Seventy-five years ago, families spread their blankets on the beach at Pinecrest Lake to watch movies under the stars.
The late Art Rude set up his projector and screen on the beach every summer starting in 1935, and roped off a large area where people brought their blankets to relax and watch movies.
One-time producer of the Ice Capades, he had personal friends in the movie business who gave him films to take along on summer vacation, said Dave Patterson, who now co-owns Pinecrest Theater with his wife, Meg.
An outdoor amphitheater was built in the 1940s, complete with benches. Eventually, popcorn, sodas and candy were sold. The ticket price went up, but movie goers thought it was worth it, because the benches were filled every night.
The current amphitheater at Pinecrest Lake was completed in 1964 by the U.S. Forest Service.
For many years, the movies were a bit old. As one moviegoer put it: “If you missed it in the theater at home, maybe you would find it at Pinecrest the next summer.”
The Pattersons have a long history with the outdoor theater. David’s father, John Patterson, ran the projector for many years for Rude, then bought the business in 1975 with his wife, Mary.
They ran it for many years until they sold it sometime in the late 1980s or early ‘90s, Patterson said.
It had another owner for a short time, but by 1992, the U.S. Forest Service, which is responsible for the land, had asked the older Pattersons to take it back.
Instead, David and Meg took it over, and they have had a great time ever since.
Today, the Pattersons show feature films at the same time the major theaters do. The price of a ticket is $6.50, higher than bygone days but less than conventional theaters in the area.
“Toy Story 3,” one of the biggest blockbuster movies of the year, debuted in Pinecrest last Friday, the same day as it was first shown around the world, and the place was packed.
Mike and Nancy Bezer, of San Jose, were there to see it, along with their son and daughter-in-law, Susan and Greg Brown, of Salida, and their granddaughter, Krista Brown, of Salida.
“It was so much fun,” Nancy Bezer said. “Krista got to go up on stage because she had raised her hand when they asked who was here with more than two generations of their family.”
Bezer started coming to Pinecrest with her parents.
“They always had a cabin and got a party boat, and we always went to the outdoor movies,” she said. “Four generations later, we are carrying on the tradition. This is a very special place.”
Kari Johnson, of Castro Valley, said she first remembers coming to Pinecrest when she was 6 years old, but it became a serious tradition in 1974 after she had graduated from college.
She met other people who bought horses from the same place in the Bay Area, and they ended up going camping together every year in the Pinecrest area. They always went to the outdoor movies.
There were four women, two of whom married and brought their husbands into the group.
“I realized what a regular I am two years ago,” Johnson said, “when the guy who runs the movies came up to me and said he was glad the coat lady was back. I have a huge fake fur coat that I have worn every year since I started camping. It’s warm and mosquito proof. My mother got it when I was in sixth grade, and I’m over 50 now.”
Dave Patterson has his own childhood memories of Pinecrest.
“I enjoyed being an usher in junior high,” he said. “It and working at the marina were the most coveted summer jobs in Pinecrest.
“To identify the ushers, Art Rude had us all wear badges that he got from Wells Fargo,” Patterson said. “At the opening announcement, he always warned people not to give away their tickets to freeloaders because the ushers wore badges.”
Movies start at 8:30 p.m. nightly until the Fourth of July, when they will be reduced to five nights a week. That’s when U.S. Forest Service rangers start holding their own programs on Mondays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m.
The theater is generally open from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend and on Saturdays through September, weather permitting.
The movies are always family friendly.
“This is one of the last great places on earth where you can be sure of having a good time with the whole family,” Meg Patterson said. “I’m so glad I married into it. Our main source of income is corporate video production, but we love the theater. Generations of people from the same families keep coming back, and that makes it fun for us.”
Contact Lenore Rutherford at lrutherford@ uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585.
Weekly Arts and entertainment guide for Calaveras and Tuolumne counties