The days of the drive-in movie theaters through rare photographs, 1930-1950


Although there were drive-ins only in the 1910s, the first patented drive-in was opened in New Jersey on June 6, 1933, by Richard Hollingshead. It offered space for 400 vehicles. He built it as a solution for those unable to comfortably fit in small movie theater seats after building a mini drive-in for his mother. Appealing to families, Hollingshead advertises its drive-in as a place where "the whole family is welcome, no matter how noisy the kids are."

The success of Hollingshead's drive-ins led to more and more drive-ins appearing in every state of the country and spreading internationally. Drive-ins gained immense popularity with the Baby Boomer generation 20 years later during the 1950s and 60s.

There were over 4,000 drive-ins across the US and most were located in rural areas. They maintained popularity as both an affordable date night option for families to spend time with each other.

The drive-ins were not without challenges: the sound broadcast from the screen reached the audience with an annoying time delay, which was out of sync with what was happening in the film.

This was addressed first by more speakers, then by clip-on car speakers, and eventually by broadcasting the soundtrack directly to the car radio. In addition, revenue was limited by the need to show movies only after dark. Despite large-scale tenting experiments, this problem was never solved.

Yet for patrons, a big plus of the drive-in was the privacy afforded by the car. As well as removing the need to ask the kids to stay calm, it offered the ideal environment for a date, with an enticing combination of entertainment, darkness and privacy in a confined space.

But eventually drive-ins will pay the price for this environment, gaining a reputation as places with a bad reputation. To make up for the lost revenue, drive-ins began to lose their family-friendly atmosphere by showing exploitative films such as slasher horror as well as adult content. The development of the VCR made it more attractive to stay at home and watch movies without having to pay for a movie at the drive-in.

Slowly, drive-ins began to lose their appeal. For an effective drive-in, it needs to be on at least 15 acres of land. Economically speaking, it became more practical for owners to close their drive-ins to sell their land to developers to build malls or multi-building complexes.

Even though drive-ins aren't nearly as popular as they used to be (some argue they'll be obsolete within the next decade), drive-ins are still in business across the United States. No matter the fate of America's drive-ins, they will always remain nostalgic and cultural icons.

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