Posted on

America was just beginning its love affair with cinema in the 1920’s. Indoor theaters were popping up all over the country, and Hollywood was quickly becoming the known center of the cinematic universe. People were flocking to the theaters to catch the latest movies; movies were becoming so popular in fact, that people would sometimes set up projectors and sheets at the beach or in the park to watch movies.  It was in the 1930’s though, that people would begin to watch movies in their car at the drive-in theater.

The first drive-in theater opens in New Jersey

The first Drive-In Theater opened in Camden, New Jersey on June 6, 1933. People paid 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person to see the British comedy Wives Beware under the summer’s night sky. This theater was the brainchild of auto parts salesman Ralph Hollingshead, who saw opportunity in charging people to come watch Hollywood movies in an outdoor setting.

Believe it or not, Hollingshead conceived of the drive in theater as an answer to a problem. His mother loved going to the movies but was, shall we say, too large to fit in an indoor theater seat. Hollingshead set up the family car in his yard, put his mother in the passenger seat, and put a projector on the hood of the car. He then tied two white sheets to trees in the yard and, voila, he had a drive in theater in the comfort of his own yard!

Hollingshead experimented with a ramp system that would allow people to park their cars at different levels so they could see the screen clearly. He finally patented the concept and opened the first Park-In Theater (the term “Drive-In” theater caught on later on) at Crescent Boulevard in 1933.

Drive-In Theaters Begin to Take off

A Drive-In Theater in Chicago in 1951

The second Drive-In Theater, Shankweiler’s, opened up in Orefields, Pennsylvania in 1934. A few others followed suit, but the Drive-In Theater didn’t really catch on until the invention of in-car speakers in the 1940’s.

It was in the 1950’s though, that Drive-In Theaters began to take off. The outdoor movie experience offered a flexibility that indoor movie theaters did not. People could smoke, they could bring babies, and they could eat their own food without feeling guilty. By 1958, there were 4,063 Drive-In Theaters in the United States. This would be the peak of the outdoor theater craze in the country.

While Drive-In Theaters offered more flexibility in terms of experience, the indoor theaters offered more schedule flexibility. Indoor theaters could show five or six movies a day, as opposed to just one movie per night at the Drive-In Theaters. To sell as many tickets as possible, Hollywood sent its first-run movies to the indoor theaters. Drive-In Theaters were left to show B movies and, later, X-rated movies.

The Decline of Drive-In Theaters

Sadly, many Drive-In Theaters have closed up.

Being a little naughty actually helped some drive-in theaters survive, but the price of land caused many more outdoor theaters to fold. Many Drive-In Theaters set up shop on the outskirts of towns, but as the towns grew, the land became more expensive, causing many outdoor theaters to close. Today, there are between 300 and 400 Drive-In Theaters in the U.S. The concept is also still alive in Canada, Australia, and China.

Drive-In Theater Fun Facts

  • The Park-In Theater in Camden had room for 500 cars and showed three movies per night – at 8:30pm, 10:00pm and 11:30pm.
  • After neighbors complained about the noise of the theater, RCA Victor created speakers that could be mounted on car windows
  • Hollingshead sold his theater in 1936.