Drive-In Theaters: Gone, But Not Forgotten

Retro Staff 4 Comments

66 Park In Theater Roadside America SignSo many things that were common in the American landscape as we, and the generations before us grew up, are either gone or disappearing rapidly. One of these common sights was the drive-in movie theater.

The first drive-in theater opened on June 6, 1933 in Camden, New Jersey. The concept of a “drive-in” theater, where you could stay seated in your car and watch a movie, was invented by Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr. After starting with a bed sheet hung between two trees, he continued to develop his concept. He placed a 1928 Kodak movie projector on the hood of his car and positioned a radio behind a movie screen to add sound. He then experimented with the placement of several cars in the driveway.

Realizing the need for a certain amount of space between the cars and for the cars to position at an angle for visibility (accomplished by placing blocks under the front tires of the cars and then building ramps to do the same), he worked out a satisfactory system. Hollingshead was granted a patent for his Drive-In Theater on May 16, 1933. With two other businessmen, he started Park-In Theaters, Inc.

Once the first drive-in was opened in New Jersey, more followed. A theater opened in Pennsylvania (Orefield), Texas (Galveston) and California (Los Angeles) in 1934, another followed in Massachusetts (Weymouth) in 1936, and in 1937 theaters opened in Ohio (Akron), another in Massachusetts (Lynn) and one in Rhode Island (Providence).

By 1948 there were 820 drive-in theaters throughout the US. The number swelled to nearly 5000 drive-ins by 1958, as the number of indoor theaters was on the decline.

Drive-in theaters were getting larger, too. The biggest were able to accommodate up to 3000 cars!

The 1950s was the heyday of the drive-in theater. Attendance was at its peak and drive-in theater construction was in full swing.

Fast-forward to the early 1960s, when drive-in theaters were still a very common sight, but had hit the apex of their popularity and, in many places, were on the decline. When my family went away each summer to spend a week on Cape Cod, we always designated one night as “movie night”. We piled in the Ford Country Squire station wagon well before sunset. My brothers and I were always in our PJs, because we were sure to fall asleep after first feature, which was typically G-rated and made by Disney studios. The second feature was usual for the adults (The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park, etc.) Our destination was the Wellfleet Drive-In Theater, built in 1957. It’s still there today and is the last of its kind on the Cape.

After arriving at the drive-in and parking, the speaker was placed in position in the window. The window was put up as high as it could go with the speaker in place, in the hope of preventing as many mosquitoes as possible from feasting on us while we watched the movie. But before the movie, it was off to the playground. Most drive-ins built playgrounds to entertain the kids up until the movie started. Some theaters even offered mini train rides, pony rides, mini golf, and shows. The idea was to have people arrive early, have a great time and then get them into the food concessions before the movie started.

Retro style dancing snack tin signsConcessions were a great moneymaker, and featured popcorn, soda, hot dogs, burgers, fries, pizza, shakes, candy and ice cream. Intermission was another opportunity to hit the concession stands and was introduced with those great, campy animated films with assorted dancing snack foods.

The popularity of drive-in theaters has declined greatly over the years, as videocassettes, DVDs, and now the Internet is available for people to watch whatever they want from the comfort of their own homes. Land is way too expensive and valuable today to be used for drive-ins and has been developed for more profitable uses.

Nowadays, people spend their time reminisce via the web. A terrific resource is the Drive-In Theater site, which lists operating locations by state and country.

Were you fortunate enough to visit the drive-in before it’s decline? What movies did you see?

Last updated: Mar 18, 2010
Filed under: Retro Ramblings Tagged with: Drive-In Movies, Drive-In Theatre, Drive-Ins