The first drive-in theater was opened by auto-parts salesman, Richard Hollingshead in Camden, New Jersey. He got the idea of enjoying an outdoor movie in a car when his mother-in-law could not fit in a standard indoor movie theater seat due to her size. To accommodate her, Hollingshead sat his mother-in-law in the car, set up a projector on the hood of the car, and beamed the movie onto a sheet tied to two trees in his yard. Hollingshead realized that his idea could succeed in a society that loved cars. After a few years of experimentation, in May of 1933, Hollingshead patented a ramp system that would allow cars to park at different heights for an all around perfect view of the screen. A month later, the first drive-in theater was open for business.
By the 1950s, drive-in theaters were all the rage, peaking in 1958 with 4,063 drive-in theaters operating. They offered the flexibility that indoor theaters could not offer. People could bring their crying babies or smoke their cigarettes in the comfort of their car, without disrupting other movie goers. It was fun for the entire family!
Despite its popularity, drive-in theaters began to dwindle due to several factors. Indoor theaters had an advantage over drive-ins; movie screenings were not dependent on the time of day. Unlike drive-ins, indoor theaters were able to screen a movie multiple times a day. Hoping to make the most revenue possible, movie studios sent their movies to indoor theaters, leaving drive-in movies to screen B-movies and even X-rated movies to stay afloat. No longer were drive-in theaters family friendly.
President of the Theaters Owners Group, Malcom Green, explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, “Drive-ins became suburban, the land became valuable. It became too valuable to devote to a seasonal operation.” Since drive-in theaters could only screen movies when the season permitted, for many months lots were vacant. After city expansion through the 1960’s and ‘70s, land value began to increase, financially straining owners. Tickets that were only sold at night for a limited number of months could not pay the hefty price tags on land.
In the 1970s, the prominence of color television and VCR allowed families to watch movies in the comfort of their own homes. This new convenient way of watching movies became highly favored over packing up the entire family in the car and driving a long distance for a movie. David Baker, a drive-in theater owner, reported to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, “I don’t know why people aren’t coming now like they did two years ago. Business is down. VCRs have hurt us more than anything else that has come down the pike.” People simply preferred the comfort of their homes rather than their cars.
Decades after the downfall of drive-in theaters, this icon of American culture has become a scarcity. Ever since the pandemic hit and a mandated stay at home order was put into effect, people have been itching to get out of the house and have some fun. It has been difficult to find activities that everyone can safely enjoy as recreation venues have either been closed or have limited capacity. Drive-in theaters may be the solution to scratch this itch. Drive-in theaters can provide a safe and exciting night out of the house as watching a movie inside of cars follows social distancing guidelines and allows the entire family to enjoy a stress free night.
A few weeks ago, my boyfriend and I attended our first drive-in movie at the Navy Yard where they screened Tenet. We ordered chicken fajitas from one of our favorite restaurants to enjoy while watching the movie. The grassy lot was packed with rows of cars containing people aching for an entertaining night out. Unfortunately, we arrived about five minutes before showtime. Though we were left to park in the second to last row where we could barely make out the actors’ faces on screen, we still had an enjoyable night out. If you are looking for something new to experience, why not check out these drive-in theaters operating near Philadelphia. Just take it from me and be sure to prioritize your food early and arrive earlier than you think you should to snag the perfect spot.