed

Pack the family into the car, grab your lawn chairs and get ready for a night of big-screen entertainment served with a big bucket of buttered nostalgia. The Ceres Drive-In is coming back.

The once iconic drive-in cinema has been closed for more than a decade, sitting idle while being used instead as a flea market and industrial yard since 2008. But then the ongoing coronavirus pandemic closed most traditional movie theaters and cineplexes earlier this year. In their absence, drive-in projects have popped up across the Central Valley these last few months as a socially distanced alternative.

But Ripon resident Mark Stotzer, who runs live events production and booking companies, thought why not go back to the original. Instead of makeshift movie screens and festival-ground drive-ins, he went to the source and is now leasing the former Ceres Drive-In off Whitmore Avenue with plans to reopen later this month.

“I have kids and there’s really been nothing around here to do with them right now,” said Stotzer, who owns MS Production Services and Lucky Shoe Productions. “I had been looking at alternate sites to put something together and then remembered there used to be a drive-in in Ceres. So I went down there, located the owners, toured the property. It wasn’t in the best shape, but the bones were still there. So we said let’s do it.”

He intends to bring back the original location with its original screen and name. The Ceres Drive-In was a Central Valley institution for decades. First opened in 1948, the drive-in entertained valley families for 60 years before it closed for good. When it closed in 2008 it was the last operating drive-in in the country and region.

There was a short-lived drive by new owners to revive the cinema in 2013, which never came fully to fruition. The closest operating drive-ins today are in Sacramento and Madera. In their heyday, drive-ins were all over the valley including Modesto’s McHenry Drive-In and Prescott Drive-In, Turlock’s Lucky Drive-In and Merced’s Starlite Drive-In.

Drive-in theaters return in age of coronavirus

Now Stotzer is dedicated to making it a place for valley families and movie lovers to gather — at a safe distance — once again. Unlike some of the pop-up theater projects like those done by Modesto’s State Theatre, the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds and Merced County’s new The Nightlight drive-in theater, the Ceres Drive-In has all of its infrastructure still built in.

That includes the original metal 100-foot screen. Stotzer and his team had to refurbish the structure, filled in some holes, removed a lot of graffiti and other wear-and-tear. But now it looms large over the complex.

The screen is much larger than all of the other smaller pop-up drive-ins in the region, which at best are about half the size. The screen is also positioned higher, 40-feet off the ground, and all of the parking spots are sloped to allow for better sight-lines. His team is installing a super-bright 33,000-lumens Barco digital cinema projector for optimum picture as well.

The drive-in’s second screen has been lost to time, but the rest of the area remains intact. The space is bordered by stalls used by the flea market which still operates from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

A fire in 2010 took out the old concession and projection building. It has since been rebuilt, but with a pitched roof that obstructs some of the parking spaces. So only 250 of the more than 300 available spaces will be used to allow direct sight-lines for all patrons.

The site is still under construction, and the spaces for each larger 12-foot parking space (to accommodate social distancing and allow people to sit in front of their cars) are being repainted. The flea market stalls will be fenced off from the drive-in area as well.

The new Ceres Drive-In will start with movies each Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, and expand to more depending on popularity. There will be a concession stand serving popcorn, candy, hot dogs and more in the rebuilt office building, as well as permanent restroom facilities. They also will have armed security, for anyone wary of the drive-in’s industrial location.

Admission will be $30 per carload, which for a family of four works out to $7.50 per person making it way cheaper than a regular night at the movies — if we could have those right now. Stotzer plans to start with classic films, and have themed nights. But, eventually, he also wants to bring in first-run films. Expect Graffiti nights with cars shows, food truck specials and maybe 1980s-themed nights with retro movies to start.

The sound will be pumped in through FM radio channels, and Stotzer hopes to provide English and Spanish language channels. And, yes, even the classic Ceres Drive-In sign is slated to make a comeback, eventually. A fundraising campaign has been launched to refurbish its original neon sign, which was visible from Highway 99.

Stotzer, who calls himself a “serial entrepreneur,” said his other reason for reopening the drive-in was to give the staff from his production and bookings companies work. The live concert and event industry has been decimated by the COVID-19 outbreak as theaters, outdoor arenas and the like sit largely dark.

Stotzer’s companies helped Tuolumne County’s Chicken Ranch Casino set up its popular pop-up drive-in nights, and has done events for Black Oak Casino, the PGA Tour and more. He said while reviving the site is a perfect pandemic-era project, he hopes it will live past the virus and our current shutdowns.

“This isn’t just a COVID hail Mary,” he said. “Yes, it’s very good timing, but as long as it makes sense to do, we’ll continue to do it. This isn’t temporary. We want to bring it back.”

The grand opening for the Ceres Drive-In is planned for Friday, Sept. 25. For more information visit www.ceresdrivein.com.

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