Today in 1933, the first drive-in theater opened in Camden, New Jersey. This new business venture brought together two things Americans tend to be passionate about: automobiles and movies. The 70-year long history of the drive-in serves as a sort of model in miniature of the cultural history of the United States from the Great Depression to the dawn of the 21st century.
The drive-in theater was the brainchild of Richard Hollingshead, a man of means whose family owned a chemical company in Camden, New Jersey. In 1932, Hollingshead came up with the idea of projecting movies onto giant screens built outside with the darkness of night providing the same necessary atmosphere as an indoor theater. He built a prototype in his yard with a Kodak projector and a radio behind the screen. It became clear right away that cars in the back of the lot would have a difficult time seeing the screen, so he staggered each row a little higher than the one in front of it, the same way that stadium seating is used in indoor movie theaters today. Hollingshead patented this conglomeration of technologies and received US Patent number 1,909,537 in May, 1933. Hollingshead lost the patent 17 years later when the Delaware District Court declared the patent invalid. Had this not happened, Hollingshead would have had the right to demand money from every drive-in owner in the nation.
Hollingshead opened his first theater in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey on June 6, 1933. He sold the idea of the drive-in by stating in advertisements that the whole family could come, regardless of how loud the children were. The baby angle became one of the big selling points of the theaters since couples with young children could change their diapers and feed them without missing any of the film. Hollinghead’s drive-in only stayed open for three years, but that was long enough for the idea to catch on in several other states. By 1939, 17 of the open air theaters were operating in 14 states.
The Second World War all but stopped the growth of the drive-in. Wartime rationing of gas and rubber meant that no more driving was done than was absolutely necessary. On top of this, the male component of the theaters’ main demographic was all but gone between 1942 and the end of the war in 1945. After the war, however, drive-ins exploded into the mainstream. By the end of 1946, 155 theaters were in operation in the United States. By the end of 1948, that number had risen to 820.
Many people in smaller communities knew nothing about the drive-in and how it operated. In order to draw crowds, owners of new theaters would hold an open house during daylight in which patrons were shown where to park and how the projector and sound equipment operated. As the decade of the 50’s dawned, the drive-in was a common sight along roads everywhere in the country. But the fade did not stop at the water’s edge: drive-ins also began to pop-up in Europe.
The 1950’s saw the popularity of the drive-in reach its highest point. By this time, the theater was not just a place to see movies. Many had playgrounds built between the first row of cars and the giant screen. When the kids were done playing, there was always popcorn, sodas and candy at the concession stand. Gimmicks of all types were tried in order to increase audience size: petting zoos, pony rides and miniature golf all began to appear in various locations. By this time, the movie audio was no longer blasted from giant speakers next to the screen, but rather was piped directly to the cars by use of small speaker boxes that mounted on the driver or passenger-side door. Later, theaters would operate low power FM transmitters that would allow patrons to tune in the sound on their car’s’ radio.
It was during the height of the drive-in craze that the theaters began to acquire the reputation as so-called “passion pits”, places where young couples went to have some semi-private moments together. This reputation was the inspiration for the song “Wake Up Little Susie” by the Everly Brothers in which a teen-aged couple fall asleep during a particularly bad movie and wake up to an empty parking lot at four in the morning. The boy’s first thought was what he was going to tell the girl’s father, because he certainly couldn’t tell him they spent the night in a drive-in!
The 1960’s and 70’s saw the beginnings of a slow decline in the drive-ins’ popularity. To make ends meet, some of the theaters resorted to showing more racy films late at night after the regular shows. Some began running only cheap horror films and beach movies in an attempt to attract a larger teen audience. The late 1970’s and early 1980’s saw the widespread adoption of cable TV and VCRs in American homes. Whereas the family once had to pack up the car to take in a movie, they now only had to travel as far as the living room. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of drive-in theaters in the United States fell from 3,500 to less than a thousand. Abandoned screens and weed-choked parking lots could be seen in almost every medium-sized town.
The drive-in saw a resurgence that began in the early 1990’s. The generation that was now in their 20’s was too young to remember the heyday of the outdoor theater, so the experience was new and exciting once again. Some theaters even added multiple screens. While the number of drive-ins is still in decline, the number has almost flattened out. Today, there are approximately 850 of them open for business in the US.