Nami Manglicmot rode a blue scooter through the sloped aisles of the historic Pinecrest Amphitheater just before the start of the live-action Disney remake of Aladdin.
Nine-year-old Nami attends the nighttime movies beside the shore of Pinecrest Lake every summer with her parents, Jose and Cindy, and her sister, Ciara. Like many attending films at the Pinecrest Theater during its 85th anniversary season, Nami said the experience is about more than just the movie.
“You get a better time watching a movie here. It’s outside and you’re under the stars,” Nami said.
Jose Manglicmot, 53, of Stockton, has brought his family here for a decade. Their annual vigils from the Valley to the High Sierra was about establishing tradition and also to remind them about his childhood, watching outdoor movies in the 1970s in Natividad, a municipality in the province of Pangasinan in the Philippines.
“Every time I come here, it brings me back to that moment in my life,” he said. “It’s one of the most family friendly places to be. Other than that, it is just beautiful.”
Family traditions run alongside the history of the Pinecrest Amphitheater, which is believed to be the oldest continually operating outdoor movie theater in California.
“We take a lot of pride in the theater. We really want it to be more than a movie and really make it a memory-making event for people,” said owner Meg Patterson. “People are not just here to see a movie. They can do that anywhere.”
Early in the film, Will Smith — blimp-sized and blue — erupts from the spout of a magic lamp. Laughter reverberates into the open air and families rustle under blankets as a moonlit chill descends.
Ronda Bailey, 50, of Twain Harte, remembered seeing a Herbie movie (a series of films about a talking Volkswagen Beetle) in 1975 and “getting lots of bug bites” while bats flew across the face of the screen.
“It’s all family oriented, so you want to share that with your children,” she said.
Bailey, Kevin Lesley, 50, and their children Brenyn Bailey, 12, and Ryann Bailey, 14, spent most of Sunday barbequing and lounging beside the lake with family friends Vanessa Escobar, 36, Fernando Escobar, 41, of Mi Wuk Village, and their three children.
Vanessa Escobar, originally from Modesto, and Fernando Escobar, originally from Oakland, also attended movies in Pinecrest as children and young adults before they met.
“We were probably here the same day when we saw the original Lion King. We don’t know,” Fernando Escobar said.
The Bailey and Escobar children, seated next to each other in a central row, passed concessions to each other at dusk, just before the start of the film.
“I like it better here because inside movie theaters it smells gross and I like the whole outside nature, too,” said Brenyn Bailey.
The amphitheater, built in 1964, has 750 seats. It is nestled in the pines on the west end of Pinecrest Lake, a part of the Stanislaus National Forest, and is adjacent to the nearby resort, campgrounds and trailhead.
The amphitheater is not tiered, but constructed on a slope funneled toward the 39-foot screen. The semi-circular cinema venue has 119 feet between the projection booth and the screen, which is traditionally unfurled with help from the children attending the movie.
“It’s much larger than we have found anywhere else,” Meg Patterson said. “It was built with the idea of accommodating the crowds that loved to see the movies under the stars.”
Meg Patterson and her husband, Dave, have had a permit from the Forest Service to use the amphitheatre for nearly 28 years and purchased it from Dave Patterson’s parents, John and Mary Patterson, who managed it for the founder, Art Rude, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Art Rude, a resident of Pinecrest and a co-owner of the Ice Capades in the Bay Area, began the Pinecrest Theater by projecting films at Beach #1, where, for 10 cents, viewers could sit in the sand and watch from behind a roped off area. An amphitheater was built near where a parking lot stands now and in 1964 the current site was established.
Meg Patterson said one of the oldest Pinecrest residents remembered seeing “Black Beauty” on her 10th birthday in 1935. A silent film version of “Black Beauty” was released in 1921. Others remembered seeing Claudette Cobert, known best for her Best Actress-winning Academy Award film “It Happened One Night,” in the 1940s.
Dave Patterson, 63, said he first attended movies in Pinecrest when the new site opened in 1964. He worked at the site as an usher, and Rude required all of them to wear matching Wells Fargo metal badges to identify themselves.
“Part of this place is the value of those traditions,” he said. “I was fascinated by watching a movie in such an unorthodox manner. It was the most coveted job to be an usher here.”
Previously, the movies were shown on 16 millimeter theatrical film and the theater was a follow-up market for films that premiered between six months and a year previously.
“The theater came very close to dying because the second market started dying with DVDs and Netflix,” Meg Patterson said.
They took the plunge and invested into 35 millimeter technology in 2003 and shifted to digital in 2016 when Hollywood transitioned traditional reels.
Four years ago, the amphitheater seating and structure was removed all the way down to the dirt. New benches, now with back rests, were built with Rim Fire damaged trees (which Meg refers to as “beauty from the ashes”).
The theater is the second oldest continually operating outdoor movie theater in the country. The oldest — Shankweiler's Drive-in Theatre in Orefield, Pennsylvania — opened just one year before Pinecrest Theatre, in 1934.
The film season opens Memorial Day weekend and lasts through Labor Day, though some years the theater might open and close a little bit outside of those parameters.
Three to five movies are usually available each month. The theatre shows one family film each night on Tuesdays and Thursday through Sunday beginning at 8:30 p.m. Most of the movies are rated G or PG — there may be a PG-13 movie as long as the content isn’t overtly gratuitous, Meg Patterson said.
“We shoot for the family market so it's appropriate for everyone who comes,” she said. “We don't want any words going over the speakers we wouldn't say to our own kids.”
The Pinecrest Amphitheater is also used for a variety of Forest Service programs and a public forum, such as during the Donnell Fire last summer.
“We’re the central hub here in Pinecrest,” Meg Patterson said.