CERES — The Ceres Drive-in is just a charred reminder of warm nights, buttered popcorn and double features projected onto the biggest of screens.
The main building, which used to house the projector, arcade and concession stand, was heavily damaged Monday night by two fires officials labeled suspicious.
They pointed out Tuesday that there is no natural gas or electrical service at the site that could have triggered accidental fires, and they started at opposite ends of the two-story building.
Ceres Fire Battalion Chief Randy Wheeler was driving north on Highway 99 when he saw smoke at the complex about 8 p.m. Monday and called in the information. The 25-acre site shoulders the freeway for 1,000 feet just north of Whitmore Avenue, according to a sale brochure offering the property for $2 million.
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Before the embers died hours later, four Ceres fire engines and units from Westport, Modesto and Stanislaus Consolidated fire departments were battling the stubborn flames.
The old wooden building and tar roof gave off intense heat, Wheeler said. There were concerns the second floor might collapse on firefighters, but that didn't happen and no injuries were reported.
The structure was built in 1983, according to Stanislaus County property records. The Ceres Theatre & Flea Market was listed as the owner and a Carmel address was given.
Damage was estimated at $100,000 to the roughly 200-foot-by-40-foot structure, Wheeler said.
Stripped site 'disappointing'
Fire and police officials said the property was neglected and had been left unsecured recently. Much had been stripped from the site, including copper wiring and manhole covers.
"Walking around, it's very disappointing," Wheeler said.
The screen still stands, but the movies ended in 2008. The flea market closed in November 2008, but reopened briefly last summer under lease to Dennis and Vicki Mineni.
They closed after just a few months, Vicki Mineni said Tuesday.
"I just couldn't get people to come," Mineni said.
The drive-in had entertained families since 1948, offering double-features during warm-weather months and charging by the carload, sometimes attracting as many as 600 vehicles.
During their heyday, more than 5,000 drive-in theaters lit up the night sky across the nation, according to DriveInTheater.com, but only a fraction still operate
That Web site lists thousands of defunct theaters, including Modesto's McHenry Drive-In and Prescott Drive-In, Turlock's Lucky Drive-In and Merced's Starlite Drive-In.
Now all that remains of the Ceres Drive-In is the gutted building, empty movie screen and an old menu found at the fire scene, offering tacos, burritos and hamburgers.
Bee staff writer Nan Austin can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2339.