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History of the Drive-in Theatre

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Richard Hollingshead’s mother is said to have found movie theatre seats uncomfortable. So, like any dutiful son, he decided to do something about this; he invented the drive-in movie theatre.

history-of-the-drive-in-theatre

Cars and Movies

In 1933, movies with sound were just six years old. Despite the Great Depression, almost 1.5 million cars were made in that year, including more than 40,000 Hudson/Essex models. Richard Hollingshead saw a connection between those two facts.

Back then, most movie theatre seats were wooden—a bit hard on the bum during a double feature. Richard Hollingshead’s mother, a lady of generous proportions it is said, found the seating provided uncomfortable.

Young Hollingshead started tinkering around to find a way of easing his mother’s discomfort. Of course, where else would you go for this type of thing than the sales manager of a company called Whiz Auto Products? The Camden, New Jersey business was owned by Hollingshead’s father.

Richard Hollingshead decided to test his concept of an open-air theatre at the family home. He put a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car. The screen was a sheet fixed to some trees. The audio came from a radio placed behind the sheet. He invited the neighbours to test the invention in his driveway as a way of finding out how cars should be parked so as not to block the view.

He used a lawn sprinkler to simulate the experience of movie-going under rain (Not very good it turned out).

Standard theatre seats were a bit too snug for Mrs. Hollingshead's ample bottom.

Standard theatre seats were a bit too snug for Mrs. Hollingshead's ample bottom.

The Drive-In Opens

By June 1933, Hollingshead was ready to open his drive-in theatre in Pennsaukenn Township, New Jersey; although he called it a Park-In Theatre.

There was space for 400 cars and he charged 25 cents each and another 25 cents for every occupant. It probably took mere minutes for customers to figure out the benefits of hiding kids under blankets or in the trunk.

Sound came from speakers mounted next to the screen, which must have been a mixed blessing to any neighbours who wished to go to bed early. Also, people in cars near the back rows experienced poor sound quality and, because of distance, dialogue that was out of sync with the pictures. Eventually this problem was solved by piping sound to speakers attached to car windows.

The world's first drive-in theatre near Camden, New Jersey.

The world's first drive-in theatre near Camden, New Jersey.

The First Drive-in Movie

Richard Hollingshead’s sales pitch was “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are.” Yet, the first movie shown was Wife Beware. This film is sometimes referred to as Wives Beware, although it was originally released as Two White Arms. (Are you keeping up?).

It tells the story of a man who is bored by his marriage so he fakes amnesia in order to pursue affairs with other women. It seems to be hardly suitable fare for the munchkins bouncing around on the back seat juiced up on sugary soda. Sadly, or otherwise, there are no copies of the film left in existence.

Here is the star of the film, Adolphe Menjou, singing the title song from the movie. He is said to have been a better actor than singer. It is to be hoped the assessment was accurate.

The Golden Age of Drive-Ins

Unfortunately, Richard Hollingshead was not able to make a success out of his invention. The idea was very popular but not profitable so, after three years, the inventor sold his creation.

Others saw the potential for profit and throughout the 1930s drive-ins were opened across America. By the time the hostilities of World War II began, there were 15 drive-ins in America. But the heydays were the late 1950s and early 1960s.

At their peak there were 4,000 drive-ins operating. The smallest ones had spots for fewer than 50 cars while the All-Weather Drive-In of Copiague, New York, on Long Island could accommodate 2,500 cars. It boasted a full-service restaurant, a children’s playground, and a shuttle to carry patrons around the huge lot.

In 1948, an entrepreneur named Ed Brown Jr., opened a drive-in/fly-in theatre in Asbury Park, New Jersey. It had space for 500 cars and 25 small airplanes that could land at Brown’s airport next door and taxi to the back row. The venture seems to have closed in the mid- to late-1960s.

The studios restricted their first-run movies to indoor theatres and that left the drive-ins with B-films. Later, as their popularity faded, many of them started showing racy content to attract audiences.

The Decline of Drive-Ins

A number of reasons combined to close many drive-ins. They were typically built in rural areas outside cities. But cities expand and soon the land on which the drive-in stood became too valuable to make it worth keeping the business going. Many drive-ins were mom-and-pop operations so they sold their land to developers and retired.

Then, along came VCRs and DVDs, so families could watch movies on their own televisions without having to hire a babysitter.

One after another drive-ins closed down, but there are still about 400 hanging in there. These are mostly in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Some are using the space for flea markets during the daytime to eke out a little extra income.

Apparently, the popularity of drive-ins is now growing in China.

history-of-the-drive-in-theatre

Bonus Factoids

Drive-ins became very popular with dating teenagers who weren’t always entirely focussed on the movie. When the press discovered what the youngsters were doing as they steamed up the windows of their father's Buicks and Chevrolets they disapprovingly dubbed drive-ins as “passion pits.” This only added to their popularity.

Despite an exhaustive search of the literature, it has proven impossible to discover reliable statistics on the number of children conceived at drive-in theatres.

New Jersey doesn’t often get very good press, which is surprising because it turns out to be quite the incubator for new ideas. Among the inventions that were created in the “Garden State” are: bubble wrap, TV dinners, salt water taffy, canned condensed soup, and the most famous of all, the complex skill of making a casino go bankrupt.

In 2005, a drive-in theatre in North Carolina sold on eBay for $22,000.

In 1985, a tornado swept through western Pennsylvania and flattened the Spotlight 88 drive-in. Showing a resilient sense of humour in the grim aftermath the owners put up a sign that announced “Now Showing: Gone with the Wind.”

Sign of the times: Bay City, Michigan, 1988.

Sign of the times: Bay City, Michigan, 1988.

Sources

  • “First Drive-in Movie Theater Opens.” History.com, December 13, 2018.
  • “29 Amazing Things that Were Invented in NJ.” David Matthau, New Jersey 101.5, February 25, 2018.
  • “The History of Drive-In Theaters.” Mary Bellis, Thought.Co.com., February 25, 2019.
  • “The History of the Drive-In Movie Theater.” Robin T. Reid, Smithsonian Magazine, May 27, 2008.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Tessa Schlesinger on June 11, 2019:

Love it! ::)

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 11, 2019:

I remember my parents taking us to a drive-in theater when I was a child. We would go down to the front and play on the swings. I new nothing about the history of them, so this article was very interesting.

Tessa Schlesinger on June 10, 2019:

I spent my youth going to Drive-In theatres. Always loved them. :)

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on June 10, 2019:

Hi Liz. Yes it would not have worked during some of the pea souper fogs of earlier years.

Liz Westwood from UK on June 10, 2019:

I have seen drive-in theatres featured in American movies, but never experienced one. The UK climate is not the most conducive to outside events. As I write, we are in the middle of a very wet spell in June.