Remember drive-in movies? If you’re under 30, the answer may be a resounding no. Even for older folk, the concept may be more of an idea than an experience. Indeed, beginning in the 1960s, improvements in-home television and expanded screen choices at theaters limited the appeal of sitting in a car with the windows rolled down, bugs everywhere, and typically only one movie choice per night.
The First Drive-In Theater
The drive-in theater was around before the first venue opened on June 6, 1933. What existed before that date wasn’t patented as such, thus we recognize a theater in Camden County, New Jersey as the original. That is when Richard Hollingshead launched the first, static drive-in theater in Pennsauken, NJ. Called the “Automobile Movie Theater,” it followed testing by Hollingshead in his home driveway to ensure the right blend of a projector, screen, sound, and car placement was achieved. That original theater, though, was never a profit-maker, therefore Hollingshead sold it several years later, with the new owner moving it to a different location.
Drive-Ins were warmly welcomed by families, as boisterous children could act out without worry. Candy, popcorn, and soda pop were available on site. Just as easily, families could bring sandwiches, snacks, and drinks of their own. Convertibles, station wagons, and pickup truck beds were popular places for viewing the latest flicks.
Just as the baby boom exploded, the number of Drive-Ins did likewise, numbering in the thousands by the late 1950s, topping 4,000 locations by the early 1960s. By the late 1960s, their popularity began waning declining rapidly in the 1970s and steadily thereafter. Today, there are approximately 330 theaters active across the country, although many more locations remain but are used solely for other purposes, such as flea markets.
A handful of theaters are new, having opened during the pandemic as in-door facilities remained close. Depending on where you live, Drive-Ins may be open year-round or seasonally, weather permitting. Some theaters are open only on weekends. Drive-Ins may feature current films, classics, or a blend of both. Usually, customers will hear the movie from their car’s audio system employing a dedicated FM radio station.
Drive-In Theater Facts
Do you think you know everything about the drive-in theater and the culture surrounding them? Read on for more fun facts.
- “Wives Beware” also known as “Two White Arms” was the first movie shown at a drive-in theater. It was a British comedy that lasted 81 minutes.
- Originally, Drive-Ins used large speakers to broadcast each movie. Later, individual speakers attached to a small pole by wire were connected to each car. When micro-broadcasting became popular, localized radio stations utilized the car stereo system for enhanced quality and fidelity.
- All but five states offer a Drive-In theater. Louisiana, North Dakota, Delaware, Alaska, and Hawaii have no outside theaters. New Jersey, the state that started it all, has two remaining. One is found in Vineland, Cumberland County, while the other is in Newark.
- Many Drive-Ins have at least two screens available. Movies are shown simultaneously on each screen with some designed back-to-back.
- In the movie, Twister, a tornado took out the drive-In theater. What movie was displayed as the storm ripped through? Answer: “The Shining.” Some other observers may note that “Aunt Meg” was viewing “A Star is Born” on her TV just before her house was pummeled. Incidentally, that movie starred Judy Garland who headlined another tornadic thriller, “The Wizard of Oz.”
- Today’s theaters typically forbid outside food. If you do bring your meals, a food permit is usually charged, adding another $20 or so to your cost. Tickets are often sold in advance, online, and per person, not per vehicle.
The Drive-In may not have the nostalgia for some, but it offers an interesting alternative for movie-viewing for others. But for most theaters, side businesses such as flea markets are the only way to keep them around. Likely, the numbers will always remain small unless another pandemic closes in-door theaters again.
Moore, C. (2020, June 6). How many drive-in movie theaters are in the US?. Fox Business. https://foxbusiness.com/money/how-many-drive-in-movie-theaters-us
(n.d.). A History of the Drive-in Theater. https://driveinmovie.com/history-of-drive-ins