As early as 1928, Richard Hollingshead, Jr., owner of an auto products business, was experimenting with screening films outdoors. In the driveway of his New Jersey home he mounted a Kodak projector atop his car and played the image on a nearby screen. In time, Hollingshead refined and expanded his idea, registering his patent for a drive-in theater in 1933. In doing so, he not only recreated an American pastime, but he also contributed to American popular culture for some time to come.
Drive-in theaters, also known as "ozoners," "open-air operators," "fresh-air exhibitors," "outdoorers," "ramp houses," "under-the-stars emporiums," "rampitoriums," and "auto havens," were just that… places where people drove their cars to watch movies on a huge outdoor screen. This was a seemingly preposterous idea—one would drive to a gate, pay an admission fee, park their car on a ramp to face the movie screen, and watch the movie from the car, along with hundreds of other people. But the drive-in caught on because it tapped into America's love for both automobiles and movies; going to the drive-in became a wildly popular pastime from its inauguration in the 1930s through the 1950s.
The first drive-in opened on June 6, 1933, just outside of Camden, New Jersey. The feature film was Wife Beware, a 1932 release starring Adolph Menjou. This movie was indicative of those commonly shown at drive-ins: the films were always second rate (B movies like The Blob or Beach Blanket Bingo) or second run. People, however, did not object. Throughout the drive-in's history its films were always incidental to the other forms of attractions it offered its patrons.
Around 1935, Richard Hollingshead sold most of his interest in the drive-in, believing that the poor sound and visuals, the great expense of construction, the limited choice of films, and other factors (like reliance on good weather) were enough to keep investors and customers alike from embracing this new form of entertainment. But people did not mind that viewing movies outdoors was not qualitatively as "good" as their experiences watching movies at indoor theaters. Just a few years after the first New Jersey drive-in opened, there were others in Galveston, Texas, Los Angeles, Cape Cod, Miami, Boston, Cleveland, and Detroit. By 1942 there were 95 drive-ins in over 27 states; Ohio had the most at 11, and the average lot held 400 cars.
Drive-ins peaked in 1958, numbering 4,063. They proved to be popular attractions for many reasons. After World War II, industries turned back to the manufacture of domestic products and America enjoyed a burgeoning "car culture." In addition, the post-War "baby boom" meant that there were more families with more children who needed cheap forms of entertainment. Packing the family into a car and taking them to the drive-in was one way to avoid paying a baby-sitter, and was also a way that a family could enjoy a collective activity "outdoors." Indeed, in the 1940s and 1950s many owners capitalized on this idea of the drive-in being a place of family entertainment and offered features to attract more customers. Drive-ins had playgrounds, baby bottle warmers, fireworks, laundry services, and concession stands that sold hamburgers, sodas, popcorn, candy, hotdogs, and other refreshments.
Although owners emphasized family activities, by the 1940s and 1950s teenagers had taken over rows at the drive-in to engage in more private endeavors. Known as "passion pits," drive-ins became places where kids went to have sex, since they could not go to their parents' houses but did have access to automobiles. Therefore, families parked their cars in the front rows, dating teens sat in the middle rows, and teens having sex occupied the dark back rows. Sneaking into drive-ins was another popular teenage activity, with kids hiding in the trunk until the car was parked well away from the entrance booth. Teenagers from the 1960s on also used drive-ins as places to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana.
In the late 1940s, drive-ins became more popular than indoor theaters. One improvement that led to this was the development of a viable in-car speaker through which to hear a movie's sound. Before the implementation of individualized speakers, drive-in owners used "directional sound," three central speakers that projected the movie's soundtrack over the entire drive-in. The sound was not only distorted, but also was nearly impossible for the cars in the back rows to hear. In addition, it was so loud that owners received complaints from neighbors who were usually unhappy about a drive-in's presence to begin with. The first in-car speakers were put into production by RCA in 1946. In the 1950s people began experimenting with transmitting movie sound over radio waves; this was not feasible until 1982, when 20-30 percent of drive-ins asked viewers to tune in their radios. By 1985, 70 percent of drive-ins were using this sound transmission technique.
The drive-in business started to stagnate in the 1960s and began its decline in the 1970s. Land prices were increasing and drive-ins took up a lot of space that could be made more profitable with other ventures. By this time the original drive-ins were also in need of capital improvements in which many owners chose not to invest. In addition, theaters continued to get only B movies or second or third run pictures, and the industry charged higher rental fees and required longer runs, making it extremely difficult to compete with the multiplex indoor cinemas.
In the 1980s, the drive-ins lost most of their key audiences—by 1983 there were only 2,935 screens. Families could stay home and watch movies on cable television or on their video cassette recorders. When teenagers found other places to have sex, the drive-in was no longer a necessary locale for this activity. Due to gasoline shortages, many people opted for compact cars, which were not comfortable to sit in during double or triple movie features. By the 1990s there were few drive-ins left; those that remained were reminders of an American era that revered cars and freedom, with a little low-budget entertainment thrown in.
Jonas, Susan, and Marilyn Nissenson. Going, Going, Gone: Vanishing Americana. San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1994.
Sanders, Don. The American Drive-In Movie Theater. Osceola, Wisconsin, Motorbooks International, 1997.
Segrave, Kerry. Drive-In Theaters: A History from Their Inception in 1933. Jefferson, North Carolina/London, McFarland & Co., 1992.