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Airport Drive In

If you’re a local, this photo will trigger a flood of memories. This is the corner of Hollister and Fairview looking towards the airport in the late 1960’s.

Gas at Bob’s Seaside service station was 27 cents a gallon, and recaps were $9.95.Swingers Golf Center was in full swing and the newly opened Ski Lodge Coffee Shop brought some interesting architecture to Hollister Avenue.

Airport Drive-in Goleta

But this place, the Airport Drive In, was of utmost importance to Baby Boomers growing up in Goleta. It was where millions of happy memories were made. Photos of this place in its heyday are hard to come by, so when we heard Mike McLean had this picture hanging in his office at McLeans Auto Body, we had to go see it. 

Recently we found this photo of the same corner in the mid 1950s, when the Drive-In was brand new. This sign at night was a sight to behold. The airplane was lit up and the propellers spun around, a neon masterpiece.


Today, drive-in theaters are a novelty and a place for swap meets, but from the 1950’s through the 1970’s, they were a family event and an adolescent escape.  rick kelly63Great for young families, kids loved the playground and the chance to hang out with friends at night. Parents loved that they could put the kids in their pajamas and watch a movie in the comfort of their own vehicle, and it was affordable!intermission_by_tater_vaderIn between movies, a classic old cartoon prompted you to go to the snack bar to get some delicious treats. And hordes of kids in pajamas would swarm the playground again.

datesTeenagers found drive-ins ideal for dates, offering more privacy than a regular theater. makeoutSo much so, in fact, that they soon got labeled “passion pits” by some.

Drive-ins were not as profitable as regular theaters, however, because they could only show movies at night, and it was common practice to hide your friends in the trunk. In Goleta, some folks remember sneaking in through a hole in the fence with a date and a blanket and watching the movie lounging on the grass just below the screen. Talk about a cheap date!russelruizAccording to Walker Tompkins, the first “drive-in theater” in our area was on State Street in 1912. During the presidential election, a large white screen was hung on a building and election returns were projected from the roof of a building across the street. Between updates, movies were shown to keep the crowd entertained. Seeing how well this went, a local merchant began showing free movies nightly on a giant white board erected behind a building at State and Ortega. While admission was free, the entertainment was peppered with local advertisements.

Another outdoor theater, that charged admission, briefly operated on a hillside in Santa Barbara, but it was impossible to keep freeloaders from watching from further up the hill, so it soon closed. The only earlier outdoor movie known of in California was in Monterey in 1908.

The first automobile drive-in theater opened in New Jersey in1933. Their slogan was “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.” It was a financial failure, and the owner sold out, but the idea was good and the trend eventually caught on nationwide.

1940s lewisDuring World War II, this was how the lot looked that would soon be the Airport Drive-in. Surrounded by the Marine base, it was already the perfect shape!

In 1950, an already growing Goleta was about to get a big new university campus and an influx of young people that would need to be entertained. What could be better than a drive in theater! 

And in November of 1950, the dream became a reality. A state of the art drive in theater right here in little old Goleta.

The Airport Drive In Theater. “Where the highway meets the skyway.”

The Airport Drive-in opened in April 1951 with enough room for 700 cars, putting Goleta on the entertainment map for Santa Barbara County. Lots of folks remember parking on Hollister in the 1950’s, when the bushes were still small, and watching the show from the side of the road. It was so quiet you could hear the sound from the speakers.

speakers2Modern Drive-in patrons probably have no idea what these are, but how many of us remember the poor sound quality these speakers delivered. And how many of us accidentally started to drive off before we removed them from our window….

We recently found these quality photos from 1953.

A good shot of the neon airplane.

1959aHere is a photo of the Airport Drive-in in 1959. The buildings in the foreground were Marine barracks, at this time being used by the newly formed UCSB. Also notice the Airport terminal and the original two hangars, mid photo on the right.neal graffy foster freezeThis great photo from the late 1960’s shows the Foster’s Freeze that was across the street, with part of Airport Drive-in visible in the upper left. The Swingers sign is also in view on the right.

1968This photo is from 1968, the prime of the Drive-in’s career locally. By the 1970’s, the popularity was waning, and horror movies would stay for long runs. It seems like Friday the 13th and Dawn Of The Dead played there for months, and we all had them memorized. But it didn’t matter. We weren’t really there for the movie, it was a place to hang out at night with friends, many of whom were employed there!

This was a very familiar sight to countless Goleta teens throughout the years. Most every weekend, the Airport Drive-In was the default place to meet. If there weren’t any parties to go to, the Drive-In was the place to be. Even when there were parties, we would often end up here afterwards. 

airport phone2As business continued to wane, they began offering a “$1.75 a Carload” night.  And as fewer customers came, the teenagers created more and more mischief, eventually requiring security guards to be hired. It became Party Central, reportedly, some guys would show up with a keg in the backseat of their car, and all their friends would meet them there. Creative pranksters would improvise the marquis once in a while. One local remembers driving by and seeing that “Three Days of the Condom” was showing…

2015 (1)By the late 1990’s, the Airport Drive-in went out of business.  airport drive-in GoletaToday, the old drive-in serves as a parking lot for the Santa Barbara airport.

2All that’s left of the screen with the big neon airplane are these concrete slabs.

Goleta drive-inBut the entry gate and office still stand with its vintage 1950’s architecture on full display.

ticket boothThe ticket booths remain in perfect condition, standing guard over so many memories…

twin screens drive inYou can, however, still go to a drive-in movie in Goleta . Formerly known as the Twin Screens Drive-in, the Santa Barbara Drive-in is still open on South Kellogg Avenue. It’s still as much fun as ever, and a great experience for kids too young to remember the old days.

Gutshall Airport Drive-inBut for us old timers, nothing can compare to the good old days at the Airport Drive-in.

Sources: Santa Barbara News Press, Denver Post, Walker Tompkins, Russell Ruiz, Adam Lewis, Mike McLean, Jim Salvador, Neal Graffy, Tater Vader, Patti Gutshall, Goleta Valley Historical Society

Categories: Goleta History

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Tom Modugno

22 replies

  1. Thank you tom
    I always love going down memory lane with your stories & photos
    I spent many nights at this drive in. Sneaking people in the trunk. Sometimes we couldn’t get them out ? But always a good time till wee hours in the night. Casey Hart

  2. Mystery solved! A few weeks ago I got my tires checked at the Ski Lodge place, how fun to know that it’s the same architecture as the cafe. Waiting for my bill I walked outside and wondered what those cement slabs were about, now I know! I did not grow up here but we had identical experiences in the San Fernando Valley in the 60’s. Great teen outing and I remember double dating too which was a little uncomfortable as I think it was pre-arranged which couple got the back seat. Haha

  3. Thank you!!! I never got to go to the Airport Drive-In. I lived in Solvang and we drove by it a lot! Your photos are fabulous! I am 77 now and have time to look back!

  4. Tom, you and I traveled through this area many times on bikes on our way to The Point. Many of us hold decades of fond memories of the Airport Drive-In and that intersection. Back in a time when at least four VW Bugs would be at a stop light. The Shell station gave out presidential coins and McDonalds opened with a big celebration. Thank you for the write-up on this local landmark. Great research.

  5. Back when we had the “March Miracle” rains the drive in was being used for airport parking but had not been repaved flat and still had the raised rows for watching movies. Luckily I parked on one of the high spots when I left on my trip before the rain. When I returned the airport was closed (still flooded) and when I went to get my truck from the drive in lot the water line was up to my axles. Many small cars that were closer to the flood control channel had floated and were piled up near the screen corner. I was able to drive out through the mud.

  6. Great Memories of this Drive-In. My older brother used pile myself and bunch of other kids in his Ford Station Wagon for the $1.75 a car load nights! Sometimes they would show 3 movies, so we were up all night practically. Loved the neon airplane sign. It was removed I believe in the late 70’s. Rumor had it that it caused confusion/ problems with incoming flights to the airport. Any truth to that story?

  7. This made me think of the old motel near the airport, pilot motel? It was there when I first moved here in the early 2000’s, it was pretty sad looking and then it disappeared. I’ve tried looking for old pictures or mentions of this place without any luck, I need to prove to myself that it actually existed and I didn’t imagine it!
    Does anyone remember it?

    1. Oh yes, it existed! Doubt if there are any photos though. It was actually the Pilot House, and many a high school partys were held there as well….Read the comments on the Guppys page of Goleta History. Another guy that lived there wrote about the motel.

  8. Thank you for the fond memories, it brought tears of sadness and joy. All the fun times and now it’s gone. Our family would pile in the Vega station wagon (lol) , and being the oldest ,when we got there I could head to the playground. Don’t really remember watching the movies !
    When I got older and got a car , use to meet my friends there and goof off.
    Still don’t remember watching any movies !

  9. I used to work at the Airport Drive-in in the mid 1960s and eventually became the snack bar manager. It was a lot of fun working there. Later after getting married my wife Kay and I with our kids would get grinder/sub sandwiches at Petrinis (I believe that was the name) in Goleta and take them to the Drive-in to eat while watching the movies.

    1. I worked at the Airport Drivein while going to Brooks in 1965. I left in 1965 after graduation . I think we knew each other.

  10. Heck, If I remember right, I think I worked there and “made it” to assistant manager! I never made a bust of illegal trunksters or fence jumpers, or for that matter, an employee candy bar thief. Although, I do remember a friend hopping into the employee’s only section whom I knew from Low School and Santa Cruz Market whom I decidedly tossed over the stale popcorn stand(not really but sort of) In which S.A, Karen never gave me an atta boy…yet fired me for smoking out the office and leaving a roll of quarters in an unlocked safe.

    Not to mention, I even thought of going back to the safe and locking them quarters up and winging the office door for an hour…jeez, like I was the worst one…

      1. I used to work at the Airport Drive-in Theater about 1964 to 1966. I worked my way up to snack bar manager. I was going to Brooks Institute of Photography at that time and worked at the drive-in at night.

  11. You’re welcome, You’re lucky I didn’t toss ya into the 3 day old hamburger bin. Being kind I also never busted any gate crashers(I knew them all) as I knew, in my official duties, that doing so would thwart other fun and profit from “High” DP. So instinctively I did the right thing except for the clandestine smok’in thing…that S A Karen miraculous sleuthing uncovered.

    The key to S.A. Karen physiology lies in the hands of, one, George T.

  12. Actually it was much fun “assisting” the Supreme Angel keep the floundering Drive-in afloat. “Working” there or perhaps knowing someone who did was much more fun than those who went to see 2 movies of walking dead people eat tripping and falling normal folks, while munching a shriveled burger of unknown composition.Had someone actually returned one for being inedible I would of happily made a “new” burger. That never happened to my memory although…

  13. Thank you for the memories. Lots of family time there. My kids loved it too. Now my one of my daughters takes her granddaughter to the one in Paso Robles. That was such a fun place to meet up with your friends. Loved it.

  14. Spent many a night there. Sometimes with a date other times with a car load of guys and sometimes a couple of them would come in via the trunk

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