The Oakland Arena's parking will soon turn into a drive-in entertainment venue. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

Local movie theaters are still closed by order of Alameda County’s health officer, but in Oakland, a blast from the past—a drive-in theater—will soon become a reality thanks to a partnership between City Council President Rebecca Kaplan and the Coliseum Authority. The plan, which has been in the works for several weeks, is to turn the Coliseum’s parking lot into an outdoor drive-in entertainment venue.

“This could be such an important win-win opportunity,” Kaplan said. “We have people that don’t have things to do. You can’t go to the movie theaters safely, and you can’t go to concerts. There aren’t ballgames happening. It’s not good for people’s mental health not to have positive outlets.”

“We are going to make it happen,” said District 7 Councilmember Larry Reid, who is also the chair of the Coliseum authority board. “It’s a great idea.” Reid said other cities are moving ahead with similar drive-ins in the age of COVID, and Oakland should have one, too. “Rebecca has done a lot of research on this,” said Reid. “She has spent an enormous amount of time researching drive-in movie theaters.”

The Coliseum parking lot drive-wouldn’t be the first in East Oakland. There used to be a drive-in theater nearby at 5401 Coliseum Way, where the West Wind Coliseum Swap Meet, also known as Oakland Flea Market, is now located. The old theater opened on May 22, 1964, with a triple bill: the action movie PT-109, the family drama Spencer’s Mountain, and a western, McClintock.

That screen is still standing, in fact, but Kaplan said it can’t be used because the swap meet is open year-round between 6:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.

The Oaklandside asked members of the popular Facebook group Oakland History if they had any memories of the closed drive-in theater, and what they think about the return of a big outdoor screen in East Oakland. Over 70 members of the group shared their thoughts with us.

“I remember watching movies at the Coliseum Drive-in! So much fun piling people into a car,” wrote Oakland History Facebook group member Dinh Truong. “Of course, we won’t be able to do that right now but still a great space to be outside while staring at the screen and the stars!” (Under current rules, members of the same family or social bubble will, in fact, be able to pile into the same car to see a movie.)

Another member of the group, Pat Carter, wrote about her concerns: “Awesome idea, just budget well for security that’s all. Most don’t factor it in their overhead costs, and now technology can also assist.”

Others recalled the last movie they got to see when the old drive-in was still open. “I can’t remember which movie came out last but I saw Poetic Justice and Carlito’s Way there last,” Mahlika Chavis wrote. “That was [sometime around] 1992-93 timeframe.”

Lisa Hale wrote about her and her childhood friends’ mischievous ways of getting to at least hear the audio at the theater: “In early 1970s, broke, we parked a carload of kids outside the fence and got people inside to toss us the nearest speaker so we could hear The French Connection; the cord was just long enough to hang on the fence.”

An announcement for the opening of an earlier drive-in theater, advertised in The Oakland Tribune Credit: Via

Kaplan said safety has been a priority in planning the new drive-in. “In the discussions with Alameda Public Health, they have agreed that car-based gathering events can be allowed as a drive-in as long as appropriate distancing and other requirements are met,” she said.

The new drive-in won’t be limited to screening movies, unlike the Bay Area’s other outdoor theaters. The vision for the Coliseum drive-in is to include other community events.

“I have been in dialogue with some of the local faith-based leaders, particularly some of our churches in Oakland, which are very large and important that are interested in having drive-in church services,” Kaplan said. “We would use the same outdoor set-up for movie screenings. You could have Sunday morning drive-in churches.”

Since the county’s shelter-in-place order was implemented on March 17, many local religious organizations have moved their services online.

Jose Rivera, an Oakland native who runs the popular Facebook page Oakland Latinos United, also welcomes the idea of a revamped drive-in. Rivera often posts old archive photos and historical tidbits about Oakland. He recently published a black-and-white photo of what the Coliseum Theatre drive-in used to look like.

Rivera welcomes the idea of seeing the drive-in come to life again. 

“It could be a good allocation of funds. People will go see a movie, and it’s good as a family outing,” he told The Oaklandside. “It’s a good thing, and people can go and chill without the risk of getting germs or getting sick. As a kid, I looked forward to going.”

Kaplan anticipates the new drive-in will cost several hundred thousand dollars. As part of her council budget amendments, she said she included a $400,000 “assistance with set-up costs to enable social distancing Covid-compliant vehicle-based events and gatherings.” This includes $200,000 for set-up at the Coliseum parking lot and $200,000 for other locations, yet to be determined.

The Coliseum authority, a separate government agency from the city, will also contribute funds, and Oakland will also seek state support. The cost for residents to attend an event isn’t set yet.

But Kaplan says she believes the Coliseum drive-in will be up and running soon. “We’re talking weeks, not months,” she said.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.