June 6, 1933 marks the 80th anniversary of the opening of the first drive-in movie theater in Camden, New Jersey.
The facility was the brain child of Richard M. Hollingshead, an avid film buff and theatergoer, who invented the concept due to his mother’s discomfort of being seated in a traditional movie theater. Working as manager in his father’s auto parts business (Whiz Auto Products), Hollingshead creatively devised the method for people to watch films in the comfort of their own automobiles. He began the experimentation by projecting his first film in the driveway of his home on 212 Thomas Avenue, by using the hood of his car to mount a 1928 Kodak movie projector. He then projected the film on sheets that he hung between two trees. He meticulously made every effort in perfecting the quality, going so far as parking multiple cars on his lawn and in the driveway to test the visibility of the screen from every angle of each car. He then built concrete ramps for the cars in the back row to be elevated on so that there would not be one bad view on the lot, and it worked. He tested a series of ways to produce the sound quality as well and placed a radio near the screen that acted as speakers to play the film’s score, which was not of the best quality, but still made the films audible. His pursuit to find the perfect balance was indefatigable. He tested the sound with the windows rolled down and with them rolled up. He used his lawn sprinklers to simulate rain to see what would happen during inclement weather.
When Hollingshead felt that he had achieved the desired effects he was seeking, he applied for a patent for his invention on August 6, 1932. It was granted on May 16, 1933
and became the first patent to be issued for a Drive-In Movie Theater.
Eager to get his new venture off of the ground, less than one month later Hollingshead opened Park-In Theaters, Inc., on Admiral Wilson Boulevard at the Airport Circle in Pennsauken. Park-In provided up to 400 available car slots with a 40- by 50-foot movie screen. Spending an estimated $30,000 worth in advertising, Hollingshead’s popular slogan was, “The whole family is welcome regardless of how noisy the children are.” The cost was 25 cents per car and per person, with no one spending more than $1. The first film to be shown, “Wives Beware” with Adolphe Menjou, was a hit amongst the patrons, and Hollingshead’s vision began to catch on and other drive-in venues started springing up.
A 1935 Popular Mechanics piece summed up best the progression of sound as more drive-ins evolved: “Solving the problem of sound control, the proprietor of a drive-in movie theater has installed individual loud speakers for every car that parks for the show. The low-volume bucket-shaped magnetic speakers, numbering 460, are attached to railings directly in front of the parking rows. They aim the sound at the spectators through the radiators of the cars and can be turned off in any unoccupied sections of the ten-acre enclosure. For merely three huge dynamic speakers, twenty-two feet long and seven feet across the openings were used, but their sound production could not be controlled and they were sometimes heard blocks away. At a capacity of more than 2,000, motorists can enjoy the movies at this theater. The spectators’ cars are placed on a slight incline so that the backseat patrons may view the picture with ease. The screen is forty feet by fifty feet and set in a structure seventy feet high and 132 feet wide.”
It would not be until the 1940s that the in-car speakers were produced by RCA, allowing the patrons to have control of the volume for the film.
As drive-ins began to increase in number across the nation, the lots increased in size. Complete with concession stands, the drive-in became a comfortable environment for families and an increasingly popular hang out amongst teenagers who would use the venue for dates and romantic trysts.
In the 1950s and 1960s, drive-ins began to spread like wildfire, increasing to more than 4,000 locations. The new sites may have begun as a venue to watch films, but interestingly, the main films that were shown were mostly considered to be B films. Patrons enjoyed them regardless and remained enthralled with what they saw – so much so that the drive-in became a part of American culture where people came together to socialize with each other. It was an experience all of its own and today is an important part of Americana. Despite Hollingshead seeing his dream skyrocket, unfortunately when he licensed the concept, he had trouble collecting his royalties. Taking the party to court only resulted in the loss of his patent and his original being considered invalid. Regardless of this incident, thanks to Hollingshead and doing it for Mom, drive-ins are forever etched in our culture not only in the United States, but globally.
The decline of the drive-in movie theaters came in the late 1970s and 1980s. As a result, proprietors had to show adult content during off hours to try to keep their businesses financially solvent, while also facing the rise in real estate costs and loss of patronage to the newer forms of entertainment such as the VCR and Cable Television.
My grandmother, Josephine Brotherton, experienced the drive-ins firsthand in their heyday and marvels to this day how fun they were: “The drive-in cinema was a beautiful experience for me. I remember everyone attending would arrive early to secure the most coveted spot close to the concession stand to get their snacks and drinks; the restrooms were always convenient. It was such a happy atmosphere and the parking spots filled quickly. It appeared there wasn’t one vacancy! Cars would still come when there were no more spots available, viewing as best they could in the distance without the speakers, trying to listen from those attached to other cars. People could not seem to get enough of this entertainment. It was cozy to be able to sit in your car and pick up the adjustable speaker from its metal stand and clip it to your window to hear the movie. I loved watching
a film under the stars and breathing in the fresh air. You could even get out of the car to stretch your legs and still hear the movie. The environment provided much more freedom than an indoor theater, and people appreciated the intermissions. It was just a delightful experience, and I would love to have drive-ins thrive once again like they used to.”
Today the remnants of many closed drive-ins serve as reminders of a bygone era. Many locations have been turned into storage spaces or flea markets. The Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop is known to have been the largest drive-in in the world, and is now dubbed as the world’s largest flea market.
After the year 2000, individuals have tried reviving the glory days of the drive-in cinema, but to date, they still haven’t gained enough in popularity, leaving many enthusiasts disappointed. Fewer than 400 are currently in operation across the United States. That number is about to get smaller, because after 2013, movie production companies will no longer circulate movies as 35mm film; cinemas, whether traditional or drive-in, must convert to digital or go dark. Carrying an expense of up to $80,000, many operations running on a small margin may have to call it quits.
However, moviegoers remain grateful to the proprietors who are keeping the drive-in theaters open so today’s society can enjoy the benefits of this 80-year-old tradition, including a unique entertainment experience, quality family time, and intimate evenings creating fond memories lasting a lifetime.
Drive-in Movie Theaters still in operation: