Posted on Monday, February 16th, 2009 by Kevin Kelly
Sometime in the 1970s, my older cousin and her husband took me and a neighbor girl to a drive-in theater in Texas, and I still remember how amazing it was to be watching a movie from the back of a station wagon. I mean, you’re sitting there in a car, watching a movie and listening to the audio over a speaker. As a kid, it was about one of the coolest things ever. Nowadays you have cars with built-in DVD players, video game systems, and LCD flatscreens, but nothing really beats the experience of going to the good old drive-in.
You’ll be happy to know the the drive-in phenomenon isn’t quite dead yet, despite being well over 50 years old. While it might be in intensive care, there are still over hundreds of drive-in theaters out there that need your love. You might consider tracking one down near you and showing it some love the next time you have an itch to get out of the house and check out a flick. You’ll be glad that you did. In today’s GeekBomb, we’re charting the history of the drive-in theater experience, and we’ll be letting you know how you can check one out yourself. Brace yourself, we’re pulling the pin…
An Idea Is Born
I was actually surprised to find out that the drive-in theater was actually invented way back in 1933. I would have thought that the 1950s would have spawned such a love for movies + cars. It turns out that the inventor did love both cars and movies, however. Richard Milton Hollingshead, Jr. was born in 1900, and he later found himself working for his father’s Whiz Auto Products company, which made oils, greases, and lubricants for automobiles. Initially, his plan was to created a deluxe gas station that would be Hawaiian-themed, and would feature thatched huts, pumps that looked like palm trees, a restaurant where guests could mix and mingle, and an outdoor movie theater. He later dropped everything else and pursued the movie theater.
He began by nailing a sheet in trees in his backyard at 212 Thomas Avenue in Camden, New Jersey and using a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his family’s car, making it the official birthplace of drive-in theaters in 1932. He later applied for a patent, and which was awarded in 1933. He thought this would be a way for moviegoers to combat many of the reasons for skipping out on the movies, number one of which was trying to figure out what to do with their kids. He stuck his home radio behind the screen to provide sound, and even went as far as turning on his sprinkler to simulate rain. However, his biggest stumbling block was making sure everyone had a good view.
Hollingshead tried lining car up in a row in his driveway, but quickly found that each car obscured the next car’s view until you couldn’t see anything at all. He then began spacing the cars apart, parking them in rows, and putting blocks under the cars in the second row to elevate their viewing area. Eventually he figured out that he’s need terraced parking in order to give everyone a look at the screen, and would need a screen 50 feet wide, which was much larger than theaters were using at the time.
However, his biggest problem was sound. He ended up using three centrally-placed speakers underneath the screen, each one six-feet high and made by the RCA company who promised that their newly invented “directional sound” would guarantee equal sound placement to everyone in the drive-in, although this meant loud, blasting sound that everyone in the neighborhood could hear, sometimes for miles around. And since movies could only play at a drive-in after the sun went down, some people weren’t thrilled by this. Also, cars in the front rows had ear-pounding volumes, while the back rows could barely hear. Still, it worked, and Hollingshead got investors and ended up opening his invention to the public.
The First Drive-In
Hollingshead opened his first drive-in theater on June 6th, 1933. It was just over the Camden city line in Pennsauken Township, and was located on Crescent Boulevard. It was called the Automobole Movie Theater, could hold 336 cars, and the marquee for opening night simply said “Drive-In Theater.” The first movie they showed was the 1932 movie Wives Beware. Hollingshead touted the theater, saying it was perfect for smokers, allowed people to eat in their own car while not disturbing others, and “virtually transforms the an ordinary motor car into a private theater box.” He also stressed that the whole family would be welcome, including young children, and that even “the aged and infirm will find the Drive-In a boon.” They also ran newspaper ads showing a chubby women trying to fit into a theater seat, which of course wouldn’t be a problem in her own car. Admission was 25 cents per car, and 25 cents per person, although three or more in a car were admitted for a buck. So you could really save if you crammed a lot of people in.
What’s interesting is that they initially tried to have three shows a night, at 8:30, 10, and 11:30, which only allowed 70 minutes of movie time once you allowed time to move cars in and out. As a result, the drive-in began offering “abridged theaters, with all dull or interesting parts omitted.” They were forced to scale back after two nights to only two shows in the evening, and were later plagued by weather and poor attendance. However, the kernel of the idea was there, and people began trying to perfect Hollingshead’s ideas. First and foremost was how to better load cars in and out, and to perfect the ramp system he had come up with to let cars in back rows see better. Plus they wanted to squeeze more cars in, to bring in the bucks. Sadly, Hollingshead wasn’t included in this group, as he sold his Drive-In theater a few years after it opened because it wasn’t very profitable.
More drive-in theaters began popping up slowly from from 1933 to 1934, and even though Hollingshead had been granted a patent, it didn’t stop them from being built, although they were mostly temporary outdoor theaters. Architects began experimenting with the layout, and in 1934 the second permanent drive-in at Pice and Westwood in Los Angeles called The Pico (aptly enough) opened up showing Will Rogers in Handy Andy with enough spacing for 500 cars. The theater had one lone massive speaker mounted on top of the screen, and so many people complained about it that Los Angeles ended up passing an anti-noise ordinance just to address the drive-in theater. Other permanent locations began popping up, and by 1938 people were referring to drive-ins as “ozoners,” referring to the open air concept.
As more theaters began popping up through the 1930s and early 1940s, new innovations appeared. Some theaters had attendants that would clean your windshields for you, as well as check your tires, oil, gas, and water. Others had usherettes on bicycles that would show you where to park. Specially designed trays that would clamp onto your car’s windows appeared. This was an innovation first seen at Chicago’s first drive-in theater, which opened in 1941 and had space for 1,160 cars. Of course, sound still ended up being a problem for these theaters, and numerous methods were tried to combat this. Theaters put speakers on the ground, mounted speakers next to each car, and even tried attaching speakers to bumpers, but in the end RCA actually did come back to the rescue with the invention of speakers that hung inside your car on your car window, and gave you complete volume control over your own sound. Although announced in 1941, wartime concessions and construction forced them to delay production until 1946.
The Rise and Fall
Once the sound problem was licked, more and more drive-in theaters began being built all over the United States. This graph shows just how popular they had become, and despite the competition from television, were flourishing.
Clearly the 1950s were a boon to the drive-ins, which had gained the nickname “passion pits” by teenagers, since they were a good place to make out while on a date. They even made toys based on drive-in theaters. By 1958, there were 4063 drive-ins in operation, although that would prove to be a peak year, with a steady decline being brought on by the increasing popularity of television. Drive-ins tried things like adding petting zoos, musical numbers before movies, and in the case of Ed Brown’s Drive-In and Fly-In of Asbury Park, New Jersey, adding space for 25 small airplanes.
They become less popular in the 1970s as they switched from first-run Hollywood fare to exploitation films, and by the time home video started appearing, it was the end for the height of the drive-in. As of 2007, there were only 405 drive-ins left operation in the U.S. That’s a 90% drop over three decades. Indeed the saddest day of them all may have been in 1984 when the All-Weather Drive-In closed in Copiague, New York. It had “parking space for 2,500 cars, an indoor 1,200 seat viewing area, kid’s playground, a full service restaurant and a shuttle train that took customers from their cars and around the 28-acre theater lot.” That was the largest drive-in theater, and had been in operation since 1957.
Still, the drive-in isn’t dead, and there is probably one in operation near you. Check out this full list from DriveInTheaters.com to see if there’s one in your state, and plan a road trip. You don’t have to clip speakers inside your car anymore, and can now tune the soundtrack in on FM frequencies, and dated systems have been replaced with LCD projectors, giving you an even crisper picture. It’s worth the drive, and you’ll be glad you went. Heck, you might even go back. It’s definitely a movie experience that really is a truly American experience, and you need to try it out if you’ve never done it. It’s poised to experience a revival, so help shove it over the edge by buying your ticket.
If you’re lucky enough to live near Austin, Texas, you might check out one of the Alamo Drathouse’s Rolling Roadshows, or scrape up some nickels and hire them to come to your town. They have multiple screens in different sizes, and can easily set up a Drive-In theater experience for you on your terms.
Notable Drive-Ins in the Movies
In Peter Bogdanovich’s movie Targets, a sniper hides behind a drive-in screen, ready to pick off moviegoers.
Back to the Future, Part III has Doc Brown taking Marty to a deserted drive-in (in 1955) so he can travel back to 1855.
In Heat, Robert DeNiro has a money/bearer bonds handoff that doesn’t go so well and erupts into a gunfight.
Lone Star shows Chris Cooper’s father yanking his younger self out of a car at a drive-in and dragging him away because he’s dating a Mexican girl.
In Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, the movie about the movie is screened at a drive-in.
The 1976 movie Drive-In is all about a group of rambunctious teenagers at a drive-in in Texas over a weekend.
The drive-in theater in Twister doesn’t fare so well.
If you wanted to know more about Drive-Ins, you should pick up Kerry Segrave’s excellent book Drive-in Theaters: a History from Their Inception in 1933, or Don and Susan Sanders’ The American Drive-in Movie Theatre. Hopefully someone will make a quality documentary at some point about this moviegoing phenomenon. I’m going to do my own due diligence this weekend and find a drive-in theater near Los Angeles and give it a whirl.