Remembering The Drive-In

More than 80 years ago this month, America’s first drive-in movie theater opened in Camden, New Jersey, ushering in an era of pure Americana as millions gathered in their cars to watch the latest blockbusters, horror and sci-fi B-movies and grindhouse classics. Read on.  

Two Great Things That Go Great Together

Having essentially come of age together as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, movies and the automobile seemed predestined to go together. But it wasn’t until the early 1930s that the idea for the first drive-in movie theater began to take root in the mind of New Jersey’s Richard Milton Hollingshead, Jr.

Working as a sales manager for his father’s Camden-based auto parts company (Whiz Auto Products), Hollingshead was quite familiar with the automobile and all the “freedom of possibilities” it afforded Americans. Pairing this love of the automobile with the glitz and glamor of Hollywood filmmaking seemed a perfectly natural fit and a welcome distraction from the oppression of the Great Depression then gripping the nation.

Movies provided an escape from reality and proved to be one of the few luxuries Americans refused to give up during these toughest of times. Hollingshead wondered: Was there a way to enjoy both at once? With this spark of inspiration, he set up his initial concept at home: a 1928 Kodak movie projector (mounted on the hood of his car); two sheets nailed between trees; and his own automobile.

Watching from the comfort of his vehicle was such a unique experience, Hollingshead was sure other people would enjoy it. On August 6, 1932, he started the patent process for his drive-in movie theater idea. The following May, Hollingshead was awarded U.S. Patent No. 1,909,537 and set about construction of the first theater along with three other investors.

Construction of that first theater cost roughly $30,000 (approximately $564,000 in today’s dollars) and took a mere three weeks to complete. On June 6, 1933, the new site, called simply the “Drive-In Theater” on its marquee, opened to the public. With a maximum cost of $1 per person (and a minimum of $0.25), patrons were treated to Wives Beware, a 1932 comedy starring Adolphe Menjou as a man in an unsatisfying marriage who fakes amnesia in order to pursue extramarital affairs. Featuring a 40’x50’ screen and three 6’x6’ speakers courtesy of RCA Victor, Hollingshead’s theater was unlike anything else at the time.

Over the next decade, more and more drive-ins began springing up all across the East Coast, the South, into the Midwest and Texas. Within 20 years, drive-ins would hit their peak popularity with more than 4,000 in operation around the country by 1958.

Hollingshead’s patent was called into question almost as soon as other companies began cherry-picking the idea. By 1950, his original patent had been ruled invalid. Hollingshead eventually sold his Drive-In Theater in 1935, two years after he kicked off a phenomenon enjoyed by millions of Americans over the latter half of the 20th century and into today.

Summer’s finally here and, with it, the return of the drive-in movie theater. Have a favorite near you that’s still in operation? Share it in the comments below or post a picture over on our Facebook page.