Happy 90th birthday to the drive-in theater

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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.

First drive-in-PBS

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.”

Camden Drive-In 1933
cinematreasures.org/Lost Memory

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.



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    I bet you stuff like that comment helped the VHS succeed more.
    To some people, you just can’t have nice things.
    Glad I didn’t have to deal with it when I went to one when I was in college 6 years ago…

    I fondly remember going to drive-in movies with my family in the ’50s, and then later with friends (often some snuck in by stuffing them in the trunk) in the ’60s and early ’70s. Dracula, King Kong, Our Man Flint – great outdoor fare! Saw ‘Jaws’ at the drive-in and stayed out of the water for a good 15 years afterward.

    “Only three minutes ’til SHOWtime!” With singing and dancing hot-dogs and burgers onscreen.

    I was at the All-Weather Drive-In of Copiague, which was so-named because it had an indoor theater as well.
    My local Drive-In was the Bayshore one, on Sunrise highway.

    Those “hang-on” speakers had deplorable sound, even if they could survive a nuclear blast. I heard more than a few stories of windows being torn out due to forgetfulness.

    The parents of a high school buddy of mine lived in a mobile home park that was next to a drive-in movie, and everyone who lived there along the property border got a speaker in their home for free. The only room in their house with a clear view of the screen was their bedroom, through a small side window that one had to stand at to see, so it was less than optimal viewing. However, if you absolutely had to see a particular film and were lacking in funds (i.e. – had to choose: pay for the movie or pay for some beer), it would get you by. Couldn’t watch a double feature, though, as his folks went to bed at 11:30, so we’d get kicked out…

    Ahh, the good times! I learned to drive in the 60s, and dates often included a drive-in. The Beach Boys had a song called “Drive-In,” and it certainly reflects the attitudes of the time.

    I remember seeing one combination motel and drive-in. Now THAT was a true passion pit!

    Grew up in Montreal. Quebec was very Catholic in those days and drive-ins were illegal in the whole province. Considered to be the devil’s venue because young couples could be alone! We had to drive across the border into Plattsburgh NY, about 60 miles, to go to a drive-in!

    I was in Anchorage, Alaska in 1969 and they actually had XXX films at an outdoor theatre. Pretty wild area back then.

    I grew up in the Philly suburbs but the family would often visit relatives in SOuth Philly. On the way home (at night) we driove past a drive-in that showed XXX films. I did not know what was going on but I got an eyefull…

    I managed the 235 drive in just outside of Lexington Park, Md. I only worked one summer but I could write pages filled with wild stories. Any of you Naval aviators or Navy enlisted folks that were stationed at Patuxent River NAS in the seventies may have patronized the place?

    We had a drive-in in our neighborhood , and a main street running next to it . They would show dirty movies and the street had many accidents cause you can see the screen . Think about it !

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