Happy 90th birthday to the drive-in theater
Whether you’re looking for economical family entertainment or a more intimate way to watch a movie with a love interest, there’s nothing quite like a drive-in theater. While some accounts claim that movies were shown outdoors as early as the 1910s, the first patented “Park-In Theatre”—as they were first called—opened 90 years ago on June 6, 1933 in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey, near Camden.
The brainchild of Richard Milton Hollingshead, Jr., the venue offered moviegoers a new—and for many, an easier—way to watch a film: in the comfort of their own “Private Theatre Box.” Hollingshead, a sales manager at his father’s Camden company, Whiz Auto Products, was reportedly inspired by his mother’s struggle to sit comfortably in traditional movie-theater seats. According to PBS.com, Hollingshead tested the idea of an outdoor theater by using a 1928 Kodak projector, a sheet nailed to a tree in his backyard, and a speaker placed behind the “screen.” He spent weeks perfecting the idea, even turning on his sprinkler to simulate rainy conditions. By spacing and staggering the parking spots, he also ensured that the occupants of each car would have an unobstructed view of the screen.
On August 6, 1932, Hollingshead applied for a patent. “My invention relates to a new and useful outdoor theater,” he wrote in his application, “whereby the transportation facilities to and from the theater are made to constitute an element of the seating facilities.”
The patent was approved on May 16, 1933, and within three weeks, Hollingshead’s outdoor theater was open for business. Charging 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person—and capping the cost at $1 per vehicle—Hollingshead advertised this new-fangled entertainment venue as a more comfortable alternative to traditional movie houses. “The whole family is welcome,” he told New Jersey’s Courier-Post newspaper, “regardless of how noisy the children are.”
The first film shown on the outdoor screen was the comedy Wives Beware (also known as Two White Arms), starring Adolphe Menjou and Margaret Bannerman. Menjou began his acting career in silent films but was able to make a successful jump to “talkies.” In fact, he sang the title song on Wives Beware.
The drive-in’s sound quality was initially poor—Hollingshead mounted three RCA Victor speakers near the screen—but later technological advances allowed individual speakers to be hung on each driver’s-side window. Eventually, passengers could tune the car’s FM radio to the movie soundtrack.
Other entrepreneurs began to copy Hollingshead’s idea. After years of fighting in court, his patent was overturned in 1949. With the threat of legal action removed, drive-in theaters began popping up all over the country, particularly in rural areas. At one point in the 1950s, there were as many as 4000 outdoor venues in the U.S., proving the idea was more than a fad. One of the largest drive-ins was the All-Weather Drive-In of Copiague, New York, which featured parking space for 2500 cars. Its 28-acre property included a children’s playground and full-service restaurant.
Of course, in many parts of the country, drive-ins could only be operated during the summer, limiting revenue. By the 1970s, drive-in theaters began to lose their appeal as people began to buy smaller, less lounge-friendly cars, and VCRs offered movie fans the opportunity to watch from their couches.
According to the National Association of Theater Owners, in 2020 only 549 drive-ins remained in the U.S., a number that no doubt received a financial bump from COVID-19 restrictions that limited or eliminated indoor gatherings. In fact, many “pop-up” drive-ins using inflatable screens opened during the pandemic.
Though it may be a less popular venue, a drive-in is still a fun way to watch a movie. Today most venues offer double features, continuing their reputation as affordable entertainment. Somewhere, Richard Hollingshead is smiling … and so is his mom.