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A Brief History of Drive-In Movie Theaters

2020 was a strange year for movies, to put it mildly. Theaters closed, would-be blockbusters were delayed, and studios experimented with releasing some of their most anticipated offerings on streaming services. Though most of these pandemic-era developments can’t quite be described as good — was anyone expecting Bad Boys for Life to be one of the highest-grossing movies of the year? — at least one can: the resurgence of drive-in theaters, a pastime that dates back to the early 20th century.

The Origins of the Drive-In

Cars parked at the first drive-in theater in Camden, New Jersey, 1933.
Credit: ullstein bild Dtl/ Getty Images

As with many innovations, there’s room for debate as to who did it first — and when. A kind of hybrid theater opened in Las Cruces, New Mexico on April 23, 1915, when an outdoor auditorium with a seating capacity of 700 also allowed around 40 cars to park on the grounds to watch Bags of Gold. Originally known as Theatre de Guadalupe, its name was changed to De Luxe Theater before closing just over a year later in July 1916. A similar experiment took place five years later when Claude V. Caver obtained a permit to show outdoor movies in downtown Comanche, Texas. However, it wouldn’t be until a decade later that drive-ins, as we traditionally know them, made their debut.

The first patented drive-in was called the Park-In Theater. Opened by Richard Hollingshead in Camden, New Jersey on June 6, 1933, necessity was the mother of invention — literally. Hollingshead conceived the idea in response to his mom’s inability to get comfortable in regular theater seats — suffice to say there were no recliners back then. “His mother was — how shall I say it? — rather large for indoor theater seats,” according to Jim Kopp of the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association. “So he stuck her in a car and put a 1928 projector on the hood of the car, and tied two sheets to trees in his yard.” To accommodate late-arriving patrons who didn’t snag a spot in the front row, he also arranged a series of ramps so that cars could be situated at different heights and have unobstructed views of the screen.

The first movie he showed was Wives Beware, with admission costing 25 cents per person up to a maximum of $1 for a full car. A similar venue in Orefields, Pennsylvania called Shankweiler’s opened the following year, but drive-ins didn't become commonplace until car speakers were invented in the 1940s. Before dedicated FM radio stations provided audio, most drive-ins used standup speakers that guests hung in their windows.

Drive-Ins Make Their Way Across America

An open-top car driving past a sign advertising Hollywood's Olympic drive-in theatre in Los Angeles, 1951..
Credit: Kurt Hutton/ Getty Images

By the following decade, drive-ins were all the rage — the industry reached its zenith in 1958 when there were 4,063 drive-ins across the country. Often associated with the decade’s burgeoning youth movement, many drive-ins took pains to market themselves as family-friendly entertainment that wasn’t just for teenagers; one of them even boasted that its patrons would be “flu and polio protected” — something we’ve seen echoes of in the past year. (Trying to capture all corners of the market, said drive-in also noted that it was “perfect for shut-ins” and guests could “enjoy smoking” in the privacy of their vehicles.)

For all that, the first image that comes to mind for many is of Grease-style teenagers escaping their parents for an evening of hanging out with their friends, eating popcorn, and, yes, necking. It’s also no coincidence that drive-ins exploded in popularity at the same time that the car industry saw exponential growth — the number of registered automobiles rose from 25 million in 1950 to 67 million in 1958 — and many of them belonged to teens with more free time on their hands than their parents had at the same age.

The Decline of Drive-In Theaters — and Eventual Resurgence

An empty drive-in movie lot with large screen in the background.
Credit: Art Wager/ iStock

The industry’s eventual decline was due to several factors, but mostly financial and logistical. Whereas traditional theaters could show movies all day, drive-ins were only open at night, relied on moonlight, and often didn’t fare well in inclement weather like rain or snow; studios thus favored indoor venues, meaning most drive-ins didn't play new releases. Urban sprawl played a part, as well, with land becoming more expensive as cities and suburbs rapidly expanded throughout the latter half of the 20th century. At a certain point, running a drive-in just wasn’t economically feasible for most proprietors. Their numbers shrank for decades, and as of last year, there were just 321 drive-ins operating across the United States.

Yet hope springs eternal, especially considering that the number of remaining drive-ins has remained fairly steady in recent years. As many moviegoers flocked to them last year as a safe form of pandemic entertainment, more and more articles were written about the drive-in’s resurgence. It was a kind of perfect storm, with younger generations going for the first time and the same baby boomers who’d grown up with drive-ins also parking their cars. As things return to their pre-pandemic status, hopefully drive-ins aren’t left in the rear-view mirror.

Featured image credit: Kirkikis/ iStock

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