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Charlie Spillar

Artist Charlie Spillar is credited for saving those funky Magic Carpet Golf statues by finding them homes at Valley of the Moon and local businesses. (See the giant tiki head in front of The Hut on Fourth Avenue.) Spillar's latest project is to resurrect a drive-in movie theater in Tucson, following the closure of the De Anza Drive-In last year. The Cactus Drive-In, the proposed project, got off to a promising start—but has since run into obstacles. There's a brainstorming meeting on Sunday, Oct. 17, from 4 to 6 p.m. at O'Shaughnessy's Steakhouse and Piano Bar, 2200 N. Camino Principal. You'll see the big Magic Carpet bull outside. For more info, e-mail Spillar at project@cactusdriveintheater.com.

What are the latest obstacles facing the project?

I thought the city of Tucson was going to help us with the drive-in—help us find a piece of property—but financially, the city is in such bad shape. We thought things were going to happen, but now it's completely stalled.

How did this project originally start?

I'd been talking to the Evergreen (Development) corporation (owners of the De Anza property), talking about taking over the De Anza. (Historic-preserv-ation advocate) Demion Clinco approached me, and we thought it looked good: We'd do a fundraiser and restore it. But the property was also sitting unused; the criminal element moved in and graffiti-ed all the buildings, and the police asked Evergreen to tear it down. I drove out there, and that's the way I was able to get that one screen. This other guy, George Cohn, a local drive-in historian, got involved, too. There's not a question you can ask him about Tucson's drive-ins that he can't answer. He told me he's going through withdrawals (for a drive-in).

Is this when the city stepped in, thinking it might have a piece of property?

The city wanted to try to put the Cactus Drive-In in the revitalization area, which is along Oracle (Road) in the Miracle Mile section. We were working with the planning department and (Councilwoman) Karin Uhlich's office. It looked like things were going to happen with the city doing a land swap, but then the economy changed. But (Councilman) Paul Cunningham has come out of the woodwork for me and thinks there are some people interested in the project. He's at least making an effort.

Did you enjoy working on the Magic Carpet project?

It had its challenges, but I often had tears in my eyes after talking with the people I met at Magic Carpet. People told me about their first kiss at the tiki, or their first date. That's why I took it on myself to save those sculptures. Right now, with the drive-in, the main focus is to keep the project alive.

Tucsonans have many good memories at the drive-ins.

We've heard those. ... The drive-in has gone through many changes over the years. In the '70s, they were called "passion pits," then in the 1980s, that changed, and families started to come. You could bring the little ones in their pajamas, and by the first movie, they were sleeping.

Without a property, you're back to square one, aren't you?

That's when I decided to do this brainstorming meeting and get a lot of people together to figure out what we should do next. I don't think people realize that drive-ins right now are extremely profitable. In Lexington, Va., they closed their old drive-in, but the community decided they liked it so much that 75 people got together, saved it and raised money to buy the property, and now it is thriving. They do well, even though they have to shut down every winter, but in Tucson, we could be open pretty much year-round. My plans are not just for the drive-in, but even (to put on) antique car shows, or to work with the Rialto Theatre to have bands perform under the screen. There are a bunch of sources for income.

Besides more ideas, what do you need?

We need more people involved. I'm running on fumes.

Do you think you'd be able to do what Lexington's done?

More. It would be so popular right now, I'll guarantee you I'd have to take reservations. Because it would be a smaller property, we'd do it differently. We'd probably only have room for about 250 cars, but we'd also have areas for people in the neighborhood who walk to the drive-in, or people who bike there. We want to set up seats up by the screen, so I could increase ticket sales.

More by Mari Herreras

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