A summer night spent at the drive-in brings nostalgic feelings for millions of Americans who grew up listening to the tinny sound coming from the speaker hooked to the car window at their local drive-in theater. On June 6, 1933, the world’s first drive-in theater opened in Camden, New Jersey. This revolutionary concept transformed automobiles into “private theatre boxes” allowing guests to “smoke, chat, or even partake of refreshments.”
Richard Hollingshead, Jr., the inventor of the drive-in theater, developed the idea during the midst of the depression. He was out of work but figured there were two things people weren’t willing to give up – their cars and going to the movies. He tested his concept by setting up a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his family car and projecting pictures onto a screen nailed to a tree in his yard.
Pleased with the results, Hollingshead sought financial backing from his cousin and opened the first drive-in theater. Patrons paid $1 per car or 25 cents per person. Speakers were mounted atop the 60-foot screen but didn’t provide very good sound. It would take years to improve the sound problem at the drive-in. Hollingsworth’s theater design included concentric, curved rows titled at a five-degree angle to ensure that everyone had a good view of the screen.
The novelty of watching a movie from your own car was a draw for families who could put the children to sleep in the back seat and enjoy a movie. Viewing a movie from your car also didn’t require you to dress up, a common practice when attending the theater in that era. The problematic sound issue and a depressed economy kept the idea of drive-ins from spreading for the rest of the decade, but after WWII the era of the drive-in movie theater entered its golden age. More than 4,500 drive-in theaters opened between 1948-1955.
During the 1950s and ‘60s, the drive-in also became the quintessential teen hangout. Teenagers loved having a place to congregate and socialize with their friends. Drive-in theaters provided an evening of fun at an affordable price.
By the 1970s, the popularity of the drive-in waned. The 1980s brought an explosion of VHS tapes and movie rentals. The transition to digital projection also provided a challenge for theater owners because of the steep price tag at a time when attendance was down. As a result, many theaters began to shut down. Increased land values also pressured many owners to sell their property for development.
Today, there are somewhere around 330 drive-in theaters remaining in the U.S. During recent months, some of those theaters have experienced an unexpected revival, offering families an evening out during social distancing. Do you remember attending the drive-in when you were young? To learn more about the history of drive-in theaters, search Newspapers.com today!
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